Food & Drink

YouTube: Picking up where TV cooking shows left off

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

If YouTube viewing figures are anything to go by, there’s a lot of people out there — 7 million views and counting — interested in making sushi. For cats.

Similarly, videos of a poodle narrating recipes on how to cook everything from okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancakes) to teriyaki chicken pizza pull in hundreds of thousands of views.

Welcome to the world of YouTubers making Japanese food who, shot by shot, are unravelling the vast canon of washoku (Japanese cuisine) for an audience of millions around the world in ways that a cookbook never could, or probably would.

YouTube, like its precursor, television, is a haven for cooking shows. In many ways it is an even better medium, as smartphones and tablets allow us to disconnect from the TV and bring the cooking show into the kitchen. For many home cooks, the smartphone is as essential as a good knife, a chopping board and the holy trinity of soy sauce, mirin and sake.

On the face of it, one of the quirkiest and longest-running Japanese cooking YouTube channels is “Cooking With Dog.” As the wry tag line suggests, “it’s not what you think”: No dogs are harmed — or eaten — in the show’s production.

Rather, Francis, a toy poodle, narrates recipes while he sits attentively next to “Chef.”

Or at least he did, until he passed away in 2016 just short of 10 years on YouTube and after amassing a following of more than 1 million subscribers.

Given the odd set up, the premise for “Cooking With Dog” is uncomplicated. Each video features a simple, everyday Japanese dish cooked without fuss by Chef and narrated by Francis (now from “heaven”). Back when the show began, the aim was to share Japanese food culture, and narrating the recipes in English was essential in drawing in an overseas audience. But, over time, the show gained cult status in Japan.

The show’s longtime producer and creator told me recently that when Francis died, the team was “heartbroken and didn’t shoot any recipes for a while.

“However, so many people around the world love Francis and support our show so we would like to continue making new videos, even if it is only one per a month” the producer said.

“Francis is a very special figure and saying goodbye to him is one of the saddest things that has ever happened, so we are not planning to get another dog for the show.”

“Jun’s Kitchen” is arguably a descendent of “Cooking With Dog,” only with cats. The slick show, which is a spin off of “Rachel & Jun,” a Japanese-American couple who have a separate YouTube channel, features Jun and his cats in his “tiny” kitchen.

Jun is a self-taught cook and, in a way, a stand-in for how many of us learn to cook these days: online.

“My mom actually went to cooking lessons to learn how to cook after she got married and became a housewife,” says Jun, “but I was able to learn by myself thanks to all the resources we have these days.”

One of the channel’s most popular videos is its “Sushi for Cats” recipe — using chicken breast, sea bream and sashimi tuna — which has attracted more than 7 million views and thousands of comments.

According to Jun, the comments and questions, which average around 8,000 a video, can be overwhelming, but they can also be helpful in distilling what dishes his audience want to know more about.

Two other popular cooking shows on YouTube — though animal-less — are “Just One Cookbook” and “Create Eat Happy.”

Nami Chen, originally from Yokohama but a long-term resident of California started “Just One Cookbook,” a Japanese cooking blog, when her first child was born. Over time, the blog grew and became more professional. Together with her husband, she produces a new video for YouTube every week.

Chen was unequivocal when I asked if her videos have an influence on home cooks. “Definitely,” she says. “With the amount of feedback from readers and viewers, I think it’s fair to say what we do actually make a difference in someone’s life. We learned that so many people thought Japanese food was hard to make so they had never tried cooking it before.

“Readers and viewers often tell me how happy their family are after cooking Japanese food from my recipes,” she says. Chen adds that it’s a feeling she recognizes herself: When others are happy with your cooking, it spurs you on to try new recipes and keep cooking at home.

Ami Nishimura, or “Ochikeron” as she is known on YouTube, shares her recipes on her channel “Create Eat Happy.” Prior to YouTube, Nishimura spent many years uploading her recipes to Cookpad, a recipe sharing platform, before moving over to the video sharing site in 2011, shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake. In fact, she says the disaster was an impetus to start her channel.

“I simply wanted to share something with the world and, back then, what I could share was Japanese home cooking.”

Raising a family has slowed down Nishimura’s production schedule, though her children do sometimes make cute cameos.

“Here in Japan, Japanese home cooking is changing,” Nishimura says. “For my mom’s generation, it was just housework. But now, it is something creative and fun to do at home.”

There’s a big dollop of kawaii in most of Nishimura’s recipes, but tapping into cooking and lifestyle trends in Japan is also a big part of Nishimura’s presentation.

Marc Matsumoto, a chef and presenter of “Bento Expo” on NHK World, said that the appeal of YouTube is that you get to see all the steps for the preparation of a dish in a short video.

“Viewers can also search for a specific recipe, which makes it a great resource for someone making a dish for the first time,” Matsumoto says.

But, as all the YouTube chefs I spoke to pointed out, there are plenty of people who just like to watch, too. In that sense, maybe cooking shows on YouTube and TV are not so different after all.