TIK TOK IS TEACHING ME HOW TO EAT DURING LOCKDOWN
Feature photo by Yasin Arıbuğa
Meet the home cook bringing Nobu to the masses, a Machine Gun Kelly doppelgänger passionate about food justice, and an Amsterdam-based foodie blogger & stylist.
For the longest time, cooking wasn’t my strong suit.
It was one of those things that I always told myself I’d get around to (read: driver’s license, Dutch, the list goes on). The longer I wait, the more embarrassing my procrastinated ambitions. My father is a restaurateur and my mother is a seasoned homemaker; while they both have more than a handful of signature dishes up their sleeves, my greatest achievement to date is probably knowing how to make rice in both a pot and a rice cooker.
When the lockdown went into effect a year ago, I no longer had the choice of overstaying my welcome at my friend’s house until dinner time; my meal plans became up to me if I didn’t want to eat the same three dishes on rotation or be recognized by every restaurant on my street. Plus, ordering delivery and getting take-out adds up, and I’d prefer to keep my cheddar in my mac and cheese.
Plus, at the age of 21, I am starting to worry about my health. I know I should not be huffing and puffing walking up a few flights of stairs. All the spinach I buried underneath my napkin growing up was starting to come back and kick my ass. It wasn’t healthy to stay so comfortable tucked in my comfort zone, not only was I determined to eat healthier, I wanted to broaden my taste buds and palettes.
As it is for many others, TikTok is where I go to keep up with the ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, and where I was told to change my side part into a middle part. It is also where I discovered chefs — professional and amateur alike, who are taking to TikTok to reveal their recipes and tips, all in under a minute (sometimes 15 seconds). The draw is twofold: not only has the Coronavirus deprived people of their decadent tastes, with restaurants closed, but people have also been missed celebrating the master artistry of culinary experiences. Chefs on TikTok are relinquishing the ‘toque blanche’ to the public: gone are the days of salivating at the mouth wondering how to make Din Tai Fung’s chilled cucumber salad. Now, it turns out, you can make it yourself at home.
For me, the stand-out chefs include Tandis Esfandiari, known for making Nobu dishes for a fraction of the price; Kevin Nearu, known for not only known for being a Machine Gun Kelly look alike, but also for his cooking-for-one tutorials; Jessica Woo, known for making intricate bento lunch boxes for her kids; and Justin Woo, a dinner party curator whois always one-upping himself with mouthwatering dishes and detailed walkthrough of his recipes. Apart from chefs and their cooking videos, I love watching Vancouver-based gal, Gal Akbari, walk through what she eats in a day, making dinner time a bit less lonely; or the Amsterdam-based Paola Holthausen, the mind behind the popular @cravingsinamsterdam account, always opening my eyes to new bites and finds in my neighborhood.
I was lucky enough to talk to Tandis Esfandiari and Kevin Nearu; we indulged in wistful conversations about our favorite restaurants, go-to orders, and how the pandemic is changing the culinary scene and restaurant industry as we know it.
Tandis Esfandiari, the 20-year-old business-student-by-day, chef-by-night amphibian from Washington DC, is always finding herself somewhere in between filming and editing. Esfandiari only started cooking on and for TikTok a few months ago and has accumulated over 190k followers and 8 million likes since.
“It all started with my Nobu series,” Esfandiari pinpoints. “I made their expensive dishes at affordable prices for everyone to enjoy.” Amongst the many, her personal favorite is her take on Nobu’s Tuna Tartare with Caviar, “The Tuna Tartare is so delicious, surprisingly easy, and the perfect appetizer.” Esfandiari’s recipes are not exclusive to her TikTok; she’s also been posting hundreds of recipes and restaurant reviews onto her website, Mix it Up Baby.
Her success on TikTok has given Esfandiari new creative prospects; on the social media platform, she can work with her favorite brands on a personal level and meet amazing chefs who once felt inaccessible.
Amid the pandemic, Esfandiari was still able to visit some of her favorite restaurants through her restaurant review series to uplift local and small businesses, “Many restaurants contact me daily to review them, and it has been amazing trying so many places,” she adds, “the pandemic has been awful for restaurants and it’s terrible that so many small [restaurants] were forced to shut down due to [the] strict guidelines.”
As restaurants begin to gradually open up around the world, apart from showing support for your local and small businesses, I asked Esfandiari to share a tip (or two) with everyone: “Start cooking more!” She exclaims. “It is so much cheaper than ordering out every day and it is super therapeutic.” “[And] always save your pasta water, it makes the sauce taste [much] better!”
Kevin Nearu, the 23-year-old chef from Indianapolis, is now based in Los Angeles. Nearu started making cooking videos one fateful day when he was making dumplings. “[I] knew it was going to take all day, so I thought I might as well try to have some fun with it. I ended up making this ridiculous ‘dumpling tutorial’ that went straight to my TikTok drafts. I was scared because I'd never cooked on TikTok or put that type of humor out there. A few days later I got the courage to post it, and it ended up doing well so I ran with the idea!”
Nearu makes cooking look approachable and doable; in pure Ratatouille “anyone can cook” fashion, Nearu is trying to show everyone that “even if you really don't like cooking, you could start learning here and still be eating good.” For Nearu, his favorite dish to make is a simple bowl of fried rice. “It has a special place in my heart as one of the first dishes I explored as a cook. It can be a task to prep everything, but once you do, you can whip up a batch in two minutes flat. I've practically lived on it and doubt I'll ever stop making it.”
Using his Tik Tok reach, Nearu hopes to make a bigger splash with his videos. His biggest dream is to use his platform to “make a difference in the food system: at the least, the opportunity to give money to small, organic farmers; at the most, [start] a company or non-profit to tackle food injustice and the farming crisis on a bigger scale.”
In Amsterdam, everyone I know follows Paola Holthausen, the 36-year-old Amsterdam-based Peruvian food stylist, recipe developer, photographer, and digital content creator behind the popular @cravingsinamsterdam account. With over 122k Instagram followers and 100k TikTok likes, Holthausen has taken her audience along on her food adventures.
Holthausen, who is Peruvian, relocated to Amsterdam after meeting her now-husband during a fateful internship in the States — who has also become a big part behind the scenes: “We love to eat and we would always travel for food. Since traveling is out of the question for us, we started getting takeout more often. It’s a way for us to travel through our taste buds.”
“We’ve been fortunate here in the sense that restaurants were able to stay open for takeout. I know this is not the most ideal situation from the restaurant’s side. But at least from the customer’s side, we have been able to keep supporting our favorite restaurants. I just miss the experience of dining out.”
Holthausen’s account has helped out a lot of local and small businesses that would have otherwise been struggling. Holthausen’s exposure on social media had breathed a second life into them, giving them hope for continued service with regular and new patrons. What particularly stood out to her in her restaurant coverage and food review journey was each restaurant’s ability to adjust to the situation. “During the summer, restaurants were allowed to open for indoor dining but for a limited number of customers,” she adds, “because of the regulations and [the need to] keep the tables farther apart, they were not allowed to have a fully booked restaurant. [Their] takeaway boxes have actually been more profitable because they could sell to a larger number of customers. The restaurant became a large-scale kitchen to keep up with the demand.”
The shift in the way we dine has challenged restaurants to reach out and reinvent themselves in ways never done before. While some have “[explored] new concepts: like sandwich menus, which are easier to eat on the go,” some have been “changing [up] their menus more often to keep [customers interested],” and some are even “partnering with other restaurants [to make a joint] menu.” It’s important to recognize chefs and restaurants alike for their effort and applaud them for their perseverance in these challenging times.
While you should take some inspiration from the chefs of Tik Tok and have some trials and tribulations in the kitchen of your own during and beyond the lockdown, take yourself on a much-deserving date when restaurants gradually open up. Don’t forget to pay compliments to the chef, they deserve it. They’ve been waiting for this moment. We all have.