The Chef Who Gets Drunk Before Cooking
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this YouTube sensation takes the intimidation factor out of Indian cooking.
By Sonali Kokra
The cheerful man in his colorful kitchen is adamantly enthusiastic about food. So enthusiastic, in fact, that you might pause to wonder if he’s for real. Since 2007, Chef Sanjay Thumma has been sharing recipes and silly antics with a growing YouTube audience: His channel, VahChef, has crossed 200 million views with 369K subscribers and more than 1,500 videos. He adds 10 to 12 new videos each month and each racks up thousands of views within hours. In a favorite clip above, he’s dressed in a toddy tapper’s costume, admitting that he’s somewhat drunk, spilling palm wine on himself. You get the idea. It’s not a conventional cooking tutorial, that’s for sure.
Most professional chefs dream of opening and running their own restaurants. For 44-year-old Chef Thumma, that dream became a reality in 1998, when he opened his first restaurant, Sizzle India, in Chicago. Over the next seven years, he opened three more. Then one morning in 2005, he woke up and decided to “get rid of them all” because he was “fed up of owning restaurants but never getting to cook.” With lots of free time, “plenty of money to play around with” and friends constantly calling to ask for help with complicated recipes, he decided to make simple YouTube videos of healthy, home-cooked food with the help of his wife, Ragini. He set up a home studio and posted his first 150 recipes online.
I have to be a natural at cooking, not at anchoring. People like that I’m real.
The amateurish videos were an instant hit with friends and friends of friends — mostly the Indian community abroad. Chef Thumma moved back home, to Hyderabad, India, in 2008, and decided to make a serious go of his somewhat-but-not-quite business. One might assume there’s a team of trained professionals who carefully script, film, direct and edit the videos. There isn’t. Chef Thumma insists that he doesn’t follow a script and that he works with a team of two. Two. But he admits that YouTube has gotten in touch to help him improve the quality of his videos. “They will be sending a camera and editing crew to train us in production values — all free of cost.”
The visual medium is essential for following his recipes, even though he is very obviously not trained to be in front of the camera. But that doesn’t bother him. “I have to be a natural at cooking, not at anchoring. People like that I’m real. I have professional knowledge, but I don’t overwhelm amateur cooks. They love that.” His lack of finesse will either delight you or prompt an eye roll.
In addition to the immensely popular VahChef channel, his TV cooking show gets channel Zee Telugu the highest ratings it’s had in the category in eight years, and Philips sought him out to create branded content for its Airfryer appliance. He’s working on a cookbook, too, and his latest passion is farm-to-table dining. The Thummas are planning to move to a farm in Hyderabad, and Chef Thumma hopes that within a year the channel will start making videos from the farm. For a boy who fell in love with cooking while making omelets at age 7 when an illness left his mother temporarily bedridden, Chef Thumma has come a long, long way.
- Sonali Kokra, Sonali Kokra is a journalist and writer living in Mumbai.Contact Sonali Kokra