Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Narrative Formula of Gourmet Makes

(Photo credit: Bon Appétit)

This show may not fill your stomach, but it will fill your soul.  ♦ 
The internet has found a new person to lavish their love and adoration upon, and that person is Claire Saffitz. Saffitz is a contributing food editor to Bon Appétit and works in their test kitchen, the place where recipes are tried, tested, and made true. She also works as a video host for one of Bon Appétit’s most-watched series, Gourmet Makes. In this show, Saffitz is tasked with creating a gourmet version of a typically nostalgic snack and/or dessert food. This usually means simplifying the ingredients and almost always involves using kitchenware for unintended purposes, like using a salad spinner as a candy drum to coat M&M’s. The end result is not something the audience is expected to recreate, which inherently contradicts Bon Appétit’s purpose of sharing inventive recipes for home cooks, though this contradiction between the goal of the company and content of their popular YouTube channel actually says a lot about the evolution of YouTube as a form of media.

As YouTube gained popularity as an entertainment source, YouTubers made structured and heavily edited videos, often with a “how to” focus. This gave rise to overhead filmed food videos, as made famous by Buzzfeed’s Tasty, where users could conceivably follow the videos as a tutorial for how to make a food item. As YouTube evolved, the previously popular challenges, tags, and “then vs. now” videos gave way to vlog-style videos. These videos contain less editing and typically follow someone throughout their daily life, with all their rambling and moments of imperfection left in instead of edited out. This evolution of style can be seen even within distinct YouTuber’s personal evolutions. Emma Chamberlain and Zoe Sugg, also known as Zoella, both started by making DIY and lookbook videos, but now create vlog content where their personalities come through more naturally and serve as the main intrigue factor of their videos. The genius of Gourmet Makes is that it combines both of these video styles: it contains some structure and editing but leaves in the moments where we see Saffitz’s personality through offhand conversations and (sometimes un)warranted complaints.

The narrative structure of Gourmet Makes is what keeps audiences coming back to experience the seemingly futile exercise of creating a gourmet version of a heavily processed food. Gourmet Makes videos are divided into three sections, which mirror the classic three act plot structure. Part One is the exploration phase, where the audience is introduced to the food item that Saffitz will attempt to recreate in a gourmet fashion, which becomes the “conflict” of the episode. Much like a novel, we are introduced to our main characters (“Hi I’m Claire from the BA Test Kitchen!”) who happen to be real people with Instagram accounts that allow us to continue to interact with them outside the narrative, and unlike a novel, the story for these characters never really ends. Part One contains repeated elements that act similarly to genre prescriptions in that they are included in each episode of the show: Saffitz always says, “And now for my favorite part, reading the ingredients”; different BA Test Kitchen staff talk about the nostalgia of the food item; Saffitz carries all of the different flavors of the food item by herself to clear her workspace; and she goes to the computer to research how the food item is made. These elements have become traditions that the audience can expect from each episode of Gourmet Makes, creating stability and structure that is reassuring to audiences.

Part Two is the trial and error phase where Saffitz tries different methods and ingredients for the gourmet version, tastes the result, and makes adjustments. In most episodes, Saffitz encounters a major stumbling block that forces her to almost completely start over, like failing to correctly temper chocolate to coat Snickers bars. She often complains about this obstacle, tries to give up, seeks comfort from her coworkers, reclaims her resolve, and begins again. Though Saffitz claims to not enjoy filming Gourmet Makes, because it seems pointless and she dislikes failure, she always finds a way forward. This major failure resembles the climax of a typical plot structure — it is the point where everything seems to go wrong. But, this is also the turning point of the video where Saffitz rises up and overcomes the obstacle, as we see in an exchange with Brad Leone, another food contributor of Bon Appétit and host of It’s Alive, in the "Snickers" episode:

SAFFITZ: “I’m just gonna call it quits."

LEONE: “No, that’s not the Claire we know!"

SAFFITZ: “No, that’s not the show."

In some ways, Saffitz is forced to overcome the obstacle for the sake of the video and enjoyment of the audience. Without this moment of near failure that turns into success, Gourmet Makes would not resemble a typical plot structure and would not be as satisfying and enjoyable to watch as it is.

Part Three represents the falling action and resolution in which Safftiz successfully conquers whatever challenges she encountered in Part Two and runs through how one would replicate the process she went through to make the final product. It’s implied that the audience is not expected to follow this process, which reveals that Part Three serves not educational purposes, but narrative ones.

Fans of the show often go so far as to post #IWDFCFTBATK (I would die for Claire Saffitz from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen) on social media and ironically wonder why they enjoy watching her mess up. But it’s not that they enjoy watching Saffitz fail, they enjoy watching her rise to a challenge and overcome it. It’s cathartic, just like every other three act narrative, the audience experiences the plot right alongside the character. When they rise, we rise. Gourmet Makes is telling the same story that has been told from the beginning of time, they’re just doing it with food. It’s made even more satisfying because this plot isn’t manufactured or fiction; it happens naturally in each episode. YouTube content like Gourmet Makes is essentially the gourmet version of a fictional movie or literature plot, only it is more organic and less-processed, while still allowing the audience to feel filled.

  • About the Author
    Emma Naille is a sophomore at Miami University studying Creative Writing and Interactive Media Studies. She is from Granville, Ohio, and is passionate about storytelling, food, and the power of quiet. Emma is involved with UP Magazine and is a Young Life leader at Lakota East High School (go hawks!).

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