Gentrifying the KitKat: The subtle jouissance of Gourmet Makes

By Rachel Katz

Claire Saffitz stands behind a piece of island countertop in the Bon Appetit test kitchen. She is prodding an instant ramen noodle cake around a bowl of hot water like it’s a chemistry experiment, and to her, it is. The Bon Appetit senior food editor hosts a wildly successful Youtube series called “Gourmet Makes”, which consists of her experimenting with recipes, ingredients, and equipment to recreate beloved, industrial junk food like Twinkies or Twizzlers, in an actual kitchen.

Why on earth would she do so? The concept is pretty simple: Saffitz attempts to remake a classic treat item outside of the factory environment in which it is usually made. She works through all sorts of structural, procedural, and ingredients-based difficulties to find the perfect recipe and techniques required to make the perfect, somewhat more upscale replica of a favoured snack or treat.

There’s a lot to unpack in how “Gourmet Makes” is structured, though elements of unbridled fantasy seem to be the most noticeable. It can take Saffitz two or three days, even almost a week of non-stop trial and error to nail each component of a particular junk food as she makes use of different kitchen corners and appliances to achieve her goal. This creates an illusion of limitless abundance with respect to both time and resources, despite the fact that each video is a perfect, 15-20 minute treat or break from whatever a viewer may be working on at the time.  This mimics the concept of having a treat like the ones being made in the videos. It feels like a small luxury to be invited, to be allowed into the Bon Appetit kitchen and, in a way, participate in this abundance. After all, who has the time to experiment with homemade Kit Kats in “real life”? And who doesn’t want a visual treat? Beyond the little world we get to peek into via Youtube, this style of cooking and culinary experimentation is far beyond reach for most of us.

Host Claire Saffitz holds a bag of Cheetos. Overlaid on the image are the "Original" or commercially-produced Cheetos, and the "Gourmet" Cheetos created in the course of the episode.

Our exposure to and subsequent enjoyment of this kind of experience is reminiscent of the Lacanian concept of jouissance, or a limitless, excessive pleasure that is impossible to achieve. We can watch these videos all we want, but for most of us they remain an impossible maybe indulgent  fantasy.

So why is it pleasing to watch these gourmet junk food videos, even if we know we cannot make these treats ourselves?

There are many possible — and highly personal — answers to this question, but maybe it’s because it’s intriguing or peculiar or just plain enviable that Claire Saffitz and the Bon Appetit team have the time and skills to make these quick, unquestionably unhealthy snacks and treats that are normally mass-produced with unpronounceable ingredients. While Saffitz never claims to make a healthier instant ramen or Oreo cookie, she does tend to use “whole food” ingredients that one can find with relatively little effort, and combine them using top-of-the-line professional kitchen appliances, thus “elevating” the food item.

This act of “elevation” is, on the one hand, a fascinating process to watch while chowing down on the more industrially produced treat. But it also creates mental friction with our social landscape. Food shortages, famines, and food insecurity are rampant around the world. While we are no longer experiencing a global food shortage , more people than ever are suffering from some form of food insecurity. These statistics are alarming in and of themselves. But in light of these facts, the vast amounts of food waste produced by cooking shows – especially those based in trial and error, like “Gourmet Makes” – can leave a sour taste in our mouths. Preserving foods, either through freezing or adding artificial stabilizers to prolong shelf life, can make healthy, often inaccessible foods available to more people, but cooking shows like “Gourmet Makes” that endeavour to strip down the industrial processes involved in food production seem to directly counter efforts to make these cheaper alternatives highly acceptable – like a wild indulgence.

Host Claire Saffitz holds bag of Cheetos; overlaid on the screen is a graphic of "Original" and "Gourmet" cheetos

Ultimately, “Gourmet Makes” is another piece of social entertainment. On one hand, that means it provides convenient escapism for those of us with lacklustre kitchens, tight grocery budgets, and no time to go through a dozen different kinds of homemade wafers to perfectly replicate those in a Kit Kat. We just buy the Kit Kat. On the other hand, these videos can make it more difficult to destigmatize healthy but processed foods that, for many, are essential to their ability to afford nutritious food.

That said, I think Claire Saffitz’s “Gourmet Makes” does have a a place in our media diets. (Though as an avid consumer, I may be biased on that.) But like an expensive dinner out or a complicated dessert, much of its content remains the stuff of fantasy. Perhaps this is indeed an au current example of jouissance and that transcendent, homemade Kit Kat will always be beyond our reach.

Next time: the transmissive selves of Youtube lifestyle vloggers and what they teach us about our subjectivity.

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