Perhaps the most surprising media success story of the last couple of years has been that of Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel, the rare pivot to video that actually worked. What was once a series of cooking tutorials has blossomed into an extended universe that, like similarly structured franchises, has a fan base of dedicated stans, who run meme accounts for their favorite chefs. Peeking into the Bon Appétit test kitchen is like watching a sitcom set at a bar, where personalities mix and mingle and overlap with each other as they each go about their business.
On Jezebel earlier this week, Bobby Finger wrote that, “In a television landscape where cooking shows feel as old-hat as the traditional three-camera sitcom, this slight deviation from the formula — focusing on a large and increasingly diverse group of chefs as opposed to just one with a single point of view — feels like a whole new world.” A VIP ticket to Bon Appétit’s recent Best Weekend Ever event, where fans could rub elbows with their favorite YouTube chefs, cost $500.
There’s Claire Saffitz’s show Gourmet Makes (trying to recreate mass-produced snacks), or Carla Lalli Music’s Back-to-Back Chef (teaching a celeb how to cook something using only vocal instruction), or Brad Leone’s fermentation-focused It’s Alive. It’s Alive is a fitting name for Leone’s show, because like Victor Frankenstein, he too has brought something back from the dead.
The past weekend, my friend Abe (probably the best and most serious cook I know) told me about this new knife he bought: the Lamson eight-inch Chinese Santoku Cleaver/Slicer with Rosewood Handle. Abe bought the knife due in large part to Leone’s own use of it. According to him — he texted me a detailed recounting of when and how Leone has wielded the Lamson in his videos — the knife first appeared in a video in which Leone made giardiniera, an Italian condiment.
“My new favorite knife,” he says. “I found it in the —” but before we can find out where he found it, Leone cuts himself off, noticing that Bon Appétit’s editor-at-large is standing right behind him.
Over the phone, Leone told me, “I found it years ago in a bin with a bunch of abused knives that people had just kind of abandoned. It was all chipped up and stuff.” So he sharpened it up and it’s been useful ever since. “It’s a fantastic knife,” he said. “It’s probably my favorite knife that I own, and I own a lot of knives.” He complimented the height of the blade, which makes it easy to scoop up chopped veggies.
It appeared again a couple of weeks later in a video in which Leone made beet kvass. Leone revealed that the knife was made by a company called Lamson, but paired this revelation with an apology: The knife had been discontinued.
This was in the middle of last year and for months fans clamored for the knife. They craved the knife. On the r/chefknives sub-Reddit, fans posted screenshots of the knife, hoping to identify it more precisely and buy one of their own. A previous eBay listing for the knife shows it sold for $247. Other asking prices hover between $250 and $300, though the exact sale price for certain listings are unknown. (The seller accepted a bidder’s best offer.)
“I have learned a significant amount of information from Leon and his shows, especially about fermentation and food. He was starting to do it right when I was starting to think about it,” Abe said. “And he was super down to earth. It was goofy; it was funny; it was super informative. Seeing him use the knife, I was like, That’s an interesting knife that I don’t have.”
Over at Lamson’s headquarters in Massachusetts, customer-service rep Nelson Walton began fielding an increasing number of requests for a knife that the company didn’t make anymore. Getting requests based off of popularity on YouTube is a relatively recent phenomenon for the cutlery manufacturer, which was established in 1837. Most of its knives are standard fare, and the initial failure and subsequent interest in Leone’s knife are explained by how unconventional this particular model is: It’s cleaver-shaped like a Santoku knife (with the curved front) and toward the handle, the blade curves backward slightly, letting the chef get their fingers more directly on top of what they’re chopping.
“At first it was one or two every two or three weeks. Then probably around the end of July , it started to pick up where we were getting two or three a week about it. And probably around September or October, it was six a week,” he recalled. A lot of users sent links to Bon Appétit videos or screenshots they’d taken.
In early 2019, Walton said, “I made enough noise that they decided to shut me up and make the knife.” He started notifying fans who had made requests that the knife was coming back. “Brad’s fans never quit and finally I barked up the right tree,” he said. In this case, that tree was executive vice president Les Edelstein. Before the initial run of 300 knives had come off the manufacturing line, more than 270 of them had been sold for $59.99 (“The best $60 you’ll ever spend,” Leone said). Lamson doubled the next production run.
For many YouTubers, the ability to move merch is a primary revenue source, thanks to on-demand printing and drop-shipping. In almost every case, however, they’re hawking their own products or ones that they are paid to endorse. But what an influencer on social media chooses to pitch to their followers is almost beside the point. Anything that enters the frame and isn’t explicitly denounced ends up being implicitly endorsed, which is how Lamson ended up flooded with requests for a knife that they didn’t think anyone wanted.
“People have asked me about my clothing, or my watch comes up a lot,” Leone noted. “My hat — people freak out. People want to know where I get my hat from. But I don’t tell because I don’t want them to wear the same hat as me.”