Today’s dish is shrimp tempura udon and food content creator H Woo Lee is explaining how to make it from scratch in a behind-the-scenes video. “They are pretty easy,” Lee says to the camera as he makes udon noodles, “it just takes a lot of elbow grease.” For four hours, he kneads dough, boils the broth, mixes spices, and fries the shrimp before he assembles the ingredients into an appealing finished dish. It’s a laborious process that, for TikTok, was edited into a tidy 60-second video emphasizing the sounds of his kitchen: the boil of the broth, the sizzle of cooking oil, and Lee’s slurps as he eats his final product.
As a full-time creator, Lee makes ASMR-style videos (or to get technical: Autonomous Sensory Meridian) that feature elaborate dishes, like prosciutto arugula pizza and Peking duck, to stand out from his TikTok competitors. His videos are relaxing and stylish, concealing the hours of work he puts into creating TikToks for his 1 million followers. He’s not just cooking intricate meals—he’s also his own planner, cameraman, video editor, and social media manager. A creator is responsible for “all of these departments. It’s like a miniature store,” Kar Brulhart, a creator strategist said. The rise of TikTok stars makes mastery of the app seem like an easy, glamorous, and highly rewarding side hustle, but for most creators, like Lee, that’s simply not true. The job requires expertise in a niche field, creativity, and tolerance for income in security.
That’s a lot to shoulder in an industry where there’s increasing competition for likes and brand sponsorships. venture according to SignalFire, a capital firm, 50 million people worldwide make up the creator economy. That’s not surprising—the barrier to entry for the creator industry is low: It only takes a smartphone and a few social media accounts to get started. “There’s so many creators coming into this space now,” Lee explained to Morning Brew. In order to stand out in the growing crowd, he constantly pushes himself to produce better content and build a personal brand.
“There’s only one way for anyone to differentiate themselves. …Your personality has to shine through or people, even if they follow you, won’t remember you,” he said. Not only does Lee need to possess culinary and technical production skills (which he does), but he also needs great storytelling skills and an authentic personality in order to be successful. The latter two requirements are not something anyone necessarily learns at culinary school, so, to some extent, the best creators in this field are self-made.
Like a lot of food influencers, Lee isn’t a professional chef. He said that he taught himself cooking from watching YouTube videos while he was a student at the University of Southern California majoring in Business Administration. “The first dish I did was Gordon Ramsay’s egg benedict and I messed up the hollandaise sauce the first time…and then from there…I would just go into like a rabbit hole,” he said. He had a little bit of experience working with food by way of interning for about two weeks at a restaurant and running dinners at a frat house after he graduated in 2019, but nothing too serious. When Covid hit in early 2020, he was forced to stop these gigs. Bored and stuck in his apartment, Lee discovered TikTok. In December 2020, he posted a video of himself making wagyu steak, which went viral and currently has 2.3 million likes. He quickly saw the possibility of resuming his food career, this time as a food creator.
Creators like Lee are ditting the Instagram filters, highly posed pictures, and stylized lattes for content that feels more authentic. “We’re seeing that this unpolished, unfiltered, raw thought-stream is what people are really interested in,” Brulhart, who coaches creators to grow their audience base, said. These days successful creators are very knowledgeable in their respective fields while coming across as down to earth, but they deliver professional-grade content that is strategically planned and carefully edited, like Lee’s cooking videos. Most importantly, they show genuine passion for what they’re doing.
FoodTok, as the food-focused TikTok community is affectionately known, attracts both professionals and amateurs like Lee. Everyone from TV star-turned-meme Ramsay to popular amateurs like Emily Mariko and Eitan Bernath share recipes and teach viewers how to cook (or they provide aspirational content for viewers who want to cook). The hashtag #tiktokfood, which features juicy, gooey, and crunchy food of nearly every global cuisine, has about 56.2 billion views.
Lee is a relatively late arrival to the scene. His strategy is to make videos that are visually appetizing and aurally immersive with brain-melting cooking sounds. He rarely uses music or voice-over, he simply features the sounds of prepping and cooking meals. All the kitchen noises—a knife hitting the chopping board, broth bubbling in the pot, the blender swirling—are edited into percussion tempos and even euphonic rhythm. According to studies, ASMR videos are meant to conjure up sensory feelings as a way to soothe and relax audiences. Lee says he and TikToker Sam Way were the first ones to create ASMR cooking videos for TikTok.
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“That’s what’s gonna sell. No one can taste my food,” Lee said. He estimates that he spends 60% of his time editing videos and only 40% cooking, but the allocation of his time seems to be helping him grow his reputation. On Lee’s video of making a fried chicken sandwich, a TikTok user commented: “Dude. Again… this is ART. The food. The skill. The presentation. The editing. Incredible.”
Lee films from his home in Los Angeles, which he’s equipped with the content creator basics: an iPhone, a microphone, and two softbox lights. He uses a microphone with a smartphone clamp, and puts a wireless mic next to the cutting board or cooking pan to pick up all the sounds.
“It ain’t rocket science, it’s just shrimp tempura,” he told Morning Brew.
The casual angles and the rich sounds of Lee’s videos make them feel like casual FaceTime conversations with a friend. Both the relatability of his style and the high quality of the dishes he produces (though it’s true users can’t taste the food, it looks as appetizing as dishes coming out of a Michelin-star restaurant) keep users scrolling through his content for hours . Lee’s creative vision of marrying cooking and ASMR with a sense of dry humor has been the key to growing his audience. Creators who can combine both excellent content and an attractive personality in their videos “are the MrBeasts, the Addison Raes of the world,” Megan Savitt, VP of influencer relations at Branded Entertainment Network, explained.
MrBeast earned $54 million in 2021, making him the highest earning YouTuber ever, according to Forbes. The 23 year old’s main channel has 92.6 million subscribers and makes at least $3 million per month from YouTube ads alone, per the analytics service SocialBlade. Teen dancing queen Addison Rae earned an estimated $8.5 million in 2021, ranking third on the list of top TikTok earners, just behind the D’Amelio sisters. Lee told Morning Brew he made between $40,000 and $50,000 in 2021. FoodTok is a growing and competitive niche field, so Lee is still finding his footing. Though early TikTok stars like Rae and the D’Amelios have turned their online fame into television and movie deals, Lee’s main source of income is brand partnerships. He’s worked with Instacart, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Lavazza. A survey by Influencer Marketing Hub in 2021 found that 77% of creators depend on brand deals, which means three times as many creators are dependent on those deals as are dependent on every other revenue source combined. But Lee doesn’t give up his authenticity or personal style while incorporating ads in his videos. He eschews directives to say “click the link in my bio” to promote a particular offering because he knows the videos will perform better without that call to action. He sticks to his original style.
Because his income is dependent on producing new and original content, he feels the pressure to constantly produce. He recently launched a collection of videos called “People as food,” in which he creates dishes based on celebrities’ or musicians’ personalities. Though he cooks for an audience almost every day, he doesn’t remember the last time he made a full meal just for himself. Eggs and toast for breakfast and packaged soba noodles for lunch are staples in his house. “If I put too much time into a meal that I’m not filming…I feel like it’s a lost opportunity,” Lee explained.
Lee compares being a content creator to being an Uber driver: He has the freedom to set his own work schedule, which is what he wanted for himself. But the brutal truth of the creator economy, just like the gig economy, is that the more you work, the more you earn. Lee constantly compares his output to that of his competition: When he’s not shooting or editing, he’s brainstorming. “What am I doing tomorrow? What’s next?
Even with the constant work, Lee can’t predict if a TikTok will get enough views to go viral. “It’s still almost impossible to know how well a video will do,” he said. And since his value as a creator is determined by the traffic he drives, he experiences living at the mercy of the algorithm as precarious. His very first viral video had 10.6 millions of views, but even after being a full-time creator for almost a year and half, he still can’t recreate the recipe to that success every time.
Still, he’s keeping at the grind. His ultimate goal is to open a restaurant one day so his fans can finally taste his food. “In-person dining, and like being a chef,” Lee said, “that’s my craft.” But first, he needs to continue producing good food and even better content until Gordon Ramsay comes knocking.