How Did “Recipe Developer” Become a Famous Job?

The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, social media, and the pandemic played a role

Food video blogger cooking and live streaming online. Woman chef showing recipe on camera in vlog. C...
Alicia Kennedy
Live Laugh Cook

There has always been a revolving stable of careers seen as “cool”: fashion designers, screenwriters, pro gamers. In recent years, the job of recipe development — previously primarily known to food-world insiders — has joined that pantheon. There are now career guides about how to become a recipe developer, TikTok creators documenting the work that goes into it, and more than 400 U.S. jobs on LinkedIn that list “recipe development” in the requirements. But how, exactly, did this role slip into the popular lexicon and become widely considered a cool, desirable job?

The phrase “recipe developer” has been on the gradual, but steady, rise over the past decade, but it reached new heights of cultural saturation in 2020, the year that millions of people found themselves newly working from home and in need of inspiration, education, and entertainment. The popularity of one food-media brand’s videos, in particular, helped push the job of “recipe developer” into the public consciousness in that early pandemic period: the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, whose sunny programming captivated millions of viewers on YouTube and birthed a new cohort of culinary stars (and major cookbook deals). Those purported halcyon days of the BA Test Kitchen, although they would swiftly come to a dramatic end, played a role in introducing a large, mainstream audience to the career of recipe developer, formed in the image of this particular test kitchen’s apparent camaraderie, decent pay, and personality.

Interest in cooking in the United States tends to come in waves, such as the gourmet renaissance of James Beard and Julia Child in the ’50s and ’60s, the Hamptons-chic hospitality of Martha Stewart and Ina Garten in the ’90s, and the emergence of food blogger success stories like Debra Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen and Ree Drummond’s Pioneer Woman in the aughts. The past two decades in food have been dominated by restaurant and chef culture, thanks, in part, to the inescapability of figures like Anthony Bourdain, many of whom took center stage in the restaurant- or travel-focused food TV shows that started airing in troves in the early 2000s. Dining out had never been hotter; restaurant spending in the U.S. hit an all-time high in 2019, and the emergence of delivery apps further popularized restaurant meals not just for the rare, special occasion, but everyday indulgences.

But Covid-19, as well as increasing scrutiny on the veneration of the auteur male chef — like the once-TV-beloved Mario Batali, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women — brought home cooking and all its myriad stars to the forefront. Recipe developers — who were cooking for big publications like the New York Times Cooking section (where monthly unique visits went up 66 percent from 2019 to 2020), for meal-kit delivery services, or for themselves and their followers on social media — were ready to swoop in when people at home were forced to feed themselves again. The new recipe development stars who emerged from the clutches of Condé Nast, post-Test Kitchen implosion, continued to flourish and reach new levels of success, with their own cookbooks and merch lines, paid partnerships, and membership-based Patreons and Substacks.

Simón de Swaan, a senior recruiter and coach in the hospitality industry for Goodwin Recruiting, credits social media and a younger audience’s interest in online recipe content with the uptick in recipe development work. “It has to do with a new demographic that doesn’t view traditional food magazines as the end all be all,” he tells me.

What defined recipe developers like Carla Lalli Music, Claire Saffitz, and Andy Baraghani was their combination of the restaurant-honed technique of the chef stars and the home-cooking approachability of a Barefoot Contessa, all wrapped up in a social-media-ready package primed for media opportunities and sponsorship. That blend of inspiration, education, and entertainment, boosted by restaurant-trained know-how, differentiated them from the food bloggers who had been around already, usually associated with feeding a family rather than cooking as clout or content creation.

“Before [Test Kitchen personalities] Molly Baz and Rick Martinez became a household name, they already knew how to write a recipe,” says Rebecca Firkser, a freelance recipe developer who’s recently worked at Food52. “They were already trained cooks. So to me, a recipe developer is someone who pairs formality with creativity in the kitchen.” This is the mold many have come to rely on, as they bring their real-world credentials as line cooks, bakers, or specialty-food store employees into monetized online content.

That pairing has to come with a big personality, too — of the sort that might inspire parasocial relationships where an audience believes they have a personal connection to the poster. Firkser says food content consumers become as obsessed with their person’s point of view on food as much as they do with how the food itself tastes. That’s nothing new in the history of food media — people swore fealty to Garten or Giada, of course — but the intimate element of social media has added a new layer, incentivizing selfies and the sharing of domestic visions.

Asha Loupy, a recipe editor for the spice company Diaspora Co., noticed that she gets more engagement on Instagram when she goes beyond food content and posts photos of herself and glimpses into her personal life — an exchange of privacy for likes that she isn’t entirely comfortable with yet. Although there’s the trope of folks who go to food blogs through search engines not wanting bloggers’ “life story” before each recipe, that is indeed what people seem to want on social media, which can make for an additional burden. “I’m still working out how much of my life I want to share,” Loupy tells me. “If I share too much, it feels like people think they know me and … feel inclined to speak to me as if we know each other because they see these intimate parts of my life.”

But for those who embrace the personality-tied demands of being a cooking influencer on Instagram and TikTok, the financial rewards can be lucrative — or, at least, much more so than the opportunities in editorial recipe development, traditionally, according to Firkser. Between paid sponsorships through social media posts, newsletter or Patreon subscriptions, merchandise, and cookbooks, there is more opportunity than ever to carve out one’s own niche here.

Wrapped in this demand for a personal connection is the expectation that recipe developers on social media are always available to lend a helping hand to the people trying out their dishes. On Instagram and TikTok, recipe developers now frequently answer the questions of fans who tag or DM them, as Pearse Anderson wrote for Polygon. People tend to be “demanding” (if not downright entitled) when it comes to internet recipes and the people who create them, says recipe developer Teresa Finney, who runs the Atlanta-based microbakery At Heart Panaderia and its accompanying recipe Patreon page.

Eater staff writer Bettina Makalintal, who has covered food and social media trends, believes TikTok has become so popular for food because it doesn’t demand the same high production values or intensity of ingredients as Instagram: A two-ingredient “healthy Coke” or a “Cowboy Caviar” that relies mainly on canned goods has just as much chance of going viral as an elaborate cake. But it’s also spurred massive success stories in more traditional forms: Tabitha Brown, a vegan personality with 4.9 million followers, has written a book, put out her own spice blend with McCormick, and is now going to be the host of the first plant-based cooking competition show, It’s CompliPlated. Clarkson Potter, a renowned publisher, has put out As Cooked on TikTok: Fan Favorites and Recipe Exclusives From More Than 40 TikTok Creators! to capitalize on the moment.

But Makalintal has also noticed that entitlement to recipes has reached a fever pitch on the platform, where the relationship between audience and creator isn’t as delineated because of the focus on its algorithmically determined “for you” page. “If people don't post a recipe, I'll see comments that say, ‘You’re gatekeeping,’” Makalintal tells me. “Because your video just ends up on someone's feed and they don't know you or don't have a relationship with you, they just see it as a source for recipes.” Visibility might come more easily on TikTok, but with that comes extensive work building trust.

While I can personally attest to how fabulous it feels to see people making your recipes, the pressure to not just create these dishes, but to also be available to troubleshoot 24/7, highlights how much hidden labor goes into this track of independent recipe development, especially without the built-in buffer of a publication. Throwing up boundaries or not responding to questions makes recipe developers feel like they’re alienating a potential paying customer; at the same time, it’s discomfiting to think of interactions with other humans concerning something as intimate and important as cooking in those terms.

The rise of recipe developer as a trendy, seemingly effortless, “love what you do” kind of job lends to the impression that people who create recipes are just having fun and would be doing this kind of cooking even if it weren’t their job, erasing the background work that goes into perfecting a recipe so that it becomes replicable in anyone’s kitchen. I test the recipes I develop for my own newsletter’s paid subscribers at least three times, which also means three sets of dishwashing and needing three times the stock of ingredients in my house. While there’s a bit of truth to the idea that this part of my job is fun — recipe development is good work, if you can get it — a lot of people grinding by themselves as freelancers without a leg up from ready-made fame can struggle to get their work seen and compensated.

And, as always, there’s the built-in precarity of digital, creative, “cool” jobs: Will the social media platforms that online recipe developers rely on change their algorithms yet again? As people increasingly return to restaurants and takeout, will they hit “unfollow” on the personalities that guided them through a couple of very difficult years? There will always be people sharing their cooking and baking for the love of it, but whether or not they can continue to get paid is a question that only time will answer.

Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She writes a weekly newsletter about food culture, politics, and media.