Andrew Rea is one of the biggest chefs in the world, though that’s no guarantee you’ve heard of him. He has no TV show. No restaurant ever bore his name. He has never worked as a chef, nor attended culinary school. He is almost entirely self-taught, he says, from watching cookery videos online. This isn’t hard to believe. To watch Rea cook is as much an instruction of what not to do. Sauces are surrendered. Soufflés are sunk. He once took seven attempts to make cacio e pepe, a pasta dish famous for including just cheese and pepper. He succeeds mostly because he fails. It’s part of the charm. He’s not, he’ll happily admit, a professional cook in any meaningful sense – apart from the fact that he now earns millions doing it.

Rea’s YouTube cookery channel, Babish Culinary Universe – named after his favourite character from The West Wing, a slightly incongruous call that rapidly became too big to fiddle with – currently boasts 9.5m subscribers. That’s a lot. Nigella Lawson’s latest TV series – Eat, Cook, Repeat, which aired during England’s second national lockdown – was considered a ratings smash with 3m viewers, over 1m more than her previous show. Rea’s videos, meanwhile, regularly rack up hits in the tens of millions.

He may not be first-name famous, or indeed first-and-last-name famous, but if someone is getting their culinary fix online – and if they’re under 30, you can bet they are – they’re likely getting it from him. Only Gordon Ramsay, with 18m YouTube subscribers, has a bigger online reach. As for the rest, Rea has a larger YouTube audience than Jamie Oliver (5.5m), Nigella Lawson (305k) and Tom Kerridge (9k) combined.

To hear him tell it, Rea, who is 34, razor-bald and hipster-bearded, became the most famous chef you’ve never heard of by accident. He’d graduated from film school in New York and planned to direct documentaries. A marriage break-up, a professional falling-out and a bout of depression later, he found himself, in 2016, living with a friend in Queens and wondering what to do with his life.

He put $4,000 worth of camera equipment on his credit card, but realised the only place with enough space to test it out in their apartment was the kitchen. He set up a tripod, started recording, and made a smoothie.

You couldn’t see his face, which would become his hallmark. “I had no intention of being anonymous,” Rea says. “That was just where the camera happened to cut off! But I think it helped my rise – there was a bit of mystery.”

‘It was my dream job. I bought my dream car. How was I not happy?’: Andrew Rea in his YouTube kitchen at home in New York.
‘It was my dream job. I bought my dream car. How was I not happy?’: Andrew Rea in his YouTube kitchen at home in New York. Photograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer

He started thinking: if he was going to make a cookery show, what would it look like? He didn’t want it to be polished like on TV. What if, he wondered, the cook was also making the dish for the first time? Make, botch, repeat.

Not long after, fiddling with his kit and pondering this, the sitcom Parks and Recreation came on TV, an episode where two characters have a burger cook-off: a gourmet turkey burger with papaya chutney and black truffle aioli does battle with a bog-standard hamburger… “And I thought, what would that taste like? So I tried, as painstakingly as possible, to recreate it to the best of my ability.”

The first Binging with Babish video was born – a channel that would slavishly recreate food from films, TV shows and video games. By the time he recreated “the moistmaker” sandwich from Friends, a few months later, the channel began to go viral, and he dedicated himself to making a video every week.

“We all think about the food we see on TV,” he says. “We see it and we want to try it. And it’s the most realistic and potentially vicarious experience that we could have, because most of what we see is impossible to experience.”

Rea is slavish about authenticity. When he makes something from a period setting – the 18th-century appetisers from Beauty and the Beast, say – he will find himself pondering: just what are those grey splodges the animators drew? (He decided duck liver pâté.) Or, considering the beef wellington from Mad Men: just how much butter did they use in the 1960s? (He decided just shy of a heart attack.)

Rea doesn’t only make food that looks delicious – far from it. He has, for instance, reverse engineered the instant mac ’n’ cheese from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And recreated the sloppy Jessica from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sandwich that contained mac ’n’ cheese, chilli and pizza.

What’s the worst thing he’s ever made, I wonder.

“The milk steak from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia by a country mile,” he says, without missing a beat. “That was a very difficult experience. The steak was boiled in milk with jellybeans. And at the time, I’d just found out that my ex was engaged to the dude I was pretty sure she was cheating on me with.”

He’s had better days.

Often, though, Rea will make something he knows will be disgusting – like Mark’s Moroccan pasta from Peep Show, which contained baked beans and lettuce – in order to then experiment and make a more palatable version (chickpeas and spinach were subbed in – not bad).

The format drew in people who would never normally watch cookery videos, and they learned how to cook whether they liked it or not. The moistmaker sandwich video, for instance, showed how to butterfly a turkey. The sloppy Jessica video showed how to make mac ’n’ cheese, chilli and French bread pizza all from scratch. You didn’t have to combine them.

Andrew Rea in Brooklyn at home for OM
‘I don’t look at metrics any more… I’ve been divorcing myself from looking at the stats’: Andrew Rea. Photograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer

It wasn’t long before famous fans started appearing: Jon Favreau, after Rea made two videos creating dishes from his 2014 film Chef (“He has been kind enough to tell me that he respects what I do, because I give so much attention to detail to what people like him have put a lot of thought into”); Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones, just because she was in town (“Unfortunately I made something not terribly tasty, but she was a good sport about it”).

Yet Rea soon realised there was a large part of his audience that didn’t require the pop-culture conceit of Binging with Babish. They followed him for the cooking alone, and liked watching someone muddle through just as they would. The fact he was funny didn’t hurt. By this point, Rea knew that around 80% of his viewers were young men, aged 18 to 35 – not your typical cookery show demographic.

He launched Basics with Babish in 2017 and seemed to lean into this fact. He taught how to make shepherd’s pie and sourdough, but also date-night dinners and the best food to watch the game with. In his first video, about essential kitchen equipment to buy, he began by saying, “First off… cooking is attractive.”

“I was very worried I didn’t have anything original to say,” he says, “because I’m not a trained chef. And take away the pop culture element, all that’s left is me. But it turned out to be one of the most important parts of the channel – my novice-ness. I don’t rehearse. I don’t prepare. I never practise. And that way, when I screw up, you can see my pitfalls and how to avoid them.”

By the start of 2018, less than two months after his first burger cook-off video, his overall channel had 2m subscribers. When the pandemic hit, over two years later, it went from 5m to soaring past 8m in a matter of months. Rea, who’d dedicated himself to the channel full-time once sponsorship money started rolling in after the first year, felt a responsibility to be of service. People who’d hardly cooked before needed help. He went from making one-and-a-half episodes a week to two, putting in 70, 80, 90 hours.

“And I sustained that,” he says, “for a year-and-a-half.”

Until, that is, he came close to a breakdown – and his friends had to stage an intervention.

Andrew Rea’s mother died from cancer when he was just 11, but he credits his love of cooking to her. When he pretended to be sick, which was often, they’d watch The Food Network all day together. She taught him how to make cookies. She let him stir the beef stew. When she made clam linguini, one of his favourites, he was the official tester to see if the linguini was done. “Which is why I now have a predilection for just eating raw spaghetti right out of the pot. And sometimes out of the packet.”

During high school, when he started cooking in earnest, he’d find himself making the same big, slow stews she had made. It was only years later, after much therapy, that he realised why: “I was just trying to feel close to her.”

Being a content creator is a time-consuming process. Most, like Rea, start on their own. Yet the amount of work for the best videos – the research, the script, the filming, the editing – is commensurable to broadcast TV, except with only one staff member.

For the first eight months, juggling a full-time job, Rea says he didn’t work less than 100 hours a week.

Even the simplest video, like making aglio e olio from Chef – essentially garlic spaghetti with parsley, which takes around 15 minutes – translated into 15 hours’ work. “So, three attempts to get it right, where I don’t burn the garlic, and I’m showing me slicing the garlic, coming up with gags… so hour-long shoot, two hours’ research, five hours’ editorial, and that’s if you don’t count shopping for groceries.”

As for more complicated videos, well, he once spent 60 hours and a large portion of his sanity making the timpano from the 1996 Stanley Tucci film Big Night, a kettle drum-sized baked dish seemingly containing every Italian foodstuff.

“I guarantee you, if that thing had leaked or exploded, we wouldn’t be talking right now. I’d have taken up skateboarding or something. I’d have had another hobby.”

Rea didn’t continue as a one-man band. By the time he hit 1m subscribers and the sponsorship offers came pouring in, he recruited his best friend – Sawyer Carter Jacobs, a lawyer who worked for Condé Nast – to be his business partner.

Yet it is a world without guard rails. By the end of last year, Rea had spent 18 months regularly working 70-hour weeks, and sometimes as much as 100. The channel was well past 9m subscribers by this point. Each video’s sponsorship deal was a small fortune. He’d bought himself a Brooklyn brownstone. He’d authored a couple of cookbooks. He had his own cookware line. There was a small crew to do the filming. He no longer did his own food shopping. Yet he found himself sinking into depression.

“I had no joy in what I was doing, which is hard to do when your life is objectively this awesome,” he says. “It’s my dream job. My dream house. I bought my dream car. How am I not happy?”

Even online commentators picked up on it. His videos felt rushed, they said. He’d lost his spark. They questioned if he still enjoyed it. On the occasion he missed a video, they wondered if he was OK. “That freaked me out – the surreal experience of people knowing exactly what was going on.”

Rea had always obsessed over the numbers. For years, he’d wake and check analytics site Social Blade, first thing. After he posted a video he’d sometimes sit for hours just watching the numbers climb. If it was underperforming, he’d make panicked calls. Why? What had he done wrong? Food from cartoons always do well!

Now, he poured all his self-worth into the idea of reaching 10m subscribers: hallowed YouTube ground. “It’s all I could think about, any given moment of the day, numbers and view counts.”

We all, naturally, take some self-worth from our work, but it seems to be a particular cruelty of online publishing to be able to track that worth in real time. Rea tracked. And while he’d been adding 250,000 new subscribers during the height of the pandemic, that growth had slowed to a crawl. He was stuck on 9.5m: “So close to the finish line…”

He had, he says, “a massive internal breakdown”. His fiancé, Jess Opon, and Jacobs, his business partner, staged a “friendship intervention”. He had to start working less, they told him. He had to stop obsessing about the numbers.

“It was killing me slowly,” he says now.

The past few years have seen a well-documented “burnout epidemic” from many YouTube stars. Rea is hardly the first. Unlike in TV, there’s no accepted format for a YouTube series, meaning, essentially, no breaks. Worse, the algorithm actively punishes content creators if they do take time off. The machine wants to be fed. Many have quit.

“There’s not a huge amount of support for YouTubers in terms of the mental stresses and strains of actually continuing to produce content on that hamster wheel,” says Chris Stokel-Walker, author of YouTubers. “If you don’t keep posting, then you won’t be favoured by the algorithm. So it’s a very, very common thing.”

Yet Rea might have, happily, made himself too big to fail.

As the channel grew, Rea began to hire other YouTube cooking personalities to work under a new Babish Culinary Universe banner. He took advantage of the fallout from magazine and YouTube cookery channel Bon Appétit – where it was alleged there were significant pay disparities between white employees and employees of colour – to hire Sohla El-Waylly, who was the first chef to quit. By the end of last year, he’d added three more – Alvin Zhou, Kendall Beach and Rick Martinez – who’d all cover different beats, from Mexican food to the food from Japanese animation. Unlike other YouTube personalities, Rea can share the load.

“I’m going back down to one episode a week,” he says. “It’s going to give more room for more creators like Alvin, Kendall and Rick – and also keep me dying of an aneurysm in the next five years.”

For now, Rea says, he’s banned himself from looking at the slowly ticking subscriber count, and tries even to ignore how each video does: “I don’t look at metrics any more… I’ve been divorcing myself from looking at the stats.”

He’s had more meetings than he can remember with production companies that want to turn his channel into a traditional TV show – he estimates around 75 – but all are, well, regular TV shows. What would be the point? He plans, he says, to simply make the show he wants to make – and sell to a streaming service direct.

Even if he won’t let himself look at the subscriber count, does he have any tentative plans for when he does hit the 10m mark?

“Oh, unquestionably!” he says, a little too quickly. “The 10m subscriber special video will be a West Wing special with guest star Oliver Platt, who of course played Oliver Babish, the man behind the channel’s name.”

And the fact that neither he nor Platt are trained cooks won’t matter at all. After all, it’ll partly be the point.