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These TikTok food creators are serving up great food with a side of entertainment

It was only a matter of time until TikTok, the short-form video social media giant that launched to a global audience in 2018, would become another platform where food content would thrive.

YouTube proved in the early aughts that intimate, home-produced video content centered on food — from culture to preparation to history — had a market. Instagram followed suit with video clips and recipes in the comments; then came TikTok with its shorter, faster clips — oftentimes rougher or more zoomed-in to ensure you could see what was happening on your phone screen.

Recipes on TikTok mean being close up as the creator talks. Sometimes they take you through the steps, sometimes they tell you the historical, cultural or familial context of a dish, and other times they talk about something else entirely. Of course, high-speed intimacy, especially during the endless loneliness of semi-lockdowns due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, would have a market — according to a spokesperson for the company, food is a high performing category on the app, though they didn't have figures to share. The hashtag #food currently has 207.1 billion views; other food-related hashtags have tens of billions of views.

"FoodTok," as some creators call it, is an ever-expanding place. A short video clip can amass millions of views fast, changing the speed of virality thanks to TikTok's automatic video loops and scrolling feature.

Like YouTube and Instagram, it's a platform with a much lower buy-in cost for groups who rarely get clicks, shares and viewers — anyone with a smartphone can make a TikTok. As Hira Qureshi wrote for The Washington Post last year, "legacy food media obviously still has a long way to go toward addressing racial inequities" in regard to opportunities for people of color in on-screen cooking shows and food journalism. TikTok certainly has its problems — though the barrier to entry itself is lower, the Intercept reported that the app suppressed content from "users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled" or who spoke about political issues, and the app apologized over the summer for suppressing content from Black creators.

The sheer volume of content and the way the algorithm works means that there's not just content for everyone, but you're more likely to organically find something that interests you. Maybe you'll find someone like Joanne Lee Molinaro, who as the Korean Vegan talks about life over a video of her making food. You can find "reviewers" who strike up relationships with restaurants, helping them get by in the pandemic. You'll see people testing vintage recipes, mushroom hunters showing how to cook your bounty, parents showing what they pack for their child's lunch, grandmas making muffins, people baking gorgeous desserts, restaurants discussing their menus, cooks who were laid off during the pandemic showcasing their expertise, food bloggers making recipes from their archives and more. Celebrity chefs including Gordon Ramsey and Wolfgang Puck are now on the app, though they are far less interesting. Popular recipe creators have even secured cookbook deals, moving off the app and into print, such as Priyanka Naik, whose book "The Modern Tiffin" releases this week.

Out of the incalculable amount of food content on the app, we've picked a few of our current favorites to share.

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Alexis Nikole Nelson

"Happy snacking, don't die!" is a necessary reminder to all of us to be careful when foraging.

Her effervescent personality brightens her 3 million followers' days when she pops up with fun facts about the food around us. Nelson is so deeply passionate about food and sourcing it that you can't help but feel her joy and excitement. She's having fun — genuine fun — something that has been in short supply thanks to a certain pandemic. I realized that because of her videos, I can identify edible plants along my walking route. Once I'm confident that I know what they are, I'll cook them.

— Kari Sonde

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George Lee 

He plays both himself and his wife, Lyndsey, in the TikTok. Johnston stands in for Lyndsey, who asks, "Can you make me some of your fancy coffee?" Johnston (as himself) then proceeds to painstakingly weigh, grind and hand-brew a small handful of Castellon Geisha beans from Corvus Coffee, a rare Colombian product that can fetch upward of $30 for a mere third of a pound. He offers the cup to his "wife," and she proceeds to dump a ghastly amount of Coffee Mate into it.

TikTok was immediately horrified. "It was very polarizing," Johnston tells me. "It was either people telling me to divorce her or people telling me that I was a misogynist. It was a whole spectrum of things."

The thing is, Johnston isn't really in the business of stirring the pot. Sure, he says he thinks you shouldn't debase high-quality beans with cheap creamer, but the Missouri native also believes you should drink your coffee however you like, "as long as it's ethically sourced and people are paying a fair price," as he said in a follow-up TikTok. "I really don't care what my wife drinks, either."

Johnston spends far more time on his account teaching us about the techniques, equipment and specialty coffees that will lead to a better cup in the morning. I'm a total coffee nerd, and I'm still learning new things from Johnston: the Ross Droplet Technique to reduce static when grinding (I immediately purchased a dropper); the aesthetics and science behind Icosa Brewhouse glassware (still too pricey for me); and how babies (or at least Johnston's daughter) delight at the sound of beans being ground by hand.

Johnston is clearly a quick study. He got into specialty coffee only about four years ago (his parents didn't drink the stuff when he was growing up), and he has been on TikTok for a year, with about 6,500 followers to show for his efforts. But based on his humor, his knowledge and his defense of good coffee against all evil additions (sorry, Lyndsey), he's a star in my world.

— Tim Carman

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Jon Kung

She always notes that the food is "gorgeous — just like you are!"

Something that sets her apart from viral TikTok trends is that her dishes aren't stunty. There are no hacks involved — just bowlfuls of glossy noodles, some originating from her nonna's recipes (she grew up in Rome and on the Amalfi coast), all delivered with entertaining instructions. For her carbonara, she instructs viewers to "scrunch" black pepper "until the Roman gods weep with joy." Her recipe for the Whipping Sicilian (a.k.a. spaghetti alla carrettiera) includes garlic, chile peppers and parsley, and "a whole lot of passion."

Now, the Pasta Queen's reign is rapidly expanding. She has appeared on "Good Morning America" and "The Drew Barrymore Show," and has a cookbook and a TV show in the works.

— Emily Heil


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