On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Adam Ragusea, a former radio journalist, podcaster, and journalism educator who is now a popular internet chef. They talked about how he first came to post on YouTube, how much money he makes, and how he scripts and films his videos. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: It’s a surprise to me that you’re now focused so heavily on food because I first encountered you as a podcaster when you were the host of The Pub. You’ve been a radio journalist, a freelance writer, including some pieces for Slate, you were a journalism professor. How did you pivot to food?
Adam Ragusea: I’m a big believer that when something really blows up in media, you don’t choose it, it chooses you. No one knows the secret formula for blowing up on YouTube. If they did, they’d be super rich. I didn’t plan this, this happened to me.
I’m intellectually scatterbrained. I was very into music and I was decent at it, but part of the reason I washed out of that scene was just that I was so interested in other things. Being a relatively low-level, general assignment reporter, you get to become an expert in a totally different thing every day. You go down a rabbit hole for a day, write your story, turn it in, come in the next day, do it again with something else.
But I’ve always kept diverse interests, and I’ve cooked my whole life. When I got a job teaching journalism at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, it was a very converged media program and my background was mostly in audio. I was not a visual person; I needed to get better at video in order to teach better. About a year and a half ago, I brought some gear home from school, thinking, “I’m going to give myself an assignment; I’m going to make a cooking video,” because I knew I’d be more likely to do it if it was something that would be fun for me. I made two videos, and I threw them on YouTube just so that my friends and family could see them.
Then Christmas break 2018, I took the gear home from school and I made a pizza video. I mostly did it to practice my video skills, but I’m a media person, I knew how to give it a title that was search-engine optimized and give it meta-tags and give it a good thumbnail. I knew how to set it up for success. Then in March of 2019, I noticed that it was getting a ton of views. I knew that when you all of a sudden have a global audience of hundreds of thousands of people, you grab that bull and you ride it as far as you can. So I made another one and another one, another one, and here we are.
Has how you film and shoot and edit the videos changed since those first videos?
I’m still approaching things with a rugged DIY method. It’s dumb to spend much money on a camera and sound gear. There’s so much amazing stuff you can do with cheap equipment, but I’ve upgraded a bit. I can sum up everything I’ve learned about video production in the following sequence: Lighting is more important than lenses, which are more important than camera bodies. With good lighting, you can make awesome vids with your phone.
There is a long history of tricks that photographers and the creators of food TV shows use to make food look appetizing. You really don’t want food to look dingy. Do you use them?
I have tried to eschew a lot of those traditional food lighting and filming tricks. Limitations set you free. You should always embrace your limitations because they’re what will make you you.
I’m not trying to do super sexy food. I’m trying to do really functional, almost clinical food videos that just show you honestly what the food will look like at its various stages. I’m not trying to razzle-dazzle you or make you think that the food is better than it actually is. Now, you still need to heighten reality a bit, generally with extra light.
The lighting rig I ended up landing on is a ring light. When I first designed my home shooting setup, I designed it to be something that I could use to shoot in my real family’s kitchen, with my children running around, while I was also working full time as a university faculty member.
I wanted it to be a single-stick setup that I just could throw in the corner when I was done shooting and I could bring it out really quick and shoot with it. What that practical limitation ended up giving me was a look that is unique. It puts this very unnatural glow on food that I find very quirky and fun as opposed to super sexy.