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How YouTube (Almost) Made Me a Cooking-Show Star

Armed with a camcorder, a computer and the world's longest skirt steak, Julie Powell attempts to turn herself into a YouTube sensation.

My friend Emily teeters on my dining room table, which groans under her diminutive frame. A camcorder, mounted on a tripod, is up there with her, pointed down at me as I manhandle the biggest skirt steak anyone has ever seen and chatter away like a distinctly less photogenic Rachael Ray. I don't notice my dog nosing around for scraps of food on the floor, but the camera does. This is my first foray into YouTube. So far the little experiment has had its ups and downs.

Once upon a time, I started a blog called The Julie/Julia Project, which chronicled my attempt to cook my way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This was in 2002, before blogging had become the worldwide scourge it is today. You might think that as an early adopter of that online technology, I must know all about computers. You would be wrong. But while I'm not a cyber-wiz, I'm game for crazy experiments. So when YouTube beckoned, I figured, why not dip a toe into the viral video stream? (Not a fortunate image, I'll grant you.) Hey, maybe making my own cooking videos and posting them online could turn out to be my ticket to mega-fame.

For the six of you out there whose in-boxes have not become deluged with Comedy Central shorts and cute clips of children and puppies, a quick explanation may be in order: Video is changing the way many people use the Internet. Right now, the simplest, most universal way to take part in the digital video revolution is via YouTube—the free video-sharing Web site that launched in 2005 and was bought by Google in November 2006 for $1.65 billion. YouTube, in essence, enables you or me or Aunt Flo to post our favorite TV moments or amateur short films for all the world to see. Considering the vast sums of money being thrown around, YouTube is in many ways an awfully silly invention. I could happily live the rest of my life without watching one more grainy video of a baby kitten nodding asleep.

But despite its vast potential for abuse, the online-video phenomenon does offer a fascinating, uncensored and often-out-of-focus glimpse into the planet's collective psyche. Amateur political rants, pranks involving Mentos and Diet Pepsi and clips from the upcoming Harry Potter movie abound. And then there's cooking.

When I typed cooking into the Web site's search engine, I found 16,626 video clips. That's not as many as sexy or dog, which turned up 87,964 and 121,283, respectively, but it's an impressive number nonetheless. Still, surprisingly few of those videos feature home cooks aspiring to become the next Emeril. Many star toddlers with wooden spoons, college girls in dorm kitchens showing off their thong underwear as they microwave popcorn, or 13-year-old boys giggling madly and faking British or French accents as they mix peanut butter and Froot Loops with eggs and Tabasco.

Surely there's a vast niche left achingly unfilled here. Practically every cooking human I've ever known has fantasized about doing what he or she loves on TV, for a huge salary, with millions of people watching. Doesn't YouTube present a thrilling opportunity? I, for one, was not going to let this chance go to waste. All I needed was a camcorder, a FireWire cable (no idea what that was, but surely the nice man at Best Buy could explain it to me), a laptop and a dream.

Equipment in hand, I turned my attention to my subject matter. I may not have gained much in the way of computer skills from blogging, but I did learn something just as important: To get people's attention, you've got to have a hook. It so happened I had one right at hand. A meat hook, to be exact.

Meat has long been my passion, and butchery is a skill I'm obsessed with—so obsessed that I'm writing a book about my attempt to learn it. For research purposes, I've been apprenticing at Fleisher's, an extraordinary butcher shop in Kingston, New York, that—between the sides of beef on display, the sausage-making and owner Josh Applestone's impressive '70s moustache—provides photo ops galore. But as much as Josh and I fancied the idea of choreographing a dance routine involving burly men in white coats with lamb carcasses, we decided not to scare off our audience right away. Instead, we'd start simple: Josh would talk us through some cuts of meat and then I'd cook them up.

Video No. 1 went smoothly enough. Josh and I arranged a few different cuts of meat on a platter and Josh helped me (and my huge future fan base) identify each one. We oh-so-professionally paused for close-ups of the meat, and got a fancy shot of a skirt steak rolling out like a red carpet. Just like the red carpet that I would be walking on once Food Network caught wind of my stunning Internet success and offered me my very own series.

I was so pleased with the footage that I leaped directly into the second video, in which I would describe my infallible (if never-before-attempted) method for roasted leg of lamb—an alluring, photogenic cut of meat. I chatted amiably to the camera about the spice rub I had concocted (salt, pepper, cumin and ground árbol chile peppers) and the cooking method (roasting the lamb for 10 minutes in a 450-degree oven, then turning it a few times so it browns on all sides, and finally roasting it at 350 degrees until a meat thermometer stuck into the thickest part reads 125). I'd even had the forethought to put a second, already-cooked roast in another oven, so I could pop the first one in, turn around and take the finished one right out. Très Julia Child.

Well, not quite. Turns out I had confused the stop and record buttons. Perfect twin lamb roasts? Not so much. More like a lot of footage of a closed stove. I cobbled together a voice-over about the spice rub and roasting method, hoping that would compensate for the lack of visuals.

As I'd apparently not yet attained the peak of my camcorder learning curve, I called for reinforcements for my next video: how to cook a skirt steak, a cut I'd never known what to do with besides make fajitas. My friend Emily has a way with a camcorder, and she arranged the lights, told me how to wear my hair and jerry-rigged the tripod so I could talk to the camera and cook at the same time. She also suggested I say something reassuring about the monstrously large skirt steak. "That piece of meat is going to scare people," she warned. It was like having my own executive producer!

I cooked the steak—which I'd marinated in a mix of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, crushed rosemary and garlic—in a skillet, then I sliced it and laid it on a bed of arugula, topped with curlicues of Parmesan cheese. Emily and I popped open a bottle of wine and ate: our first wrap party.

The genius of YouTube is that it's designed for use by morons. After I taught myself a little video editing by blundering around on iMovie, posting the videos was easy. I followed the instructions on YouTube and it took only 15 minutes to upload the videos. Within moments, I'd sent the link to friends and posted it on my blog, juliepowell.blogspot.com. Now I just had to wait for the accolades to roll in.

Well, so far Food Network hasn't come knocking. In the first two weeks that the videos were posted, a couple of other blogs linked to them and each video was watched about 800 times. That's small potatoes compared to the 39,267 views one woman got for teaching her dog how to dance a musical number from Grease. And it doesn't even compete with a video of myself I didn't even know was out there—YouTube can be a creepy place—which shows me accidentally saying "pea-ness" on cable television. But 800 ain't bad. Even if people like the botched video of the stove best.

Now I think I'm a little hooked. I'm contemplating making videos a regular feature on my blog, like food bloggers such as Ed Levine (seriouseats.com) have started to do. Maybe I'll do a show on short ribs and bring in the dog for regular appearances. Everybody likes a bit with a dog.

Log on to foodandwine.com/julie to check out and comment on Julie Powell's YouTube videos.

Published March 2007
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