When Andrew Rea published his first YouTube video in February 2016 under the pseudonym "Binging with Babish," he didn’t reveal his face.
That video, in which a cropped recording of Rea from the neck down recreates a fancy turkey burger featuring homemade chutney and a cheese crisp from the sitcom Parks and Recreation, quickly hit 20,000 views. And as his popularity grew, his face remained a mystery, leaving fans with nothing to cling to but Rea’s soothing baritone voice, the out-of-focus backdrop of his New York kitchen, and his tattoos as they watched him prepare iconic dishes from Goodfellas (prison tomato sauce; 6.7 million views), The Office (Kevin’s chili; 6.2 million views), and Ratatouille (take a wild guess; 17m views).
Rea, 32, never really tried to hide his appearance (a quick Google search would have turned it up even then), but for thousands and eventually millions of people, it remained a mystery. All they had were those tattoos, which multiplied over the years to cover his hairy arms. Back in 2016, however, there was just one (visible) tattoo, a chef's knife and a whisk on his inner left forearm.
For the man known to millions as Babish, that original tattoo is a perfect symbol of the YouTube empire he’s built, one imperfect video at a time.
“This tattoo is messed up and, like, very poorly done,” Rea tells Inverse. “I got it in a rush because I was in a fight with my significant other at the time about whether or not I could have tattoos. And as soon as I got her to concede, I ran out to the first tattoo shop. Now it's a beautiful reminder to be true to yourself. Don't do anything for anybody else.”
It’s a credo that guides everything Rea does, from the way he approaches each new recipe, ready to mess up on camera, to his recent expansion into a good deed-driven travel show titled Being with Babish. Rea has always been himself, even when fans couldn’t see his face, and it’s won him one of the biggest and most devoted audiences on the internet.
We’re standing in the kitchen of a fancy rental apartment. PR agents from a sponsorship with Bounty hover around, paper towels in hand, while Rea and I wait for the cheese he just liberally sprinkled over a pot of hot macaroni (a mix of american and cheddar, no bechamel; don’t even get him started on that) to melt. The dish is a tribute to the Kraft “Blue Box” Brad Pitt cooks in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in the kitchen of his depressing trailer after a day of driving around Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging movie star, Rick Dalton. (Three days later, that performance would win Pitt an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.)
According to Rea, the dish, or at least the way it's presented onscreen, is a perfect example of how Hollywood both idolizes and misrepresents food.
“It's magnetizing for some reason; it looks delicious,” he says, grabbing a spoon to stir some pasta of his own. “I don’t know why the food on screen always looks better. Maybe because it's Brad Pitt making it.”
But when I ask exactly what movies get right (and wrong) about food, he elaborates with the knowledge of someone equally comfortable behind a stovetop as he is behind a camera.
“The thing movies get right is they make it look really good, typically,” he says, “but in the process, some of the accuracy is lost. I’ve very rarely seen something prepared in a movie the way it should be.”
In the movie, Brad Pitt might dump a packet of chemically preserved cheese dust into a pot of hot noodles and call it a day, but Rea isn’t so easily satisfied. He’s gone out of his way to buy an expensive dehydrator to make his own cheese dust (something he calls “impractical and useless” and doesn’t recommend anyone try at home).
He also recently bought a $3,500 freeze dryer for “a future episode,” another toy he can't recommend anyone else pay for.
“I get dedicated to concepts even when they're completely impractical and useless,” he says. “I don't expect anyone to do this at home, because, why would you?”
But if the result of all that experimentation is mac and cheese this good, it may just be worth it. And for Rea, each new video is an opportunity to try something new, whether that’s assembling the absurd Italian feast in a single dish known as Il Timpano from the movie Big Night or making “duck bacon” from scratch in a Valentine’s Day episode inspired by the Netflix original series You. He even cooked real bear meat over an open flame in the woods in full cowboy getup to celebrate the release of the video game Red Dead Redemption 2.
“You can’t help but love that he started something on his own from the bottom.” —Brad Leone, Bon Appétit
The food doesn’t always come out perfect (or even edible), but the videos are always entertaining. As one fan noted in a comment on that original Parks and Rec video (which now has almost 7 million views), “the fact that his first episode was so good should've been a sign…”
Rea was born in Mendon, New York, an upper-class suburb in the city of Rochester, where he spent his childhood. In a 2017 interview, he told Newsweek his mother taught him how to cook, and that after she passed away when he was 11 years old, cooking helped him “feel closer to her.”
After graduating from high school and deliberating between a career in movies or food, he enrolled at Hofstra University and graduated with a BA in Film Studies in 2009. He found work in special effects, but by 2016, Rea says he was feeling creatively unfulfilled.
“I was at a very low point,” he tells me. “I was very depressed and I needed a new creative outlet. I needed to make things again.”
So Rea set out to make … something, and what happened next feels a bit like fate, or maybe divine intervention.
“I set up my camera and my light in my kitchen,” he recalls. “An episode of Parks and Rec was on in the background, and Ron and Chris were having a burger cook-off. I was like, What would that actually taste like? So I decided to do it on camera, and it just grew from there.”
Everything about those early videos feels unplanned and experimental, even if each episode is meticulously edited and dubbed over. The name Babish comes from a minor character on The West Wing who only showed up in later seasons, and the videos used to begin with a clip from the Frasier theme song (🎶 tossed salad and scrambled eggs 🎶). A song by the electronic rock duo Ratatat would also play while he cooked.
Rea later ditched the music so he could monetize his YouTube channel, but the name remained, another reminder of his humble beginnings.
“It’s all very accidental” he says. “The name of the show is proof of that. It's called Binging with Babish, which I named arbitrarily after my Reddit handle, which I had named arbitrarily after a character from The West Wing. And now it's my entire brand.”
(Yes, Babish is, or at least was, an active Reddit user. He even opens that first video with the words “hello Reddit food” before introducing himself as Oliver Babish.)
“It's a dumb name. I fully admit that. But that's the beauty of YouTube that I actually love. I tend to hang on to mistakes like that,” he says, before self-correcting. “Not mistakes, learning experiences.”
“It's all very accidental ... and now it's my entire brand.”
The rise of YouTube’s food scene is undeniable, and with 6 million followers, Babish might be its king. Bon Appetit, with its stable of rising YouTube stars pumping out daily videos thanks to Condé Nast funding, comes close with 5.9 million followers. Celebrity chef Matty Matheson helped boost Vice’s Munchies channel to over 3 million, and Allrecipes' Chef John has a little over 3 million followers as well.
Though, it’s not a competition so much as it is a community. Rea and his colleagues often collaborate, appearing on each other’s channels. He’s even become good friends with at least one other famous YouTube chef, Bon Appetit's kitchen-manager-turned-viral-sensation Brad Leone. The two have appeared in videos together several times in what feels like an epic superhero crossover, and they talk regularly about future projects.
“Ole Babby is a great dude,” Leone tells Inverse. “You can’t help but love that he started something on his own from the bottom into a major hitter in the YouTube creator world. Hard worker and a super solid guy.”
Their success aside, the goal of these videos is a little more murky. Do people watch Binging with Babish because they want to learn how to cook or because they like seeing the food from their favorite movies come to life? (Or is it just Rea’s soothing voice?) In other words: How much can you really learn from a video about recreating the dessert breakfast pasta in Elf?
The answer, according to Rea, is a whole lot. And when I ask where he draws the line between entertainment and education, he argues there’s not really any distinction.
“I think the line should be as blurry as possible,” he says. “Some of my favorite YouTube shows blur that line to the point where you can't see it no more, and that's my hope as well. I want to entertain and I want to sneak information in there no matter how stupid the concept is. Like with dessert pasta, I'm still going to show you how to sauce a pasta and make it correctly. I'm still going to try to get a little bit of technique in there. Because I want you to eat your vegetables with your dessert.”
He’s not alone. The reason channels like Binging with Babish and Bon Appetit are so popular is because even if you get drawn in by one funny concept — I started watching Babish videos after he recreated something called “Milk Steak” from my favorite show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — you’ll stick around because you’re actually learning new skills.
“I can point to a whole bunch of other YouTubers, like Brad Leone and the people over at Bon Appetit that are mixing entertainment and personality with information,” Rea says. “That's one of the best parts about YouTube.”
What’s next for Babish? We may already have a pretty clear sense of where Andrew Rea goes next.
In October 2017, he launched Basics with Babish, an ongoing series originally sponsored by Squarespace that skips the pop culture references and instead focuses on simple recipes and techniques. Then, in March 2019, he revealed Being with Babish, a sponsored travel show where he visits a different person each episode to improve their lives. Being also offers a glimpse into Babish’s life; in one episode we see him train for 30 days so he can cosplay as the shirtless video game character Kratos at Comic Con.
“They were both real experiments,” Rea says of these expansions. “I thought, is anybody gonna want to watch my show if there's no pop culture? And happily, people have. I've been able to build this brand around more of a personality than a concept.”
(Episodes of Basics typically match Binging in viewership, though there are some viral outliers that crack 10 million views, like that Ratatouille one. The Being series can range anywhere from 300,000 on the low end to 3 million for the workout episode).
It might seem surprising that fans are interested in watching Rea cook a regular steak, let alone watching him work out, but it’s proof he’s built a devoted community, one video at a time. There’s even a Reddit community with 74,000 members who share his latest videos, Babish memes, and whatever details from his personal life they can find.
After fans noticed that Rea had stopped wearing his wedding ring in new videos, they asked him about it in a Reddit AMA in 2018. He replied, “I guess enough time has passed that I can talk about this haha, yes, I went through a divorce last year. Loooooong story." And when he revealed his new girlfriend at the end of an episode of Being with Babish in June 2019, one YouTube commenter joked, “Babish: introduces girlfriend. Me: *gasp* yay.”
In other words, it’s less about the food and more about the guy making it, even if he’s still not showing his face most of the time.
As I watch Rea stir that pot of mac and cheese on the Friday before the 2020 Oscars, the conversation inevitably turns to the race for best picture. And when Rea tells me he’s rooting for Parasite, I can’t help but ask if he’s planning to recreate Ram-Don, the noodle dish from that movie which mixes lowbrow instant ramen and udon packets before adding a generous portion of sirloin steak.
Rea’s eyes light up and he sprints across the rented apartment, returning a moment later with a pair of instant noodle packets ordered from Amazon and covered in Korean writing. He knows he won’t have time to record and edit the video before the Oscars airs, but he’s hoping Parasite wins so Ram-Don will still be relevant, whenever that video does come out.
Beyond the allure of cooking with new, foreign ingredients, Rea sees this recipe as a “perfect allegory” for the movie’s broader statements about class divisions under capitalism, symbolized in the way Parasite’s rich family indulges in a poor person’s comfort food.
“The owners of the house, they think they're still connected to the real world,” he says, “and it's almost effectively demonstrated by them wanting to eat these cheap instant noodles, but they'll only eat it if there's chunks of seared sirloin on top, which is just like the perfect allegory for everything happening in the movie.”
Also, “It looks delicious, so I want to try it out.”
Andrew Rea is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.