KYOTO – Here’s a recipe for ambiguity: Cooking with dog. Could it literally mean, cooking a dog? How about cooking for canines? Or, is it some weird code for cooking fetishes somewhere on the deep Web? Lucky for us (and the dogs), “Cooking with Dog” is a YouTube show featuring a Japanese housewife, known only as “Chef,” and a toy poodle named “Francis,” who perches next to Chef and narrates her recipes in English.
Sounds silly — and the show’s title has led to confusion as well as complaints — but this simple format is a huge hit on YouTube: The channel has nearly 1 million subscribers and each video routinely clocks up hundreds of thousands of views.
To be clear though, no dog is harmed, cooked or eaten in “Cooking with Dog,” just admired by fans.
I spoke with the creator and producer of the show recently and though he was forthcoming he asked me not to disclose his identity or the identities of Chef or Francis because he is worried about his privacy. I can reveal that Francis was born on Feb. 6 (the year is top secret) and likes iriko (dried sardines) and shokupan (white bread). Chef likes all types of noodles and the producer says he loves to eat but admits to never cooking.
Actually, this is one of the trickier articles I have had to write — imagine writing up a recipe where you can’t mention some of the ingredients.
“Cooking with Dog” began in 2007 after the producer returned from Los Angeles where he had spent several years working in film and television. Back in Tokyo he wanted to keep working in the industry, but using English to promote Japanese culture. This led to “Cooking with Dog.”
“There are many cooking programs on TV and I just wanted to make our show look different and unique. And also I don’t know any celebrities or famous people and I didn’t have a large budget,” the producer tells The Japan Times. However, he did know Chef and knew she was a good cook, so he approached her and Francis (the pair live together) and pitched his idea: she would cook one dish, Francis would narrate the show and the producer would film it.
Francis the poodle was cast so Chef, who has no background in television, would not feel so alone or insecure in front of the camera. In essence the dog was a foil, but it was a masterstroke, especially having him narrate the show in English, which widens the show’s appeal and arguably the appeal of washoku (Japanese-style cooking). Thirty percent of viewers come from the United States, and the show is a big hit in Singapore, too. The first episode featured sukiyaki, a staple of many Japanese kitchens, topped with a raw egg.
Considering the plethora of cooking shows, with multiple sets and roving cameras, and cooks who are either insanely chatty or flat out bonkers, “Cooking with Dog” is simple. It’s always one dish, Chef cooks and speaks only when necessary, while Francis sits calmly to the side and narrates in a slightly weird, high-pitched voice. It feels like a show that you might remember from your childhood — there’s a retro vibe about it. The focus is firmly on the food, once you learn to look past the dog.
After more than eight years and hundreds of recipes, “Cooking with Dog” has stayed deliberately small but has garnered a large fan base and picked up a few awards. The website DailyTekk recently named it one of the 100 Best YouTube Channels of 2015.
Over time Chef has become a little chattier and a lot more comfortable in her role.
“Chef is really interested in recreating delicious food,” the producer tells me, and she is grateful to the online audience for being able to watch week in week out.
If the goals of a good cooking show are to demystify a recipe (while entertaining), then “Cooking with Dog” succeeds. Episodes are between five and 10 minutes, and they have the right level of Internet quirkiness and earnestness — it also helps that washoku is riding a wave of global popularity, and more people want to learn to cook Japanese staples like okonomiyaki (pan-fried batter cake) and the Japanese-style hamburger — all of which have featured on the show.
As to the challenges of cooking with a dog, the producer says that while Francis makes Chef comfortable, he craves attention.
“Francis gets easily distracted and lonely,” he says. On occasion he has also been known to eat the provisions Chef buys while on shopping trips.
With the revenue earned from YouTube the producer says he is able to make a full-time living from “Cooking with Dog.”
“I am really thankful to the viewers that we could keep doing this — it’s because of them,” he says. “And most of the comments are positive, and we love reading the comments.”
From April, Francis will also take a new role, called “Go! Francis!” which will be aired on cable TV in Japan.
Cooking with Dog might be a recipe for ambiguity, but it’s also been one for success.
For more information, visit www.youtube.com/user/cookingwithdog