YouTube sees food videos as recipe for success

Sara O'Donnell, a.k.a. Average Betty, inside her Tarzana kitchen, where she produces a food show broadcast on YouTube.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

So you’re hosting a Super Bowl XLVI at your house and you’re looking for some tips to spice things up. (Please, not another seven-layer dip!) If you go to YouTube for some inspiration, you are likely to find yourself staring into Sara O’Donnell’s blue eyes.

Better known for her online persona, Average Betty, O’Donnell’s “Six Tips for an Awesome Football Party!” has already racked up 332,555 hits — and counting. And that’s no accident.

O’Donnell recently nabbed the food world’s equivalent of a golden ticket: She earned a coveted spot in YouTube’s Next Chef boot camp, aimed at identifying and cultivating up-and-coming food vloggers and giving them the spotlight.


Turns out that YouTube is trying to make a smooth transition from being known as a messy, Wild West hodgepodge of viral videos to becoming a more curated collection of content ideal for browsing. And it is targeting one of the platform’s most popular video streams: food.

“It’s a new frontier for us. This is our first go at it,” said Austin Lau, the YouTube executive overseeing this foray into the edible.

The offer sounded almost too good to be true, recalled O’Donnell. YouTube guaranteed participants $10,000 in shared ad revenue and more than $5,000 worth of camera and video equipment (all Canon).

In exchange, they’d work their way through 12 weeks of online tutorials featuring some of the most influential names in the food video niche, such as Blake Smith, senior video producer for, and Bravo’s “Top Chef Just Desserts” fan favorite Zac Young.

Among the topics during the workshops that wrapped up in mid-January: engaging viewers, search-engine optimization, video editing, lighting and the all-important audio. (Viewers will forgive almost anything except poor sound quality, O’Donnell said.)

“It was almost presented like getting a master’s degree in YouTube,” O’Donnell said. “My reaction was, ‘Sign me up.’”

O’Donnell, a Tampa, Fla., native who came out west for art history studies at UCLA and also dabbled in theater, has been at this vlogging thing long before “blog” was part of the national lexicon. Her first video was posted online in late 2006 and immediately made a splash with its quick-paced editing and quirky comedy-meets-cooking bent that includes lobbing zany questions at celebrity chefs. (If “Saturday Night Live” and Food Network had a baby…)

Accolades followed. The Los Angeles resident nabbed a Video Award for best Internet personality in 2007 and took home a Taste Award last month for best critic or review series (on TV or Web.)

Lau said he chose O’Donnell from among the hundreds of applicants for the Next Chef program for a simple reason: “She makes me laugh. That’s not something you see a lot of. She brings a very unique perspective.”

Next Chef graduates become “partners” with YouTube, which uses the videos as a platform for advertising. Both sides enjoy a profit-sharing model that favors the vlogger, he said.

Oddly enough, if you go to today, food videos don’t have a guaranteed presence on the home page or on the broad list of categories running down the left-hand side of the screen. And while everyone knows they can go to YouTube in a pinch to find “How to roast a chicken” or “How to boil an egg” videos, it’s not that easy to leisurely browse food videos on the world’s largest video platform.

Lau envisions a day when all that changes. Part of the challenge? Each minute, an average of 60 hours of content is uploaded to

It’s hard enough for a viewer to cut through all the clutter, but standing out is nearly impossible for a vlogger.

That is, unless you happen to know someone.

One of O’Donnell’s latest pieces, that “Six Tips for an Awesome Football Party!” video, put all of her new skills to good use.

And O’Donnell was happy with the final product, which is a welcome reprieve from all those annoying frothy party planning tips you’ll find blanketing every other media outlet.

According to Average Betty, the real elements to making a Super Bowl party stand out are beer, hot babes, gambling and the oft-overlooked bacon piñata. “You know. It’s a piñata. Filled with bacon.” (The video directs viewers to her website for actual recipes. Alas, there is no bacon-filled piñata recipe. Yet.)

O’Donnell posted the video on Jan. 13 and didn’t give it much more thought. That is, until O’Donnell and her husband and co-producer, Lee O’Donnell, watched their Web traffic numbers go through the roof, thanks in part to showcase placement on YouTube.

“We were just watching the numbers come in and thinking, ‘When is this going to stop?’ ‘Is it going to stop?’ ‘I hope it doesn’t stop.’”

It’s now her single-most-watched video with 332,555 hits — and counting.