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Arts in Review

Groove to the lactic funk with Brad Leone

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It’s Alive with Brad Leone is a Youtube series produced by Bon Appetit, a cooking magazine that has been printing since 1956, and is one of the most successful cooking shows ever produced. It hasn’t made the most money, or gotten the most views, but when it comes to making the most of the overlap between education and entertainment, It’s Alive is, simply put, the best.

The titular Brad is the visual embodiment of a bear hug. He has a boyish smile and curly blonde hair, usually jammed under a fisherman’s toque or a baseball cap. His Jersey accent infects his hands as he talks, and his endearing excitement wriggles under your skin. In exchange, Brad invites us into his space— Brad is the test kitchen manager at Bon Appetit, and that’s where It’s Alive is filmed. Episodes open with Brad chatting with coworkers or fumbling an armful of containers coming out of the walk-in while he sets up his station. Quickly, it’s clear that that show doesn’t have one host, but three: Brad, the cook; Vinny, the cameraman; and Matt, the editor.

Each episode focuses on the process of making a new lacto-fermented food. Fermentation is, in Brad’s own words, “you know, technically, rotting food,” and as anyone who’s seen a jar of pickles explode can tell you, it can get pretty messy and stinky. So it’s not surprising that it’s something home cooks might shy away from — and a natural candidate for the topic of a cooking show. Brad’s passion makes each episode inviting, and the prospect of fermenting food at home much less intimidating, but in a traditionally polished production — picture a log cabin with a farmhouse sink, brand new pans, and a tripod — it would likely ring hollow.

Instead, Bon Appetit has realized that Youtube allows for a much broader range of formats, and that Youtube audiences are more used to thin or nonexistent lines between content and production. Much of BA’s older video content consists of short, minimalistic how-to videos to which the chef is incidental. The process of production is disguised though filming and editing, clinging to the conventions of traditional television cooking shows. These are shot with still or very smooth cameras to make you forget that the camera is there, and cut so as to appear seamless. In It’s Alive, Vinny uses constant, attentive camera movement — often pointing the lens at a simmering pot Brad has forgotten or another editor’s face as they taste the fermented hot sauce that Brad promises “isn’t that spicy” but is literally just pureed habaneros — to make himself a character with a dry, apprehensive wit. An even more important character is Matt.

Matt, the editor, chooses to include Vinny’s comedic pans and Brad’s excited stammering as well at the beautiful close-ups and the eloquent explanations. This gives the show its unique voice, but Matt also makes room for his own — literally, there are speech bubbles. Matt makes jokes, editorializes the ingredient lists, and draws attention to his comedic cuts with the bleep sound you hear in blooper reels. The effect is an uncommon sense of honesty and familiarity with not only the hosts, but the food itself as well – yeah, you might spill kombucha all over the floor, but so did Brad; it’s just part of cooking.

Bon Appetit’s YouTube page was once a list of culinary techniques: flaming oranges, cutting avocados, deboning fish. Now, the first word in every title is a name: Brad, Carla, and Claire are a few. This extensive use of personality, at first glance, might make it seem like BA has lost its way, like it’s gone from being about the food, to a bunch of wannabe Ina Gartens. But in fact, the use of personality as content as well as information not only gives Brad and the other BA hosts more room to add nuance and fun, but makes it so rather than Bon Appetit showing us how Brad Leone makes giardiniera, it feels like Brad is showing us how we can make giardiniera. Expressed in words, it’s a small difference, but I’ve never made Gordon Ramsey’s beef Wellington, and my fermented garlic honey came out great. It’s Alive may be the best cooking show ever made when it comes to inspiring and welcoming home chefs, and with Brad, Vinny, and Matt as your hosts, it’s just like your morning yogurt: full of healthy bacteria, and a feel-good addition to your day.

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