The video makes it all seem so easy, even fun, and yet with each successive step, your sense of dread only mounts. First, you take an enormous brick of vividly orange cheese, one with enough structural integrity to allow you to hack into it with a knife. A cartoon mouse bounces up to encourage you, and to remind you of the longstanding cultural ties between cheese and mice. The jaunty, royalty-free music chirps away in the background as you ably carve out a deep recess within the cheese block, making sure the bottom is smooth. Then you place the block on top of four overlapping tortillas and wrap the cheese, sort of like a Christmas present. Strips of bacon are then applied until it is fully encased, and you slide the block into an oven preheated to 350. A little cartoon cat pops up to remind you that ovens are hot. After half an hour, you take the block out of the oven and you tie a sturdy strip of tinfoil around it. Then, you take —
Still following along? Of course not. Statistics are not available, and even anecdotal evidence is thin on the ground, but it seems very unlikely that many of the 3.1 million viewers who watched this 1 minute 38 second clip on Chefclub’s Twitter feed would have followed the recipe to its conclusion, wherein scrambled eggs cooked with a stunning amount of the same intensely orange cheese are poured into the dreadful cheese-tortilla-bacon vessel, which is then sliced open to reveal its roiling innards. If responses on social media are any indication, most people who watched the video came away with the strong feeling that you would make such a thing only if you wanted to die instantly of a heart attack.
I tried it (research purposes only), and I gratefully abandoned the attempt when it became clear that I was not capable of forcing a tortilla to simply glue itself to the side of a block of cheese, just as I was not up to the task of carving out a smooth-sided cavity inside it, despite the video’s — and the cartoon animals’ — insistence that it would be easy. There is at least one step in the recipe that is beyond the capabilities of anyone other than an experienced food stylist. Besides, the question of whether it can be done is eclipsed by the question of whether it should be — and the answer to that one is obvious.
Just about all of Chefclub’s output appears driven by the same demented, baroque sensibility, in which the goal seems to be to make food look as alarming as possible, with as many improbable steps to creating it as the running time will allow. The videos are detailed and didactic, similar in format to those produced by more trusted food media outlets. Even at their most exultantly disgusting, they straight-facedly maintain the pretense that anyone is actually learning how to prepare the dish. See, for instance, the instructional video for Zombie Hands, a special Halloween treat in which a mix of ground beef, onion, egg, paprika, bread crumbs, ketchup, mustard, garlic powder and milk is stuffed into latex gloves, frozen, then baked, then plated alongside piped mashed potatoes decorated with ketchup to look like ghosts. See Sweet Potato Turkey, in which an exhausted-looking turkey carcass is manhandled to an almost unwatchable degree; stuffed with sweet potatoes and marshmallows; baked in a shell of butter, brown sugar, pecans and flour; and then cut with a pair of scissors, wrenched open by hand and scattered with more marshmallows, which are then blowtorched.
Halloween, Thanksgiving, blocks of processed cheese — these are not things commonly celebrated near the Place de la République in Paris, where Chefclub is based. There is a surreal disconnect between the burlesques of American food enacted in the videos on the one hand and their obviously non-American origin on the other. As a South African, even I can see that there is something not quite right about these ostensibly American dishes: the beautifully translucent prosciutto draped atop the sweating cheese fries, the grilled-cheese recipe that calls for one teaspoon of “dried coriandre.” It’s as if the recipes were dreamed up by a scornful European who read about American food once, a long time ago, in something called “The George W. Bush McDonald’s Texas Moron Cookbook for Workaholic Capitalist Gluttons.”
There is a direct line to be drawn from the over-the-top contrivances of Chefclub to the early ’10s era of Reddit-inflected stunt food, in which tottering stacks of bacon were understood to be a constitutive feature of the hilarious-dude lifestyle. Curiously, however, Chefclub does not embrace this lineage, or even really acknowledge it. Instead, there is the cheery insistence that people might be keen on eating ground beef that has been stuffed into a disposable glove. And it’s this very coyness about intent that makes Chefclub’s videos primed for success on social media.
Chefclub’s videos generate billions of views per month, with 92 million followers on social media (“That’s more than the population of France!” the network’s website notes). Off the back of this success, Chefclub is positioning itself as being in direct competition with more conventional food-media empires. But the difference between Chefclub and Bon Appétit, of course, is that Chefclub’s recipes don’t necessarily need to work. Chefclub lives in feeds and therefore doesn’t have to strive for trustworthiness so much as viewership — and it seems to have found it by courting outraged disgust on social media, understanding and profiting from the online dynamic that provides strong incentives to find imaginary people to be enraged by.
That Chefclub is a French company does not stand in the way of the hundreds of thousands of people who post or repost these videos, determined to interpret them as the most galling examples of the American disdain for restraint, and to signal their own superior judgment in the process. Each fresh hell produced by Chefclub is not so much a recipe as a welcome opportunity to berate the nonexistent hordes of people who might actually make such a thing — to lament the fallen state of the world. No one really eats like this, and no one really believes that anyone else does either, but that isn’t the point.
Perhaps because it has given us such graphic insight into the thoughts of actual idiots, a surprising amount of social media behavior involves people straining to differentiate themselves from imaginary idiots — idiots whose existence is suggested by no more than a passing video clip or screen shot. It’s not much to go on, but it is more than enough for the lucky few who spend all day on Twitter. It was only a matter of time before someone started stoking this misanthropy on purpose, providing fodder for those who seek validation from this ongoing game of individuation. In fact, this overwrought dynamic seems to be an unavoidable consequence of platform-based discourse, in which the stakes reach unsustainably high levels even — or especially — when the subject is inane. Just imagine what terrible things could transpire if people started using the internet to discuss politics.