“What the hell is up with your guys’ mascot?” Andrew Rea asked a Zoom crowd of Tufts students who lined up to ask him about his whimsical cooking projects and trademark video production. “Jumbo, I literally read up on him while I was waiting. And I was like, ‘Holy s–t. That is a wild mascot story.’”
Rea had just burst onto the Zoom screen accompanied by a dramatic light show, a fog machine and an exaggerated introduction to himself (by himself). For an internet star spending a pandemic Friday night Zooming with college kids, he was remarkably enthusiastic.
“This is probably the 12th or 13th or 14th college show that I’ve done, and every single time I’ve f–ked up hilariously,” he admitted, laughing at himself.
In an event organized by Tufts University Social Collective, Rea chatted with Tufts graduate Noah Brown (LA’20) while simultaneously grating, chopping, boiling, stirring and (finally) eating his one-pot mac and cheese. Since 2016, Rea has amassed more than 8.7 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, where he posts regular episodes of “Binging with Babish” (a cooking show), “Basics with Babish” (another cooking show) and “Being with Babish” (a lifestyle show that also includes some cooking). In “Binging with Babish,” he’s built a brand cooking fantastical meals from films and television. Ever wonder if it’s possible to make the secret ingredient soup from “Kung Fu Panda” (2008)? Rea made it, complete with hand-stretched noodles, and it was the most difficult food he’s ever cooked. What about a krabby patty, or the breakfast dessert pasta from “Elf” (2003)? He made those, too.
But at some point, Rea was just another college student with a crappy kitchen.
“Every time I tried to make something halfway complicated in college, it sucked, because the kitchen sucked and my equipment sucked and you’ve just got to, you know, sometimes you’ve just got to have some mac and cheese.”
It’s odd to see Rea in live action, his face visible over the Zoom broadcast. In his YouTube videos, Rea cuts his head out of the shot, showing only a bit of his trademark beard. He’s said that keeping his face out of his cooking shots helps center the show on food rather than personality. At the same time, Rea’s show is so successful because of the character he’s developed: He’s a witty, aggressively relatable teacher who often makes mistakes in his recipes, loves to create and is a huge TV nerd (Rea picked up his moniker, Oliver Babish, from an episode of “The West Wing” (1999–2006).
Including his mistakes — an overly deflated pastry that needs to be remade, a dropped dish, a spill — sets Rea’s channel apart from others like it.
“I can’t point to … a cooking show on Food Network or anything where somebody leaves in their screw-ups,” Rea said. “Every dish comes out perfectly the first time in the perfect kitchen with their perfect husband and their perfect dog.”
The Babish universe came out of a time when Rea was producing promotional videos for restaurants for free while battling clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. He had an episode of “Parks and Recreation” (2009–15) on while editing, and, on a whim, decided to film himself recreating a burger cook-off from the episode. He said he never knew it would become the multi-series, multi-season empire that it is, but people liked watching this nerdy, bearded guy make elaborate meals and bad jokes.
“It was just like a desperate effort to try and find some creative fulfillment when I felt really down and really low and really creatively stifled, and it turned into my dream career,” he said. “So it lends credence to the idea that you should follow your passions.”
When almost everyone had their social events canceled a year ago and turned to the internet for comfort, Rea continued filming in his home studio. When the internet’s favorite work family, the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, deservingly collapsed after producers and testers exposed the company for racial discrimination, Sohla El-Waylly, one of the greatest, wittiest creators at Bon Appétit, launched a series on Rea’s YouTube channel.
Rea’s cooking videos, for which he records voice-overs in post-production, are never scripted. He never went to culinary school, didn’t eat seafood until he was 22 and has that weird genetic trait that makes cilantro taste like soap. (He also has a cilantro tattoo on his underarm.) He speaks with confidence and aggressive charisma, and can easily explain a béchamel or rant about the epidemic of anticoagulants in shredded cheese. His YouTube page is full of recipes.
But he also sometimes buys an awkwardly sized block of cheese (like he did on Friday night) and has to resort to mincing it in a live event rather than evenly grating it. Rea said that these mistakes bring him back to what cooking really is about.
“It is not this perfect Instagram experience. It is a dirty and confusing and hot — it’s very hot in here — experience,” he said, wiping his brow.
On Tuesday, Rea will release his next episode of “Binging with Babish” — he’s making the fettuccine alfredo that Michael Scott devours in “The Office” (2005–13). Except Rea never does anything halfway, so he bought an 86-pound parmesan wheel for $1,000 to make his fettuccine alfredo. And, like Michael Scott, he ran a 5K after eating it.
“It’s been proven to me now that I’m in my mid-30s and I’m an old man,” Rea said, pointing to an ankle brace from alfredo-related injuries. “But anything for my craft.”