Why doesn’t this viral chef from the Bay Area show his face in the videos?

For 15 years, Food Wishes star John Mitzewich, a 59-year-old Bay Area resident, has been known simply as Chef John to his nearly 4.3 million YouTube subscribers.

Chef John is ridiculously popular, but not for the reasons most other online food creators are. He doesn’t create content primed for virality, like “I made a giant 30-pound donut for a bodybuilder” or “The pastry chef tries to make gourmet hot pockets.” He does not have tik tok. She doesn’t even show her face in the videos.

Since starting Food Wishes in 2007, Mitzewich has made a successful career of keeping things simple. The videos of him focus solely on the food, accompanied by a cheerful voiceover. But sometimes, simple is best.

If you watch one of her videos, you’ll quickly understand why Gawker called her “the Julia Child of our time.”

‘And as always, enjoy’

When I met Mitzewich on a sunny Friday afternoon at his favorite brewery in Sevastopol, I was very curious if it would sound the same as in his videos.

Watching a Food Wishes video is like being hypnotized.

“Hi, I’m Chef John from Foodwishes.com,” he greets the viewer with his trademark sing-song cadence, accompanied by a shimmer of warm piano.

If her smooth vocal inflections don’t immediately appeal to you, you’ll be captivated by her father’s jokes and affirmative rhyming words in each video (eg, “You’re looking for all the cheese on how to bread these”). .

And, of course, the food itself, which is inherently comforting: American favorites like lasagna and buttermilk fried chicken (although he certainly dabbles in the cuisine of other countries as well; I recently made a stellar Moroccan harira soup from his channel). ).

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The hypnosis ends with another slogan sung at the end of each video: “And as always, enjoy it.”

In person, Mitzewich’s voice is much less melodious. He explained that the exaggerated quality of his voiceovers was never intentional, but rather evolved naturally over time.

John Mitzewich, known to fans as Chef John, poses for a photo in Sebastopol, California on September 23.  Chef John's cooking YouTube channel Food Wishes has millions of subscribers.

John Mitzewich, known to fans as Chef John, poses for a photo in Sebastopol, California on September 23. Chef John’s cooking YouTube channel Food Wishes has millions of subscribers.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“If you do the same thing for almost 15 years, it will change,” he said. “You start to wander. … I think the cadence, the inflections, the affectations just changed over the years, but none of them have been conscious.”

first big opportunity

Mitzewich grew up in a small town south of Rochester, New York, where he began following his mother, aunt and grandmother into the kitchen at a very young age.

“[My mom’s] side is Italian,” he said. “So she was always at the stove stirring the sauce, trying to taste and help with the meatballs.”

He spent evenings after school watching cooking shows from chefs like Graham Kerr and Julia Child, eventually enrolling in the state culinary school at Paul Smith’s College. In one of her earliest videos, Mitzewich shared the story of how she got her first big hit from a bird she carved out of the pumpkin.

The food sculpture, which he modestly described as “the only stupid thing he could remember how to do,” so impressed the chef at the Montana hotel buffet where he worked that he was recommended for an on-call manager job in San Francisco. .

“I’m like, I’ll let you in on a secret. This is all I know,” Mitzewich said. “He was like, you’ll be fine.”

So in 1983, he moved to the Bay Area. He worked at the Tony Carnelian Room in San Francisco (which closed in 2009), rising from line cook to executive sous chef, and started a side business writing and printing other cooks’ resumes. In the late ’90s, he taught a business class at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, which laid the foundation for his YouTube career.

“I’m like, no, fuck it. I’m just going to teach cooking online and open my own culinary school,” Mitzewich recalled. “And then I realized that nobody pays anything online.”

Accident or genius?

When he launched the Food Wishes channel in 2007, Mitzewich pioneered the style of cooking video that doesn’t show the chef’s face.

“I had no money when I started,” Mitzewich said. “I stumbled upon what is now known as the Food Wishes format, where there is no chef in the scene, there is just food and then a voiceover, which people think was a brilliant stroke of genius. I’m like, no, I just didn’t have a team.”

At first, his camera was a webcam attached to a spice rack and he recorded voiceovers with his laptop’s microphone. Despite the grainy quality of those early videos, it was clear that she was onto something special.

With his use of “we” and “our” instead of “I” and “my,” the videos feel less like he’s instructing you on how to cook and more like you’re cooking along with him. He even fostered community on behalf of the channel: Mitzewich chooses recipes to satisfy the “food cravings” of his viewers.

He also keeps things lighthearted by documenting his mistakes, like this plum cake disastrous.

“All these things that I did instinctively and by accident ended up being best practices and strategies for people like 10 years later,” he said. “…No one is more surprised than me.”

Shortly after starting Food Wishes, Mitzewich began receiving emails from YouTube about joining the revenue-sharing program, which he routinely ignored.

“I thought it was spam,” he recalled. “I didn’t answer that for the first, literally six months. And finally… someone from YouTube called me on the phone.”

Once he learned that those emails weren’t actually spam, but rather an opportunity to earn money by allowing YouTube to advertise on his videos, he made up his mind.


Mitzewich’s first video to go viral was one he made in 2008 on how to make queso blanco or queso fresco.

“Back then, on a good day I would get 10 emails, eight emails in a day,” Mitzewich said. “And I had like 50, 60 unread emails, and I was like, something was going on.”

John Mitzewich, who produces cooking videos under the name Chef John, poses for a photo in Sebastopol, California on September 23.  He has run the Food Wishes YouTube channel since 2007.

John Mitzewich, who produces cooking videos under the name Chef John, poses for a photo in Sebastopol, California on September 23. He has run the Food Wishes YouTube channel since 2007.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

YouTube had placed his video on the front page, skyrocketing his subscriber count from thousands to tens of thousands in a matter of days. Mitzewich remembers being surprised, but also said that in those early days of YouTube, making as much content as he did (three videos a week) was just a matter of time.

“If you had enough bait in the water, you would eventually get a bite,” he said.

In 2010, Reader’s Digest, which owned Allrecipes.com at the time, made Mitzewich an offer he couldn’t refuse. He wanted to buy it.

“I thought it was a joke,” he said. “…I’m like, well, I’ve heard that tech companies have been bought out, but who buys a food blog?”

He was so impressed with the generous offer made by Reader’s Digest that he immediately accepted it, seeing it as a quick exit from the underpaid restaurant industry in which he still worked. And in the short term, it was a big step, giving him the opportunity for financial security he longed for.

Years later, however, he regrets the decision.

“In retrospect, that was very silly because he now has almost 4.3 million subscribers,” Mitzewich said. “I tell people that I was Motown and that I shouldn’t have sold out.”

the royal deal

These days, Mitzewich lives a quiet life in Sebastopol with his wife Michelle, who also acts as his Food Wishes assistant. They bought a house in the bohemian Sonoma County town in 2020, after spending 30 years together on Dolores Street in San Francisco.

Mitzewich still produces two Food Wishes videos a week, spending her days experimenting with recipes, shopping for ingredients, filming and editing. In his spare time, he enjoys gardening and eating at local restaurants with his wife (his favorites include Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol, Lolinda in San Francisco, Toad in the Hole in Santa Rosa, and Wood Tavern in San Francisco). Oakland).

Sometimes a Bay Area restaurant will even inspire a video, like one he made after trying 20th Century Cafe’s iconic Russian honey cake.

Talking to Mitzewich, I was constantly amazed at how humble he is. According to him, his success was “all an accident”, a mere case of “right place, right time” as one of the first to try cooking on YouTube.

But I don’t think he’s giving himself enough credit. His style of not trying too hard is what makes him so easy to watch and relate to. The only thing he’s really changed in his videos since 2007 is a slightly higher quality, and most who love him wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Why do we need 4K?” he said. “So you watch my video in 4K, then what happens? You still make the soup, right?

In our age of manufactured authenticity on social media, Chef John is the real deal.

You may not have the flashy career of a celebrity chef, with all the restaurants, TV shows, and cookbooks to prove it. Hell, most people wouldn’t even recognize his face.

But he has built a veritable empire of fans online. More than 4 million of them. And his comments section is one of the healthiest I’ve ever seen, filled with novice chefs sincerely thanking Chef John for teaching them how to cook.

And although he is not usually recognized by his face, he is by his distinctive voice. In fact, it happens all the time.

“The last time I was here at that table,” he said, pointing to the brewery picnic table behind him, “and someone came up and said, ‘Excuse me, this sounds like a crazy question. I just heard you talking to the bartender. Are you Chef John?’”

He paused, recalling the encounter with a flash of amusement.

“I’m Chef John.”

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