Ben Lebus is a busy man. When I sit down for a coffee with him on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, he’s just come out of a meeting with his literary agent, and is set to meet with Miguel Barclay from One Pound Meals for a drink later this evening. He’s also going on a date.
Lebus is the man behind the multi-talented hands of Mob Kitchen, a top down cooking channel which has been creating and posting video content primarily on Facebook for little over a year. In that time, the following has reached nearly 90,000, has had multiple tie-ins with brands such as Tofoo, the Tab and Bumble, and has even started sponsorship deals – most recently with Oriel Rugby. It’s full on, and the growth has been pretty steady, but when I meet Lebus he admits that he’s currently “in a bit of a trough.” Having recently returned from a holiday, and run out of video content, he’s gearing up for a big weekend of filming at his parents’ house in Oxford. All this being said, Lebus is cheerful and clearly loves his work.
He has always been drawn to “easy, simple home cooking using nice fresh ingredients”, with an ability to pair flavours together that he attributes to watching Jamie Oliver’s cooking videos. These cooking skills grew from an obsession with watching cooking shows from his teens, but really blossomed at university in Edinbugh when moving into a house with some friends. Here, he notes that some of his housemates “couldn’t cook for shit”, and longing to get away from endless pesto pasta, Lebus became a frequent home cook. In fact, Mob Kitchen’s entire USP, the ability to feed four people for £10 or less, came from his writing for a student magazine and based around the idea of providing a cheap meal for his housemates.
As a student, Lebus was frustrated with both student cookery books that patronised their readers, and approaches to budget cooking that presume one has herbs and spices already in the cupboard, not accounting for the fact that students and people on a tight budget may have to purchase a jar of cumin for a recipe that only needs a teaspoon. This may put students who don’t want “to end up spending 16 quid on a dish that’s meant to have cost four.” So, Lebus’ recipes take a “much more real approach to budget cooking”, presuming that a cook will only have salt, pepper and olive oil in their kitchen.
While writing his dissertation, there was a huge explosion of top-down cooking videos, and Lebus was immediately enamoured, but wasn’t so much a fan of the “cheese pulls”, or deep fried things covered in ice cream that popped up each day. So, he decided to make a channel for “food people would actually cook”, hired out a production crew to film 20 videos, then edited them for release in October last year.
“And the rest is history”, he says.
Lebus is a one-man operation, which makes it hard to find a position for himself against the likes of Buzzfeed’s Tasty, and Tastemade. This doesn’t daunt him at all, though; “the internet is crying out for interesting video content”, he argues, and while he doesn’t love the natural comparison to ‘Tasty’ videos when explaining his concept to people, Lebus sees the industry as having plenty of room to grow.
Mob Kitchen videos certainly meet the “interesting content” criteria. The food is enticing, skilfully cooked, but not daunting to the novice chef. My personal favourites are the sticky tofu, and the recent mushy pea linguine.
One unique aspect of Lebus’ videos is the heavy integration of music in them, acknowledging the bands behind the songs and encouraging viewers to check out the Spotify Playlists that Lebus keeps updated. This part of his videos almost didn’t happen, Lebus says, and had planned to put up recipes with a kind of “stock, elevator music”, to let the food become centre stage. But, after running out of money during production, a couple of lesser-known bands were drafted in to provide backing tracks, and people loved it. Lebus recalls playing a couple of tracks with the videos and thinking, “Oh my god, this is a vibe!”. Since then, a big part of Lebus’ job has been sorting music.
The songs featured are usually upbeat, pumping tunes that perfectly match Lebus’ buoyant personality and laddish charm. He says that rock and heavy guitar music motivate him in the kitchen, and get him really pumped up to cook. In the future, Lebus envisions Mob Kitchen videos as moving beyond the top-down model and opening up somewhat, inviting bands into the kitchen to play while he cooks, and “make it more of a production.” In fact, this is where he sees the industry in general to be going, as cooks incorporate more personality into the videos posted online. For now, though, he considers the top-down model to be robust enough to keep growing.
But where to next for Lebus and Mob Kitchen?
Ideally, he would like to hire out his own production team full time, and move away from filming in his parent’s kitchen – a move that would relieve some pressure off of the intense weekends of filming that currently take place. He would also like to publish a book, which he describes as being “the ultimate student bible”, something like that Delia Smith book that finds its way into every parent’s kitchen. In the immediate future, aside from the usual cooking videos, Lebus plans on continuing to work with brands on sponsored content, and creating branded videos as part of Mob Productions. This is a route he didn’t envisage initially. But great returns have enabled him to continue funding production.
Lebus is preparing for a big weekend of filming, and encourages me to watch Mob Kitchen’s Instagram story to see behind the magic. Here, one can see Lebus relaxed, joshing around in the kitchen cooking and cracking jokes with his cameraman. The food looks excellent too. Starting a food content channel is tough work, but clearly a labour of love.