Laptop on the Countertop

The convenience of preparing food in front of the computer while watching both veteran chefs and ordinary cooks is conquering the kitchen

Director Noa Rosenfeld with chef Guy Ban Simhon on the 'cook it' set
Director Noa Rosenfeld with chef Guy Ban Simhon on the 'cook it' set

"I'm glad language doesn't get in the way of preparing tasty Mediterranean food. It still turned out excellent." This comment, posted under a clip on YouTube, surprised Liat Biton-Lemel and Hadar Nadler. The two had filmed Biton's grandmother, Fanny, preparing matbuha salad - a North African cold stew of tomatoes and peppers - and uploaded the film to the site. The recipe has so far been viewed about 2,000 times; and the fan who posted the comment is from Cyprus - a surfer who, despite not knowing Hebrew, managed to follow Grandma Fanny's recipe exactly.

During the past year YouTube, where you can find video clips on every topic, has provided a platform for short and simple cooking lessons, making life easier for those intimidated by recipes with multiple steps. Are you scared of preparing sweet potato pancakes? Don't know how to invert the upside-down French apple pie Tarte Tatin? In the clips, everything looks much easier.

Shesek, Nadler and Biton-Lemel's production company, among other things makes films of grandmothers and aunts whose relatives want to document how they prepare certain favorite recipes, so they can reproduce the dishes precisely.

"These are primarily vanishing recipes," says Biton-Lemel. "Relatives want to create a souvenir of a beloved aunt, while also learning how to cook from her. Today, anyone who makes films asks himself whether or not it should be uploaded online. People look differently at the films they make: Everything is exposed - cooking, clips of weddings, pregnancies and births. People are looking for personal clips that will speak to them."

Flour, as much as it takes

Prof. Anat Achiron and Dr. Orit Hamiel recently published "Bulgarian Story" (in Hebrew, Yedioth Ahronoth Books ), which began as a family project in honor of the 100th birthday of their grandmother, Victoria Serov. Their preparation for the book included filming her in action. In this way, it was possible to move beyond vague instructions like "flour, as much as it takes" (until the liquid becomes dough ) and using a "coffee cup" as a measuring tool (a tiny cup for Turkish coffee ). The instructional cooking clips were uploaded to a private family website and apparently it's only a matter of time before they'll make it to YouTube as well.

The reactions to the Grandma Fanny clip, especially from viewers abroad, helped Biton-Lemel and Nadler appreciate the potential of videos of this sort; since then they've filmed a substantial series of grandmothers and aunts cooking energetically. According to Biton-Lemel, "People are looking for ostensibly simple food, which you have to know exactly how to prepare."

A search for recipes in Hebrew on YouTube yields a long list of useful tips: from recipes for making dulce de leche (including advice about slow cooking and preventing the milk from boiling over ), to grandmothers' and granddaughters' formulas, to famous Israeli chefs and pastry cooks like Carine Goren and Israel Aharoni.

The home recipes, which feature amateur cooks sharing golden advice, win many viewers and responses. Do the filmed recipes for matza balls and healthy desserts spell the end of the cookbook? It seems if you give Web users a blatantly unphotogenic home kitchen and a granny with an apron around her waist, you've got them hooked.

YouTube is also playing a role in making well-known chefs' recipes more accessible. A few months ago, Noa Rosenfeld - a director for television who has filmed the cooking shows of Israel Aharoni, Tzachi Buchester and others - created the "cook it" site for filmed recipes, with some of them uploaded to YouTube as well. She then enlisted other veteran chefs like Segev Moshe, Yair Feinberg, Assaf Granit and Avi Biton. All of them were filmed for a few minutes of more complicated cooking, and using less recipes that involve product placement. She says 13,000 surfers from around the world visit the site monthly, a bit more than expected when she launched it.

Beyond schnitzel

Many Web-surfing cooks say the most convenient way to whip up their dishes is to put the laptop on the kitchen countertop, search for a favorite recipe and cook in sync with the filmed chef. Chef Ron Biala participates in filmed projects on the "Wall" site, where they produce 10 recipes a day.

"Cooking in front of the computer," he says, "makes it easier for people who are usually deterred by cookbooks and people who don't know how to cook at all."

Biala is currently involved in creating an Internet cookbook, in which he will provide a number of recipes of every sort, "Like short cooking classes," as he puts it.

Professional cooks, too, will likely benefit from watching these clips online. On YouTube, for example, you can find classes on complex cookery given by such prominent chefs as Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Ferran Adria.

"This isn't just help for amateurs and beginners," says Biala, "but also good instruction for people looking for more complex recipes."

While home cooking in Israel brings in several thousand viewers a month, the foreign chefs' more complex recipes draw hundreds of thousands. The laptop on the kitchen counter is not only an especially convenient alternative to a cookbook, it's also an opportunity to watch a great chef create a dish that will never be prepared in a home kitchen - something to whet the appetite along with the homemade schnitzel and mashed potatoes.