The Daily Beast
YouTubeCelebrity chef and Chopped judge Scott Conant knows that those gross food hack videos are not meant to be taken seriously. He knows those videos are just for fun. Nevertheless, as a lover of food and especially as an Italian American, he can’t help but ask himself one question when he sees someone pour SpaghettiOs into a pie crust with a dollop of milk, or dump a jar of Prego onto their countertop: “Why?”“It’s like a train wreck to a certain extent,” Conant told The Daily Beast during a recent interview ahead of the release of his book, Peace, Love, and Pasta. “You can’t look away, right? Especially as a professional, it’s hard to look away from that.”For months now, these videos have transfixed us all in horror, confusion, and prurient fascination. The formula is often the same: A slender white woman spreads some sort of unseemly gloop onto a gleaming stone countertop before covering it in a mess of toppings. Sometimes it’s canned pasta in a pie shell, or peppermints melted onto a waffle iron. Many of these videos also focus heavily on sound, particularly those moist sounds food can make that can range from suggestive to downright pornographic.Maybe this all started when Robert Pattinson introduced us all to his unholy masterpiece of cringe cuisine, Piccolini Cuscino. Maybe it’s just the internet doing what it does best and mashing up two genres—in this case, prank videos and viral food tutorials from companies like Tasty. Maybe it’s thinly-veiled mess porn, or simply a sign that we’re all just bored. Whatever the reason for the “hacks”’ popularity, they’ve become inescapable for us all—including celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Conant, and Andrew Zimmern.“It’s kind of like the kid that you knew in the neighborhood who always does bad things,” Conant said. “The amount of effort that that kid puts into the bad things… if you put that same effort into good things, we’d all be living in a better place.”Sure, Conant is a chef who, by his own admission, likes fancy things. Still, he insists his gripe with these videos is not really about that.“It’s really more about being thoughtful and being caring and understanding that your body needs sustenance, and not just... I mean it’s really, frankly, if I may, I hate to say this, but it’s kind of garbage. Why would you do that to yourself?” he said with a laugh. “Have a little more self respect... I mean, I get the attention that they’re seeking, but really, that is rough.”Oddly enough, many of these videos tend to emerge from the same small web of creators and producers, most of whom connect with one man—Richard Lax, a magician who is now also, as Eater put it in a fascinating report on Lax and the Gross Food Hack Industrial Complex, “essentially the face of Facebook’s Watch program.” Those are the videos that all appear to follow the same recipe—conventionally attractive white woman, expensive-looking kitchen, lots of canned goods. But other creators take things in a different direction. TikToker Liam Donafee, aka @liamslunchbox, often wears his shoulder-length hair under a beanie while cooking up foods that feel vaguely inspired by the popular YouTube channel Epic Meal Time. (Think: bacon-wrapped oreos and barbecue spaghetti tacos.)Zimmern has been following Donafee’s work for some time, and at this point has become something of a connoisseur of the genre itself—well-versed in the nuances that separate an okay gross food hack from a great gross food hack. But the distinguishing factor might not be what you think.“The best of them don’t give a crap about the food,” the Family Dinner host told The Daily Beast. “They’re there for the juvenile ASMR value to some piece of the video. There’s usually some kind of mildly deviant sexual undertone.”He’s not wrong. As Eater notes, these videos feel like an American version of mukbang—eating videos that originated in Korea that “range from harmless and wholesome to intentionally outrageous and grotesque” and that have long been seen as fetishistic. Watch the SpaghettiOs pie video, for instance, and you might notice the couple moments when the video seems to linger for just a moment too long on the wet sound produced while a spatula spreads the toppings. Donafee’s recipes often involve him stirring something suggestively with two fingers, or plunging his whole fist into a bucket of, say, ketchup—and the sounds, in some cases, are genuinely obscene.“I instantly was 13 years old again watching this,” Zimmern said of a video that finds Donafee making buffalo chicken dip in a martini glass. “It was just messy, dirty hands in food—and not the good way. I use my hands when I cook. This was designed for a laugh.” That said, he noted, the over-the-top recipes can be a little more sophisticated than pouring one canned thing on top of another.When asked what he makes of the idea that these videos are just thinly-veiled mess porn, Conant offered, “Everybody has their quirks, right? I’m not one to judge. If that’s the thing, then that’s fine. But there’s no reason to subject yourself to actually consuming it.”And when he watched the video a second time? He laughed just as hard.Anyone who doesn’t see the sexual undertones of these videos, Zimmern said, is “either clueless or they’ve never gotten laid—and you can quote me on that… I mean, it’s a very specific sound.” The copycat videos that skip out on the lewd sounds, he added, don’t completely “get” the joke and are far less amusing. (As he put it, “Bravo for repurposing something in a can.”)Donafee’s work has even caught the attention of unlikely TikTok star Gordon Ramsay, who often duets with videos of home cooks to either praise or roast their recipes. (You can probably guess which happens more often.) So far, Donafee has managed to gross Ramsay out with his Fruity Pebbles mozzarella sticks, Fruity Pebbles beef wellington, and, most recently, his Fruity Pebbles caviar. Ramsay’s reaction speaks to the participatory element all of us bring to these videos as viewers; his exaggerated reactions to what is obviously a prank mirrors our own willingness to be “in” on the joke, indulging these pranks by taking them, at least to a certain degree, a little seriously as we contemplate what it would be like to actually eat the food in earnest.When asked how they would respond if anyone ever did greet them at a party with, say, a spread of nachos made directly on the counter with room temperature nacho cheese, unseasoned beans, and a full jar of jalapeños, Conant and Zimmern diverged. While the former said he would politely decline, the latter said he’d stick with a rule he learned from his father: Try every food at least twice. Besides, he added, “Have you watched some of my episodes of Bizarre Foods—the things I’ve put in my mouth? SpaghettiO pie pales in comparison to buried for 90 days and then fermented and then dried Greenlandic ice shark.” Touché!Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.