For many of the Internet’s biggest food personalities, YouTube has been the incubator that eventually launched them into wider mainstream success. Nowadays it’s easy to get lost in the endless, algorithmically boosted diversity of cuisine centric content, be it instructional videos, budgeting challenges, or infamous “what I eat in a day” documentation. Despite this breadth of options, anyone who subscribes to some of the heavier hitters on the website know that the plague of formulaic, ad-revenue focused YouTube content is hard to escape.
That’s why Arizona based video artist, home cook, and YouTuber Victor, known by his screen name of “Internet Shaquille,” feels like a breath of fresh air. Victor is not trying to sell you sponsored cookware, he’s not attempting to reach a benchmark to squeeze one last ad in, and he’s certainly not invested in forging a brand (whatever that means, these days.) In other words, he’s the foil to your typical lifestyle YouTuber.
His concise, quippy videos act like encyclopedic entries on various foundational topics that anyone might want to know. What are some useful tools an inexperienced home cook might not think to have? How do you gain intuition in the kitchen? How do you care for a wooden cutting board if you don’t have it in you to slather mineral oil on yours as much as you should? These topics and more, are explained in depth, under six minutes, with no ads interrupting the flow of instruction. When you watch Internet Shaquille, you may be seeking entertainment, but in an online experience that feels rare these days, you almost always learn something too.
A channel that started out as a mishmash of random vlogs and videos has transitioned over the years into one with over 524,000 subscribers, and a dedicated fan base that revels in the originality of Victor’s videos down in the comment section. Victor sat down with Salon to discuss his approach to cooking content, cultural appropriation in the food world, and how he found his own place in the online culinary community.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Manuela Lòpez Restrepo: So, I’ve been aware of you since the Vine days, but never remembered cooking content. How’d you start out online, and where did the cooking stuff come in?
Victor: Yeah, I’ve been doing online video projects since middle school. And we would make little videos with a handycam all the time, and then put them online. Freshman year, we made a video podcast out of our dorm’s mail room. But Vine was the first thing that caught the attention of more than like 10,000 people. I think at the end, it was like 80,000 followers and a little verification badge. So that was the first meaningful platform, I think.
Towards the end of Vine’s existence, [I posted] on one of those websites where you offer up courses for money. I’m not going to remember what it is, but I put together a two hour-long online course, the title was “How to trick people into thinking you’re good at cooking.” And I sat on that for two years as my magnum opus and didn’t think that I would create anything else. And it wasn’t until about two years after that, that I attempted doing a YouTube channel. And even then it was mostly like, vlogging stream of consciousness experimental stuff like that. And it wasn’t until about a year in that I started doing targeted instruction.
… My job since senior year of college was an instructional designer, which is just making online courses for, at that time, students at ASU, and then later on employees at a construction company. So [it was] applying some of those principles that I learned to cooking. Just personally, cooking was something I liked watching, I was always watching Food Network since I was a kid. So that’s really the only thing that I knew enough about to have something worth sharing.
MLR: What was your relationship to cooking before you decided to sort of pursue it professionally in an instructional sense?
V: I didn’t have a very targeted or memorable relationship to cooking where it’s like, “Oh, I remember making this, and this.” I was taught to make pancakes as a child by my grandparents. I remember buying or renting a book from the library about cool dishes that kids could make. But I was also an extremely, extremely picky eater, maybe I would eat five things total. Like, go to McDonald’s, and if ketchup was on the bun, it’s not getting wiped off — I’m just not going to eat it. And so I bought this book and I was like, “Mom, can I try cooking these things?” And she says, “If you cook it, you have to eat it.” So I was too scared to try anything because of how picky I was.
I didn’t really get into cooking in a big way until… I’d like to say college, but since college has so many fast food options and you have the meal card and everything. It really wasn’t until after graduation that I sort of took the time to say, “I’m going to develop a sense of self in what I can cook.” Because up until then, all the things that I made in college were like, “Oh, I know how to make an egg and cheese thing with crescent rolls on top that we can all eat at 3am when everybody’s wasted.” Sort of gimmicky foods, whereas it wasn’t until later on until I developed an actual means of sustaining myself through cooking.
MLR: So a lot of your connection to food is your own journey of learning how to cook. Has your Mexican heritage tied into this exploration at all?
V: Yeah, it’s actually really complicated. And I would say that, everything that I’m wrestling with, in terms of this topic, is something that I haven’t come to a conclusion on. On one hand, I’m in communities where people get very upset about cultural appropriation and food, and “Why is this guy telling somebody else how to make sushi?” I guess the closest would be Rick Bayless who does a lot of Mexican food. And it’s like, yes, he is really well researched and dedicated his entire life to the craft. But why isn’t he ceding the opportunity to somebody else who is more appropriate?
“Every Mexican family has the one kid who goes to the restaurant and gets a hamburger and everybody looks at him weird. That one was me.”
But at the same time, I don’t think that I deserve to, or ought to deserve to hold any sort of authority on Mexican cooking because of how I think a lot of second-generation, third-generation immigrant kids go through this feeling of going through school and hating the stuff that you are supposed to like. Being a picky eater didn’t help with any of this. I did not want to eat a bean ever. I went a very long time without ever trying beans and did not like any Mexican food. Every Mexican family has the one kid who goes to the restaurant and gets a hamburger and everybody looks at him weird. That one was me.
And so that is something that I sort of wrestle with in that, just by virtue of the manner in which I was born, or the people who gave birth to me. Do I have any authority to talk about that sort of stuff? I think the answer to that right now is no. But in small, small ways, I’ve been contributing to a change in that, like, I’ve made a video about Jamaica, which is a beverage made from hibiscus flowers. And that’s easy, because there’s no hot takes to give on it, there’s really only a couple of ways to make it.
And it comes from some sort of authority to be like, “Hey, look, this Mexican boy is showing me a beverage that I’ve seen at the Mexican restaurants, but never actually tried — and now I have some sort of permission to try it.” To know that is sort of like a baby step. Whereas something I think [is] more complicated — I’ve been sitting on a “How to make corn tortillas: Part 1 and 2” set of videos for at least six months now. Just because I keep learning and waiting for something to challenge any of the assertions that I make, because I don’t have 100% confidence that what I’m making is infallible.
MLR: I think there is some space for us immigrant kids, in the sense that we have to include both parts of ourselves. The part that is authentic, and also the part that has a bit of distance from where we’re from. But I think it can almost make it like its own, different version of food we love. Cultural appropriation is an important part of this conversation, but where do we get to draw our own boundaries, and create space for something new?
V: I think that one of the most life-changing aspects of having a large audience, regardless of what you talk about, is seeing firsthand. You hear about this conceptually, but you don’t really understand the full grasp until you see how limitless the number of opinions there really are in our world. You can say one thing that sounds so objectively factual to you, and have 10,000 people give 5000 reasons why you’re wrong. I do think that your first part of the question, which is, “Do people have to change the way that they think about this sort of stuff, namely, cultural appropriation?” The answer is yes.
In that, probably before — there wasn’t an audience of a limitless number of people willing to dig something up or find something or look at something or share something. But I think that the objective conclusion that one can come to, can never be drawing a hard line or even a soft, blurry line between what is and is not acceptable, because there is literally an infinite number of opinions that differ from yours. And [they] will draw that line somewhere else, and they’re just as valid as the ones that you came up with.
So I think that the most fruitful, effective, part of yourself that you can practice, is your response to criticism. I think that it should be completely valid for anybody in the world to say, “Rick Bayless, who are you to be talking about this,” [and] “Internet Shaquille, who are you to be talking about this?” And it all comes down to what your reaction to a question like that is. I know that for people who enjoy watching other people getting canceled or getting in hot water online, part of it is critiquing their apology, if that does happen, and I think that how you respond to something like that is probably far more important than the actual action or sentiment behind it.
MLR: Your approach feels extremely aware of this give and take relationship between the viewer and the creator. How do you determine how to toe that line, and make something that so many people resonate with?
V: I think the audience is self-selecting. I definitely don’t think that I have a good sense of who my audience is, and that’s just because on the back-end of YouTube Analytics, it’ll tell you, “Here are the people that watch your stuff, they’re also into competitive swimming.” For some reason, I think competitive swimming is the biggest overlap between what I watch and what they watch.
It’s not so much that I was like, “I have garnered an audience that wants this.” It’s more so that I’m willing to acknowledge their existence and continue doing what it is that I would want to do.
I recently found out that it’s actually pretty common that [people] watch my videos on autoplay while falling asleep, but they don’t cook anything. So then, in my latest video, the outro was something like, you know, “Get out and cook this thing, unless you’re just watching this to fall asleep, in which case, goodnight.”
“I recently found out that it’s actually pretty common that [people] watch my videos on autoplay while falling asleep, but they don’t cook anything. So then, in my latest video, the outro was something like, you know, ‘Get out and cook this thing, unless you’re just watching this to fall asleep, in which case, goodnight.'”
I think that it’s just a matter of learning what it is that people are getting from you. And acknowledging or leaning into that a little bit. I think with cooking — maybe with a lot of instructional things like, learning how to skateboard or something — the hard part is not deciding stylistically, how you want to approach your work, but rather, how much information or how much time you’re willing to spend on explaining what needs to take place to get someone up to speed enough to make what you’re talking about.
MLR: Well, I guess in some ways, you’re the slow fashion versus fast fashion. Your stuff is a little bit more marinated, and it’s a little bit more focused.
V: Definitely. And I think that’s another part of the sort of audience self-selection. Because if you’re looking at just what do people want, broadly, it’s more of that. And so, you know, being able to say, ‘I’ve got 500,000 people who want this style, and aren’t necessarily intrigued by the regular kind’, then I hope to bring more people into the fold, even if all it takes is inspiring more people to produce work in this manner, and they take away all my audience and I fold completely, I think it’s a net benefit for society.
I think my existence, hopefully, proves to certain people that you can succeed in the traditional sense of the word without spending five hours a day combing over your analytics. Because I know a ton of people in the space do that — where they’re looking at CPM, CTR, all this stuff that I don’t even know what it is. And you definitely don’t have to do that. And I hope to make a change in terms of what someone should expect to do to be successful.
Some “Salon Talks” episodes with our favorite cooks:
- Expanding the idea of “Black Food” with chef Bryant Terry
- How Native foods compare to European cuisine
- John Kanell of Preppy Kitchen on the small tools you need to become a home baker