It is said that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, and this wisdom also applies to a downright terrible meal. So when Blue Kim takes the first bite of her potential date Tyler’s tteokbokki, her immediate grimace tells you that Tyler may not be the one.
“There is a little bit of a kick compared to the last one, but it’s actually not good,” she says. “I feel like he’s never made tteokbokki in his life.”
Thus begins a brutal roast of Tyler, a hopeful contestant in a viral video titled “Korean Girl Picks A Date Based On Their Tteokbokki.” Blue complains about the dish’s saltiness, bemoans the lack of vegetables and picks apart Tyler’s overcooked egg — all before even meeting the guy. And her inner food critic isn’t done yet. When the host asks what Tyler’s red flag might be based on his dish, she dryly responds, “He has one towel for his body, face and everything else.”
Blue’s insults are glib, but she has a point. A home-cooked meal can be the ultimate declaration of love — and a window into someone’s personality. Lately, popular YouTube channels such as BuzzFeed, A*Pop, Jubilee and Delish have taken this idea to the extreme, publishing dating-game-style videos with titles like “French Guy Picks A Date Based On Their French Food” and “Blind Dating 5 Guys Based On Their Cooking.” No matter the channel, most episodes follow a similar format that’s as easy to binge as “The Bachelorette.” Contestants whip up their most impressive dish and sit in an adjacent room while their potential date critiques their food. Then, in true Goldilocks fashion, the date chooses the dish that tastes just right, and off they go on an IRL date.
Chris Jereza, who hosts A*Pop’s blind cooking series, drummed up this format in late 2021 after studying food videos and reality dating shows, and realizing the viral potential of both formats. “I like having people figure out what another person is like without meeting them,” he said. “Cooking is just a fun way to do it because it feels very low stakes.”
Blue signed up for the A*Pop show thinking it would be a cheerful, romantic game. “When I was watching the other shows, I was like: ‘Oh, yeah, this is so easy. That person is definitely a gym rat, that person is definitely artsy because of X, Y and Z reasons,’” she said. “But once I actually got to the show, it was a lot harder to judge what kind of person this dish would represent.”
When it came time to choose the winner, Blue favored another contestant’s dish, which stood out for its presentation and the effort behind it, rather than its flavor. All three tteokbokki shared a similar taste. “The amount of thought and effort he put in it was really attractive to me as someone who also likes experiencing things.”
Other YouTube channels, including Jubilee and BuzzFeed, have long produced videos that mix blind-dating games with various personal interests, such as music tastes and outfits, to the delight of millions of viewers. Unlike Jereza’s series, some of these videos let contestants remove their blindfolds before the final verdict. This has led some viewers to question the validity of the format, as in Jubilee’s “Blind Dating 5 Guys” episode where the winner ordered his chicken parm from DoorDash. One commenter remarked: “Let’s be honest here. The choice she did had nothing to do with the food. She just picked the most handsome and confident one.”
On the heels of multiseason shows such as “Love Is Blind” and “The Circle,” it’s no wonder these amateur cooking shows have broad appeal. The contestants are not celebrities, influencers or even chefs, so personal touches often matter more than Top Chef-like knife work. And because of their layperson cooking skills, the resulting assumptions about the contestants can be entertaining. If a dish is artfully plated, dates assume that the contestant is an artist or at least has fine attention to detail. If a contestant follows a recipe without adding their own flourishes, the date might guess that they’re risk averse. It’s judgmental and superficial entertainment, but with the right contestants, it’s validating to see when snippets of their personality emerge from their food.
Food-forward dating shows are not a new concept. Food Network’s “Date Plate,” which aired in 2003, followed two hopeful singles teaming up with chefs, but it was not renewed for a second season. “Cooking for Love,” a 1995 Canadian show hosted by Thea Andrews, featured three bachelors cooking for a hidden woman’s approval; it aired for five years before it was canceled. Nearly 20 years later, there’s renewed interest in reality dating shows and a call for more diverse contestants and relationships. Many of these shows, which debut as short YouTube videos, feature Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and LGBTQ contestants, while most broadcast TV competition shows are still playing catch-up.
The formula is a hit with viewers, but does cooking for love work in real life? For Samantha Burns, a licensed marriage and dating counselor based in Boston, a cooking first date is never ideal. “I just think it’s too much pressure for a first date to have someone making all these judgments about you,” she said. And inviting someone over to your home can have its own insinuations, especially if it’s the first meeting. “Cooking together absolutely has an undertone of ‘Let’s use this as an opportunity to get physical,’” Burns added.
On the flip side, cooking can be a way to get to know a person more, especially since there’s an inherent intimacy to cooking for or with a partner. Anthony Bourdain, who didn’t shy away from sexual metaphors when describing food, once said: “If you don’t like sex you can’t cook.” True to Bourdain’s word, Kath DeGennaro, a food writer and student at the New School in New York City, says cooking does make a reliable test of bedroom compatibility. “You can tell by the way somebody eats or the way somebody cooks how they’re going to be sexually,” DeGennaro said. “And that has only ever been true.”
People who have cooked for a first date, or been on the receiving end of a home-cooked meal on an early date, are tuning in to these shows and seeing parallels in their own relationships. One such couple is Andrea Meggiato and Michelle Jimenez-Meggiato, the founders of The Pizza Cupcake. After a few casual encounters in 2015, Andrea asked Michelle on a pizza date for their first true date. She assumed that Andrea was taking her to a dollar shop for a frugal slice. But when she entered his tiny New York apartment, she was pleasantly surprised to find a table with homemade pizza ingredients including fresh basil, ripe tomatoes and yeast from Andrea’s local pizzeria.
“Showing off my Italian cooking skills was the one trick I knew would impress Michelle and win her over,” Andrea said. “The only difference between my approach and the food cooking videos is that I would never want to put myself out there for everyone to watch.”
First dates can be intensely nerve-racking experiences. Add the stress of cooking and tasting a dish, and it may double the anxiety. Most cooking competition shows already ooze stress with pressure-packed challenges and ruthless judges, but these new dating shows flip the genre on its head. They serve up quotable moments, good-natured digs and sometimes laughable plates of food, but more than that, they show everyday people preparing and enjoying a meal, reminding viewers that cooking doesn’t have to be all that serious. It’s a refreshing perspective, and millions have tuned in to cheer for contestants cooking their way to someone’s heart.
But would Jereza, the A*Pop host, ever use this medium — cooking for a blind date — to find love? Probably not. “You can just sit in a room with someone for five minutes and be able to gauge, ‘Oh, I’m compatible with this person or not,’” he said. “But it does make for a fun video.”
Meanwhile, Blue is still optimistic about the chance of finding someone through cooking. “I didn’t think I was gonna find the love of my life,” she said of her appearance on A*Pop. “But I did go into the show with a very open mind, a very open stomach and a very open heart.”