Anime has a reputation for depicting food, real and invented, as otherworldly and delectable. It’s likely that every anime fan has seen at least one food scene and immediately thought, “I would love to eat that.” In comes video creator Alvin Zhou, who’s spent years creating all kinds of food and documenting the process at places like Buzzfeed’s Tasty and the Babish Culinary Universe. Recreating dishes from popular anime like Food Wars! and Jujutsu no Kaisen, Alvin puts his own creative spin on bringing this food to life. Fittingly, the Bay Area native made his first convention appearance at FanimeCon this year, its first in-person event after three years. APA spoke with Alvin to discuss his passion for cooking and how that intersects with anime.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
APA: Let’s take a look back at how you started getting into cooking. Do you remember what’s the first dish you ever made?
Alvin Zhou: Pretty sure it was tomato and egg. It’s a very home thing to cook, and everybody does it differently. My mom taught me how to do it correctly. It’s not just throw tomatoes and eggs into a pan. First, you have to scramble the eggs. Do it lightly, so you don’t overcook it. Then, you have to take them out. Chop up the tomatoes, but not too fine. Toss them in the pan, and use the back of a wooden spoon to crush the skin against the flesh. It’s important not to make it mushy, but somewhere in the middle that brings out the signature flavor of the tomato. Put the eggs back into the pan. The secret is you add a little bit of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes, and then you serve it. I was like, “Wow.” It may seem like two simple ingredients, but there’s a lot of technique behind making this dish. It’s not only the first dish I learned to make, but also the first dish that got me thinking about how food is the way it is.
APA: After learning about the joy of cooking, how did it turn into something that you felt would be a career for you?
Alvin: It just kind of came out of nowhere. I never thought it could be a career like doctor, lawyer, engineer; I never thought food video person would be on the list. For one, food media wasn’t even a thing when I started. I think the point where I learned I could make a living out of it was when I first got hired by BuzzFeed freelance. For one freelance shoot, I shot like seven bacon videos. It was nuts. I smelled like bacon for two weeks. The paycheck came in, and I was like ‘Wow, maybe this really can be a thing.’ When I was a junior in college, I got a full-time offer, and that’s when I knew it could be real.
APA: Making food videos isn’t just about cooking. It’s also about how you stage the process. At a time when there weren’t really others doing this sort of thing, how did you go about forming your own style?
Alvin: That’s a great question. A lot of the stuff that we did in the early days was a team-centric effort. Even then, our producer was so innovative and so creative. When we were making pizza, we’d do things like put the tomatoes and basil as a raw ingredient in the top right corner to hint and color the set or adjust the lighting ot make the food look softer and prettier. For a drink, the best angle is to put the light behind the drink, so you’re illuminating it. We had all of these creative ideas, and we taught each other. I personally lean into more of a flowy, beautiful style of footage, which turned into what I make today on my YouTube channel. It’s relaxing, slow cooking stuff and sometimes documentary-style work with chefs.
Alvin: What I was excited about back then is exactly what I’m excited about today, which is highlighting the why of cooking. Food media is great, and there are tons of tutorials and recipes of people in a studio making awesome food. It’s amazing because there’s a lot of people who are cooking foods that people enjoy. But, I’m not that skilled compared to some of these talented people. I don’t necessarily want to be like that; I don’t think I can. I’d rather be behind the camera shooting people like chefs and highlighting what their lives are like. When we go out to eat, we eat a two-hour meal, get the check, and go home. We don’t see the eight hours beforehand and the five hours afterwards of the process it takes to make our dining experience possible. I thrive in those areas. I want to show people the behind-the-scenes, so that when you go out to eat again, you can maybe appreciate what you’re eating a little bit more.
APA: Since we’re at Fanime, we should chat about anime. How did anime come into your life and influence your work?
Alvin: Naruto was my first and only anime until high school. I stopped for a while, but picked it back up in college. These past few years I got really into it. When I would be editing videos, I’d think about certain anime or video game scenes, and it would remind me of a boss battle when a chef is in service or think of serene, slow piano music when a restaurant is closing up at night. I slowly found myself using anime and video games as inspiration for the ways that I would shoot and edit the videos that I like to make.
APA: People often think of anime food as unreal, like it’s too good to be true. Even when iit is a depiction of a real-life food, it somehow just looks better. How do you go about tackling food that seems otherworldly and bringing it to life?
Alvin: Good question. Anime food, by nature, is drawn. It’s a 2D depiction of dishes created by really talented artists. It’s exciting and crazy because it’s a dish that only exists inside the show. Sometimes anime tell you how the food is made like in Food Wars! They offer really good explanations. The fun part about my job is to fill in the gaps. How do I make it look like it does in the anime? How does the dish taste? I’m not doing this because I know how to do it, but rather I want to try it. It’s always a trial. Sometimes it comes out amazing, sometimes I have to do it over and over again. It’s what makes the challenge so fun. When we nail it without much information, it’s all the more exciting.
APA: What’s the first dish you ever wanted to make from an anime?
Alvin: It would have to be the Gotcha Pork Roast from Food Wars! It was crazy and cool, but also seemed doable. It also made sense from a flavor profile. That was actually the first video I made from an anime with the Binging with Babish team.
Alvin: Yes, that’s the dish where it’s a mixture of potatoes, onions and mushrooms that is kneaded into an oval shape and wrapped in bacon. It’s also served with a red wine sauce. The context behind this dish is that somebody vandalized the main character’s shop, and a customer walks in saying he wants to eat meat. The main character doesn’t have any meat, but the customer says that he’ll close down the restaurant if he doesn’t get meat because he’s big and powerful. By the magic of an anime protagonist, he takes the bacon he has leftover from the day’s little convenience store haul and the potatoes to make a fake pork roast that tastes like pork, but doesn’t actually have much meat in it. It’s so good that the customer’s clothes explode off, and it’s great.
APA: That’s such a fun backstory. You mentioned spending time doing trial and error to figure out how to make these anime dishes work. What’s a dish you made that was surprisingly challenging?
Alvin: One that I thought was far more challenging than I expected was actually mochi, which is a real-life food that exists outside of anime. Unlike other anime food where you can use your mind’s imagination to come up with texture and taste based on what you see, this is a food that has existed for years and has a lot of cultural context. This particular dish was Kikufuku Mochi, which appeared in Jujutsu Kaisen. It’s a mochi that has sweet bean paste from edamame and a little bit of cream inside. I thought it would be relatively simple. After researching it, I realized that we have to cook the beans a certain way until it’s smooth and cook it again with sugar. Turning edamame into a sweet paste was a big mental hurdle because it was the challenge of flavoring the paste to not make it taste like edamame. We had to put it in these circular molds and freeze it because we knew that if we tried to roll it up, there’s no way it would come together. They also make the mochi super, super thin without tearing it. So, I’m actually really bad at folding dumplings. My mom knows that if she asked me to help make dumplings, everybody knows which one I made because they’re always broken. When I was making mochi, it felt like that same experience. It felt a little bit traumatic. [laughs] There’s a lot that went into making that small and delicate mochi.
Alvin: There’s a couple of things. I definitely want to go out and do the crazy stuff. Like there’s a burger that is made from exotic meat and is 2,000 patties tall. I’m not going to be able to make 2,000 patties, but I want to try. Or I’d want to make a pudding mountain the size of Mount Fuji. I’m no stranger when it comes to big food, so that’s exciting. But on ther other hand, I’m Chinese and maybe it’s just because I miss home sometimes or my mom isn’t cooking Chinese food as much, but I find myself gravitating towards learning more about traditional Chinese cooking. Whether it’s using a giant meat cleaver on a big circular wooden block or stir frying in a wok, I’m interested in learning about the context of why we cook the way we cook. For example, the reason why everything is cut up small when stir frying is to save fuel. Everything cooks faster when it’s cut up. Back in the day, fuel was rare so it was important to use as little as possible. I want to see if I can maybe find some more Chinese dishes in anime and that’ll give me an excuse to go and cook some of this stuff in my home.