How We Whizzed Up a Million Hits: Meet the Cookery Stars of YouTube

[By: Ruth Tierney] [You Magazine: Daily Mail UK] [Read More]

Credit: Evening Standard UK

Credit: Evening Standard UK

Forget TV chefs – the new celebrity foodies are YouTube sensations raking in breathtaking viewing figures (and salaries) from their home kitchens. Ruth Tierney meets four famous cooks you’ve probably never heard of

From left: the cupcake queen Jemma Wilson, the bloke next door Barry Lewis and the family-friendly sisters Claire and Lucy McDonald

From left: the cupcake queen Jemma Wilson, the bloke next door Barry Lewis and the family-friendly sisters Claire and Lucy McDonald

So you want to rustle up truffle-infused mac ’n’ cheese but you need a little expert know-how. Where do you turn? If you’re 34-plus, chances are your go-to guide will be a dog-eared cookbook or a recipe website put together by a trusted television chef. 

But if you’re under 34, the so-called ‘millennials’ demographic, it’s a different story. Your source of advice is less expert chef, more self-made maverick. A person who looks like you and lives like you; whose food is real rather than artfully styled; whose kitchen and friends are their own rather than props. 

In other words, a YouTuber who posts cookery videos online. For here lies the future of food, with video blogging stars (or vloggers) pulling in millions of hits – not to mention six-figure sponsorship deals every time they bake a cake or poach an egg.

Most of these vloggers are amateur cooks, armed with little more than a camcorder, a spatula and an affable manner. Yet the kind of success they are enjoying is incredible, with many bagging book deals and others able to give up the day job.

You know a trend is catching on when Jamie Oliver sits up and takes notice. Food Tube, a YouTube channel of vlogs by Jamie and the latest bright young foodies, has had a whopping 250 million views – figures television programmes can only dream of. 

More surprising still is that relative unknowns are able to command viewing figures on a par with Jamie’s – SortedFood, for example, is a YouTube channel set up by four ordinary British blokes whose fun recipe videos (such as bubble tea and cronuts) have been watched 221 million times.

We spoke to the stars of three super-successful YouTube shows about the rise and rise of video how-tos.

The Family-Friendly Sisters

Claire (left) and Lucy McDonald, the sisters behind Crumbs

Claire (left) and Lucy McDonald, the sisters behind Crumbs

Who Claire and Lucy McDonald, aged 43 and 41, sisters from London, who created Crumbs.

Viewing figures More than 36,000 subscribers and more than 2.5 million views.

USP Family-friendly food for busy parents. ‘Our channel has a different dynamic because there are two of us, we’re sisters and we’re letting people into our world to watch us bicker,’ says Claire.

Most popular recipe Their 5-Min Cake in a Cup, which you bake in the microwave, has had nearly 203,000 views. Also popular is Broccoli Pasta. ‘We’ve had people come up to us in the street to thank us for that recipe,’ says Claire.

How it happened ‘After having my second child Bruno, now six, I went from cooking once a day to four times a day, and found most recipes were so complicated they were beyond me,’ says Claire. ‘I needed something with a maximum of five ingredients, three of which were already in the cupboard. Nothing out there spoke to me. I’m a writer and was talking to Lucy, a broadcast journalist, about doing a cookery blog for parents when she said, “Can I do it with you?” That was five years ago and before long we had two book deals, despite having no cookery training.’

‘In 2011 we were approached by a production company called Little Dot Studios, which had seen our blog and wanted to make videos of us cooking for YouTube,’ says Lucy. ‘You have to be good to stand out online and we thought pairing up with a professional company would be the best way to go. Plus we both have full-time jobs, so filming and editing it ourselves would be too time consuming.’

The filming process  ‘We film in our kitchens with two cameramen – one for us, one for the food,’ says Lucy. ‘Our children (we have four between us) wander in and out, and my dog Polly usually makes an appearance. Although we are filmed by a production company, we have complete control of content and are never scripted. We don’t have hair or make-up, or even time to consider outfits – usually my top has porridge down the front. We have different styles of cooking so take turns making things. I’m far more trashy and novelty, while Claire is earthy and lentil-y.’

One of my biggest disasters is one of our most popular videos. Improvisation goes down well

‘Lucy is a natural in front of the camera, but for me it was really weird at first,’ adds Claire. ‘I rambled or lost the power of speech completely. It took about three months to get used to it, but having Lucy next to me helped. It has transformed our relationship – we’re much closer now.’

Hours spent ‘In terms of hours, we film at least one full day a week. In addition to that, we practise all the recipes beforehand and have to shop for ingredients and update our social media followers. A lot of it is done after 9pm when the kids are in bed,’ says Claire.

Who watches it ‘Mainly women in the US and UK in the 25-44 age group, which is pretty old in the YouTube world. That’s the demographic with money, so advertisers are interested in it,’ says Claire.

Worst on-camera mistake ‘One of my biggest disasters, How to Make a Fairy Castle Cake, has become one of our most popular videos [with more than 36,000 views],’ explains Lucy. ‘When I took it out of the oven, it had completely sunk in the middle, so I used shop-bought madeira cake to patch it up, then iced over the top. Improvisation goes down well.’

Proudest YouTube moment ‘Hitting 30,000 subscribers last October was a big deal for us. It’s hard work attracting them if you’re not a 17-year-old Zoella-type,’ says Claire.

How we make money ‘We’re finally making money out of it, but not enough to retire on yet,’ says Lucy. ‘In the past six months, brands have really opened up to collaborations. We have endorsed British Lion Eggs, Tesco, Flora and Lakeland, and we have an ongoing relationship with Lizi’s Granola. We’re talking four-figure amounts for each sponsorship deal.

‘Advertising only pays a substantial amount if something goes viral, such as our Halloween soup, which got a couple of million views after it was picked up by AOL’s news website. Any money we make is split with the production company, instead of us paying them.’

What’s next? ‘I would love to give YouTube more time and do it as my main job,’ says Claire. ‘It’s seat-of-your-pants stuff; nobody knows how vlogs are going to pan out in the future. But for now I’m really enjoying it.’

The Bloke Next Door

Barry Lewis of My Virgin Kitchen

Barry Lewis of My Virgin Kitchen

Who Barry Lewis, 34, from Somerset, whose channel is called My Virgin Kitchen.

Viewing figures More than 550,000 subscribers and almost 68 million views.

USP Everything Barry makes is a personal first (hence the channel’s name), and he aims to make you ‘laugh and learn’ with quirky recipes (Super Mario Cupcakes) as well as everyday staples (Shepherd’s Pie).

Most popular recipe His Giant Rolo (which he made in a bucket) has had more than 2.5 million views. ‘I put out novelty recipes on a Sunday and my super-size series is really popular,’ says Barry.

How it happened ‘I was working as a quantity surveyor and had no confidence in the kitchen, leaving the cooking to my wife Becky. Then six years ago, after watching Jamie Oliver poach an egg on TV, I thought, “That looks easy,” and gave it a go. I filmed myself with a camcorder and it became my first vlog. Recording my cookery journey has been a way of inspiring myself to keep on learning. 

How to be a successful vlogger

Choose a subject you are passionate about Don’t have a script or slick production techniques and don’t worry about cock-ups.

Join the YouTube Partner Programme After making your first video (uploading is free on YouTube), become a partner to allow Google to place adverts next to your content. Anyone can join the programme, and the deal is you share the advertising revenue with YouTube (it takes 45 per cent). The more clicks your video has, the more money you earn. The rates Google sets are variable, but expect to earn from 0.1p to 1p per view.

Have a weekly slot YouTube recommends that you establish a regular publishing schedule (eg, post every Wednesday) to encourage your audience to come back. Advertise your new upload on your channel and through social media.

Make it watchable YouTube search results are based largely on ‘watch time’. If people click away after 30 seconds your video won’t feature high in search results. Check out Google Analytics (a free tool) to see when people stopped watching, then find out why.

Appeal to millennials The YouTube audience tends to be under 34, so you’ll get more hits if you have content relevant to them. You don’t have to be that age yourself, but keeping on top of trends helps.

'Soon I was making (and filming) dinner every night, and I gave up sport at the weekend in favour of baking muffins. What began as overcoming a fear turned into a hobby and then a job. Three years ago I took a career break so I could concentrate on YouTube. Becky was a little sceptical but two weeks in, I had an agent and a book deal [Dinner’s On, out now]. I never went back to my old job.’

The filming process ‘I’m self-taught on that front, too. I’ve invested in a better camera and tripod. At the start my videos were very rough and ten minutes long; now they’re around four minutes. People like that it’s simply me at home, with my pugs and children [Phoebe, eight, and Chloe, four] running around. I don’t think of it as presenting; I imagine I’m talking to a colleague.’

Hours put in ‘I treat YouTubing like a full-time job, working nine to five, five days a week. I put out new videos three times a week, then there’s editing, research, preparation and social media. I used to reply to every comment, but there are more than 1,000 tutorials on my channel now, so I just reply when I can.’

Who watches ‘The average age of my subscribers is 18 to 34, with a 50/50 male-female split. Most are from the US, so I cater for them with peanut butter recipes. Germany is also a biggie – when I tried German treats (such as Underberg digestif) I got more than a million views.’

Worst on-camera mistake ‘YouTube followers don’t want a polished performance so the bloopers and mess stay in. If one of my girls tips a bag of flour over her head, so be it. I made a batch of ice lollies once and dropped them all over the floor, but people seemed to like that. Daft stuff gets watched, so this morning I sucked the air out of a helium balloon before presenting a very squeaky tutorial.’

Proudest YouTube moment ‘I could say the book deal, but actually it’s that cooking has brought me closer to the kids. They enjoy making cakes with me and absolutely love being in the videos. Phoebe wants her own channel when she grows up.’

How I make money ‘Sponsorship tops up the advertising earnings. Phoebe and I appeared in a Sainsbury’s advert, which gained her kudos in the playground. I’m not making millions, but I’m earning as much as I did when I was a surveyor.’

What’s next? ‘Becky has just come on board and has her own weekly baking section on the vlog. She used to work full-time at a children’s daycare centre but I thought she was working too hard and I wanted her to have fun so I encouraged her to quit. In the future, we may employ a cameraman to film us baking together, but for now we shoot our segments ourselves.’

The Cupcake Queen

Jemma Wilson, aka Cupcake Jemma

Jemma Wilson, aka Cupcake Jemma

Who Jemma Wilson, aka Cupcake Jemma, 37, from London.

Viewing figures More than 800,000 subscribers and more than 54 million views.

USP Insanely delicious sweet treats (think Salted Caramel Chocolate Mudslide Cupcakes). ‘I’m fun, I don’t put on an act, and I make tasty, pretty cakes. I also have tattoos, which is the kind of thing teenagers watching YouTube aspire to,’ Jemma says.

Most popular recipe Her six-layer rainbow cake has been watched more than three million times. ‘It’s a 16-minute tutorial, which is really long by YouTube standards, so I’m amazed that people sit through until the end,’ says Jemma.

How it happened ‘I had dropped out of a graphic design degree and was working in a bar when I discovered baking. I taught myself and love the magical process. Soon I had a market stall on London’s Brick Lane, selling 1,000 cakes and cookies a day. A stall at a street party to celebrate the tenth birthday of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant led to a meeting with the man himself. I guess Jamie liked me because eight months later, in June 2013, he invited me to have my own tutorial channel on his Food Tube network. At first Jamie’s production crew filmed me, but soon my business partner Sam [also Jemma’s ex-boyfriend] took over. Now it’s just the two of us with one camcorder so we have complete control over the Cupcake Jemma channel.’

The filming process ‘Back in the day we shot in my mum’s kitchen. Then in December 2014, with savings accrued through the market stall, plus £10,000 from a crowdfunding campaign, we opened a shop in Soho called Crumbs and Doilies. It has given my YouTube followers something tangible, a place where they can taste what they’ve seen online, with 75 cupcake varieties on sale. We film there when the bakers have left. The pressure of giving a clean performance when you’ve got a camera in your face is huge. I try to be myself, but just swear a lot less!’

Vlogging can reach millions of people on a shoestring budget 

Hours put in ‘Filming can take anything from an hour and a half to five hours for a layer cake. Then there’s all the preparation. If I’m using ice cream, I have to churn it and freeze it the night before. We put a new recipe online once a week.’

Who watches ‘Predominantly 18- to 25-year-old women from the UK, US and Australia. The majority of followers who visit the shop are younger, such as the ten-year-old mega-fan who brought me a Malteser cupcake he’d made after watching my tutorial. He was beside himself with excitement when I gave him a tour of the kitchen.’

Worst on-camera mistake ‘Making caramel on air is always a disaster. Sugar catches quickly, so if it is ready but the camera isn’t, you get a pan of burnt sugar.’

Proudest YouTube moment ‘Hitting 38 million views [by comparison Coronation Street gets an average of 6-7 million viewers per episode]. Plus having fans come to the shop to say hello – it always amazes me that they want to meet me.’

How I make money ‘I’m unusual for a successful YouTuber in that it’s not my career – the shop is my priority. Anyone who makes a living from YouTube does so from sponsorship deals, not adverts, which pay peanuts. I’m fussy about the brands I work with because I’m very particular about ingredients. I’ve developed a cupcake for PG Tips, used Hotpoint ovens in my videos and I created a flower-decorated cake for the Grow Wild campaign. But if some rubbish margarine brand says it will sponsor me for a year, I’ll say no. It has to be something I believe in.’

What’s next? ‘Having my own TV show was never the dream for me as you can reach millions of people vlogging in your kitchen on a shoestring budget, while retaining control over content. It’s democratic and attainable. Having said that, I am a guest judge on Sugar Showdown, a US TV baking competition. I’m up for broadening my horizons and getting out of my comfort zone, so if the right project comes along and it happens to be television, I’d be silly not to consider it.’