Alex Ainouz wants to inspire you to cook by failing

Ainouz's love for technology and food come together every week.

Natasha Chomko/Alex Ainouz

Can you use math to make the perfect French omelet?

If you’re a classically trained French chef, the answer is an obvious no. It takes years of practice — and the soul of an artist — to master this deceptively simple dish.

But if you’re Alex Ainouz, known by over a million fans as “French Guy Cooking,” the answer is yes, and he has the endorsement to prove it.

In April 2018, Ainouz, of Paris, published a video to his YouTube channel titled, “I Try To Master Jacques Pepin’s Perfect Omelet…..” Over the course of 10 minutes, he attempts to replicate the French icon’s omelet, fails miserably, tries again, develops a mathematical theorem to figure out the correct number of eggs depending on the size of the frying pan, and finally succeeds as the strings of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” reach a joyous crescendo.

Two days later, thanks to some online prodding from Ainouz’s fans, Pepin responded with a video of his own praising the omelet and challenging French Guy Cooking to next debone a whole chicken.

Watch the original video and you’ll notice something unusual. There’s no recipe and no list of ingredients, but by the end you’ll likely feel more confident in your own cooking abilities, even if your omelets never look quite as good.

Alex Ainouz

“When I’m failing on camera and recovering from it and just finding another way, I feel like this must be reassuring as a viewer,” Ainouz tells Inverse. “I try to raise confidence in people’s mind, body, and soul, because without it, you can’t start cooking.”

Whether it’s using math to crack a recipe, hacking his garbage can with an Arduino computer, or reverse-engineering a pasta machine he ordered from China, Ainouz’s love for technology and food come together in French Guy Cooking on a weekly basis.

In one video, he explains why he makes his own linen dishcloths. In another, he travels from Paris to the French coastal city Nantes to forge his own kitchen knife. There’s an entire series on why he loves instant ramen, along with his attempts to create his own mass production ramen operation.

Alex Ainouz

You won’t learn how to cook a specific dish from watching one of his videos, but you might be encouraged to take some creative risks the next time you’re in the kitchen.

“Sometimes I’m not even helping them by being very geeky about things,” Ainouz says. “But I want them to feel inspired by the craziness that I carry on my channel. I don’t have to show the recipes. It’s not the point. I’m just saying it’s possible, and look how amazing food can be.”

In the five years since he started his “YouTube adventure,” Ainouz has built a loyal audience and even published a cookbook. He’s worked with famous chefs like Jamie Oliver and traveled the world. But even now, French Guy Cooking is just getting started. He recently expanded beyond the one-man operation where he researched, wrote, filmed, edited, and starred in every clip. He has big plans, but for now, he just keeps moving forward, one video at a time.

“I’m very busy all the time,” Ainouz tells me in Paris in front of a classic French bistro when we meet briefly before he hops on his bike. “Making a new video every week, mostly on my own, is very difficult.” Then I watch him pedal off.

Also read — Alex Ainouz: How to hack your Thanksgiving with French mashed potatoes

A few weeks later, I’m talking to Ainouz in New York, where he’s shooting several videos, including this one about knife sharpening and something else that’s top secret. He’s working non-stop days but offers to meet me for 30 minutes at Chelsea Market.

I opt for a Google Hangouts video call instead. As tempting as it is to tour the popular high-end Manhattan food court with a mega-popular YouTube chef, I worry I won’t be able to hear him during the after-work rush, and I’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

To start, how does one guy (French or otherwise) produce a funny, well-edited, and informative video every week? The answer, in part, is his obsession with the gadgets he uses to make those videos. (He later tells me his favorite YouTuber is MKBHD, both for the tech and for “the cleanest, crispiest color space that I’ve seen on YouTube.”)

“I love technology,” he says. “ I’m a geek when it comes to cameras; I love filmmaking.”

Ainouz readily admits to spending almost a full day of his limited time in New York at B&H, the iconic electronics store that takes up a full Manhattan block. He says he analyzed every camera and lens in sight.

“Life is already quite complicated when you’re trying to create something and share a voice,” he says. “So buy the best tool you can afford.”

But for video creators just starting out, Ainouz argues the best camera is the one already in your pocket. Not only are the lenses on most smartphones powerful enough to rival most standalone cameras, they also attract a lot less attention. “Nobody would bitch about you using a smartphone in a store or on a plane,’ he says. “People get used to it.”

His one tip for shooting video on a phone? “Embrace its smartphone-ness.” Don’t shoot in landscape. Hold your phone vertically so the video feels different, more spontaneous; maybe you’re filming somewhere you’re not supposed to. The style of the video should communicate what’s happening.

Beyond smartphones, Ainouz says the camera is less important than the lens — “a DSLR or a mirrorless” — but the most important part of any video for him isn’t visual at all; it’s the audio.

“Focus on the sound,” he says. “I can watch a shaky dark video if the sound is good, but I can’t do the opposite. I can’t watch a beautifully lit video if the sound it terrible. I would quit straight away.”

The first video Ainouz ever published online was also about omelets — “everything was off,” he says, “apart from the will to do something” — but his love for both food and technology goes back even further. As a child, Ainouz remembers traveling the world with his parents, who taught him to love food at a young age.

“We went everywhere, and we always started visiting new countries with the food market,” he says. “That was the first point of entrance into a different culture.”

“I learned how to cook thanks to life.”

It wasn’t until years later that he started cooking, not out of interest but out of necessity. After moving in with his girlfriend (now his wife) about 12 years ago, they decided to divvy up the housework. Ainouz agreed to do all the shopping and cooking (“among other things”), and from that point on he was preparing almost every meal on a daily basis. “I learned how to cook thanks to life,” he says.

At the same time, after graduating with a degree in telecommunications and traveling the world as a photographer, Ainouz ended up running a digital marketing agency. Managing the Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts for various clients introduced him to the world of social media and “the freedom and liberty of content creation.” It wasn’t long before things started to click into place.

“So I got the internet side somewhere and I got the photography side somewhere, and then I had the love of food plus the ability of cooking,” Ainouz says. “At some point I realized, if I created a cooking channel or food channel on YouTube, that would be a dream job for me that would compile all the skills I’m the best at.”

“There are plenty of skills I know I suck at,” he adds, “but these… I know I can have some value in them.”

At first, it wasn't easy. It took the help of a famous chef to boost Ainouz and his YouTube channel from obscurity to viral stardom. About a year later, French Guy Cooking was going nowhere. “Nothing was happening with my channel,” Ainouz says. “It was an absolute desert.” Then, he discovered Jamie Oliver.

Unlike the serious French chefs that Ainouz was familiar with, Oliver was casual. He was cool. He didn’t worry if something got a little burnt.

“I was like, who is this guy?” Ainouz says. “Am I even allowed to do this in the kitchen as a French person? And I thought, why isn’t there a French Jamie Oliver? Somebody that is just casually cool, easing people, soothing us, instead of just frightening us, scaring us.”

Over time, the two chefs struck up a friendship. Oliver had a YouTube channel, too, but he wasn’t doing much with it. Then, he started marketing it with a series of events, leading up to a global competition where chefs submitted their own three-minute videos for a chance to get featured on Oliver’s channel.

Ainouz entered and came in third. He remembers getting thousands of new followers in a single day but assumed that was it. Instead, he and 11 others were invited to launch a small network of YouTube channels. That lasted for three years and launched French Guy Cooking into the stratosphere.

“Jamie Oliver has been both a friend and a stamp of approval,” Ainouz says. “I think he’s a great human being.”

french guy cooking alex ainouz

Alex Ainouz

When Ainouz published a cookbook, Oliver wrote the foreword. “Alex’s food is fantastically fun,” he writes. “It’s simple but delicious, and always delivered in his brilliantly quirky ways. He’s a self-taught genius, and he knows exactly what home cooks really want to make.”

Eventually, Oliver decided to move in a new direction, and French Guy Cooking struck out on its own again. It was a dangerous moment for Ainouz’s career, but it gave him a chance to showcase the food nerd he truly is. The one that he’d been holding back.

“It was time for me to move on to my own thing and to embrace the personality that you have seen on my channel at the moment,” he says. “More geeky, more obsessive, more series oriented.”

“The recipe is not the finish line. What’s important is the journey.”

The first video I ever watched on French Guy Cooking was titled, “I Learned How They Chop Onions on the Street…” Published in 2017, it doesn’t take place at some food stand or a farmer’s market. Instead, it’s set in Ainouz’s own studio. Seated behind his computer, he searches the internet for a faster onion-chopping method, watches a blindfolded man dice an onion in seconds, and then tries to replicate this method.

It’s classic French Guy Cooking. In roughly eight minutes, Ainouz massacres over a dozen onions (“Learning a new thing is always exciting,” he says with a smile right before butchering onion number 11 and cursing in French), but eventually, he manages to improve his onion-cutting speed by exactly 47 percent. It’s funny, geeky, and inspirational, all at once.

I’d be lying if I said this video changed the way I dice onions. It didn’t. But it still inspired me to be more creative in my own cooking and to recognize that there’s no one right way to do anything in the kitchen.

Similarly, for Ainouz, this video is less about the skill itself and more about encouraging others to take risks of their own.

“The recipe is not the finish line,” he says. “What’s important is the journey. How do you get there? What do you understand along the way? How did I get the message properly shared to the audience. Did they really understand something or is it just me bragging about skills?”

Ultimately, all he can do is keep on trying, and, more importantly, keep on failing.

“Plenty of people are terrified when it comes to food,” he says. “They just want to make it right but they think everything’s going to be wrong. I hope, after seeing my videos, they’ll think, Alex failed. Look at his mozzarella. He sucked so much, and then he kept on trying and trying and trying, and in the end, he got something decent. So maybe I can do that. That’s what matters the most to me.”

Alex Ainouz is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.

Also read — Alex Ainouz: How to hack your Thanksgiving with French mashed potatoes

Alex Ainouz is a member of the Inverse Future 50.

Natasha Chomko/Alex Ainouz
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