TikTok, the Fastest Way on Earth to Become a Food Star

Eitan Bernath, a 19-year-old TikTok star with more than 1.6 million followers, began posting cooking content to the platform in 2019. Like many Generation Z TikTok chefs, he taught himself to cook by watching YouTube and the Food Network. He would share the things he made to Instagram, but never gained much traction.

Within 24 hours of posting his first TikTok, however, he had accrued tens of thousands of followers. Mr. Bernath, whose demeanor is bright, upbeat and approachable, began sharing short, easy-to-make recipes that other beginner cooks and his teenage peers could make at home. The videos took off.

“TikTok is the biggest thing that happened to me in my career, and honestly the reason why I am where I am today,” he said.

In 2018, when TikTok was officially introduced in America — it was already enormously popular elsewhere around the world — the app was synonymous with lip syncs and dance challenges. But food content exploded on the platform in early 2020, when millions of people were stuck at home during quarantine and cooking became a pastime. Videos with the hashtag #TikTokFood have collectively amassed 25.2 billion views, and the app regularly spawns viral food crazes, such as whipped coffee and a pasta dish with baked feta and tomatoes now known as the “TikTok pasta.” A video that shows you how to make a three-ingredient Oreo cake has gotten more than 42.1 million views.

TikTok has also birthed a new generation of cooking stars who didn’t put in years in a professional kitchen or at a glossy food magazine, and who are often showcasing recipes they find online rather than developing their own. They’ve become famous on the internet remarkably fast.

“The thing that makes TikTok outstanding compared to any other platform is the speed of scale,” said Eunice Shin, the head of media and entertainment at Prophet, a growth strategy firm. “If something goes viral, you can go from zero to millions of followers in a matter of months. That’s really hard to do if you take a traditional trajectory.”

No one has seized on this opportunity faster than members of Gen Z. “The trend we’re noticing is younger and younger talent making a name for themselves as a result of adopting the platform,” said Jad Dayeh, the head of digital media at Endeavor, a top talent agency.

Many Gen Z stars on FoodTok, as some call the food community on the app, wonder why anyone would pay their dues at a grueling restaurant job when they could be building their own brand online. Others are leaving the restaurant business to pursue full-time careers as content creators. And several are monetizing through TikTok’s creator fund, which pays content creators based on how many views their videos get, and through advertising deals and sponsorships.

“Recipes that are going viral on other social platforms are just visually appealing, you drool over them, but you never make them,” said Ahmad Alzahabi, 24, a TikTok food star in Flint, Mich., with more than 3.7 million followers. “TikTok has allowed people to document their family gatherings, what they make at home. It doesn’t have to look as pretty.”

TikTok also makes it incredibly easy to create content. Users upload videos that are up to a minute long, and set those videos to sound. You can add title cards, captions and fun effects like zooming or face warping. While editing videos for YouTube requires knowledge of third-party editing software, you can shoot, edit and post videos easily to TikTok, all from your phone. TikTok also allows power users to organize their videos into collections, such as “pie recipes” or “dinner ideas,” and offers functions like livestreaming to keep fans engaged.

But it’s the app’s algorithm that makes it easier than ever to become an overnight food sensation. On TikTok, the primary way users consume videos is through the “For You” page, an algorithmically programmed feed of content delivered to users based on what they’ve watched or engaged with in the past. Once a user begins viewing and engaging with content, there’s a snowball effect in which that user is served more and more of that type of content. If the algorithm picks up that you like Mexican food, for instance, it will show you more cooking videos in that realm.

This algorithmic content distribution system allows users to go down deep rabbit holes and program their feeds full of niche cooking content. There are a seemingly endless number of videos dedicated to every dietary restriction, region or culture: vegan cooking, Keto-friendly recipes, North African street food, Midwestern cuisine.

For food creators, the resulting growth is explosive.

Mr. Alzahabi said Gen Z TikTok food stars are also “a little bit more creative in the kitchen,” routinely making food from different cultures, or fusing dishes together. (Some TikTok cooks — but not all — credit the cultural origins of their dishes in the comment section of their videos.)

“I think the older generation, they’re very cookie cutter,” he said. “If you want to make a recipe, they think there’s a certain way to make it. I think this younger generation, especially in America with all the cultures that are mixing together, I think there will be a new breed of insane foods that are combining all these cultures and ethnicities.”

As fans become better cooks, some start channels of their own. Mr. Skier said that new names in food are popping up every day because of TikTok.

“A couple people I’m friends with right now are in the process of blowing up, and they started a month ago,” he said. “If you make good content and good food, you can blow up too.”

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