Charisma is a funny thing. Defining charm is hard. It’s hard at a party, but at least you can blame pheromones for an animal-like attraction to the boy with the baby blues. Of course, the physical pulchritude certainly doesn’t hurt someone, but they still must have a draw. It’s harder still to detect that charm through the screen. Even harder is to understand why that charm pierces our collective unconscious and leaves us with dropped jaws and hearts in our eyes.
On all the little cooking shows all over the internet, one man has a charisma so undeniable it might be the only thing bigger than the jugs he uses for fermentation.
I’m talking, of course, about the heartthrob Brad Leone. Tall, with a slab of well-aged organic grass-fed beef under his kombucha belly, Brad has become the breakout star of the Bon Appetit brand.
We like watching beautiful people succeed–that’s why Brad’s videos are so popular. He jokes, he winks for the camera, he makes fun of himself, all to spill water (pronounced: wourder) across the counter, laugh it off, and present us with a zesty fermented pineapple drink. Throughout his series, It’s Alive, he is tasked with teaching a bunch of knuckle-dragging YouTube-watchers the intricacies of fermenting food. If people are so inspired to make giardiniera or hot sauce, then that’s just a happy accident.
Like with all food-focused programming, cooking is an afterthought. The audience is here to ogle Brad, someone bro-ey enough to play touch football on Thanksgiving, but with a culinary touch that you know he helped make the cranberry sauce. Maybe he is the idealized man, one fluent in fun and levity, but physically firm enough to protect you in the winter months. Is that the cause then? Is Brad’s popularity just another case of the massive internet thirst pandemic giving us a new hero, a Prometheus who regifted us fermentation?
Thirst is definitely one part of the equation, and his affability is another. Perhaps, though, Brad’s popularity is thanks in part to a weird erotic fear many of us recall: the jock.
Brad, with his scritchy, growing beard, and quiet curls that poke out from under backwards baseball caps and beanies, with a healthy layer of pudge covering arms as thick as the slabs of meat he butchers, is the transformed Biff. He looks like he might have shoved you into a locker, not because he disliked you, but because he thought it would impress his friends. In college, he read Socrates for the first time, eventually pursuing Aurelian stoicism that spoke to him more. He knows a guy, still smokes a little weed on the weekends with his pals from his intra-campus soccer team (which once played in the charity kickball tournament).
An infinite number of internet posters have made us acutely aware of a link between fear and arousal. Surely this too goes back to the time of Socrates. (If anyone has quotes in verse, please share.) Urban Dictionary has an entry for “Scaroused” dated to 2011–about as old as Aristotle. The archetypical jock, with the leverage of both strength and social life, terrorized many of us. Maybe not with physical violence, but we are acutely aware of what they could do since teen movies defined them so well. The jocks in my own high school were smart boys, kind boys, but William Zabka let fiction overpower reality.
But back to Brad. Brad would never pummel Ralph Macchio in mom jeans to a pulp, never threaten to put him in a body bag at the All-Valley Karate Championships. He is firm but not with his fists. And not with his words either. But with his confidence of an all-valley champion, comfortable with using his hands to manipulate lacto-fermentation into food.
A lovable jock, then, it could seem like Brad wields his charisma with abandon, rather than with a manipulative edge. He’s as goofy as he is gargantuan. We’re still afraid he could crush us under his fist, but we’re salivating just thinking about it. If he shoves us into a locker, our hearts beat a little faster because he touched us for just a moment. We’re beet red and helpless, weak in the knees when we see him.
I can’t say with assurance that anyone actually cooks what they see Brad makes. Fermentation, pickling, and other not-quite-cooking cooking techniques are scary for beginners, many people beyond that too. I mean, I watch Martha Stewart, but I’ve never sought out Snoop Dogg for a blunt-and–baking-brownies evening. But the ilk of the traditional television cook was never the domain of thirsty twenty-somethings, craving for death and sex as much as the food to sustain life.
(Originally published: October 2019)