Leading Lights – Ben Ebbrell

Chef and co-founder of online food community – SORTEDfood, Ben Ebbrell is part of an internet sensation that has taken the world by storm since its launch in 2010. Twelve years and 2.4million subscribers later, the SORTEDfood YouTube channel regularly achieves over 300,000 views a day. Never ones to rest on their laurels, in 2020 SORTEDfood launched their very own answer to meal kits with the Meal Packs App, a meal planning phone application that takes the stress out of cooking and uses every-day ingredients to save time, money and reduce food waste.  

Keen advocates of healthy eating for children, the team have since moved on to work with local primary schools, charities and food banks, learning more about the barriers to cooking healthy meals in a bid to reduce levels of childhood obesity. We caught up with Ben to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes at SORTEDfood and how they nurture open channels of communication with their subscribers to keep abreast of trends and continue developing relevant content.

When working on new dishes, what is your development process?

Generally, our mid-week recipes for the Meal Packs app are fairly quick to develop, test, photograph, proof and publish. However, others that are more ‘out of the box’ for the YouTube channel often take a bit of tweaking before we’re fully happy with them. Regardless though, all the new dishes benefit from a collaboration between our food team of professional chefs and the other skill sets we have in the business… the ‘normal’ home cook sanity check is vital!

Do you have any “go-to” cuisines or global dishes that you gravitate to more than others?

We do our best to work with a huge variety of global influences… but there are a few favourites at the moment that I think reliably give food the flavour boost required. They are inspired by some of the best places I’ve visited, either with SORTEDfood or personally. For instance… harissa, preserved lemon, tahini, rose and cinnamon are all fairly iconic with North African and Moroccan flavours and are useful store cupboard additions. As are wasabi, miso, yuzu and togarashi from Japan… I find them easy extras to twist up regular meat, fish, veggie dishes.

How many new recipes a week does your team have to produce to maintain fresh content for your audience?

On YouTube we publish two videos a week… subject to the episode format they might include anywhere between 1-5 recipes that need to be developed. On top of that there’s our Meal Packs App. This meal planning tool focuses on recipes that are smartly created to enable the user to buy less and use it all up so there isn’t any food waste at the end of the week. To keep things fresh and dynamic there is at least one new Meal Pack with 3-5 recipes per week. And as if that’s not enough, our food team also develops recipes for cookbooks that we publish (we’ve produced 10 in the last 3 years!), live events/dinners with sponsors and for cooking demos. So, needless to say, there’s always ample being tested to keep the team well fed!

How do you keep up with the trends to make sure your content is relevant?

The sentiment behind all our content is that the audience helps to shape it and invariably, the thousands of comments we receive each week skews towards topics or trends that are timely and popular. Therefore, our attention is drawn to things that are growing outside of our bubble too. That said, if we can jump on those conversations quickly then SORTEDfood’s platforms can definitely give them a real boost and help to speed up the momentum behind them. Beyond the online community, we also have great connections with top chefs, restaurants and PR teams in London, which naturally gives us the inside track too. 

What has your YouTube audience taught you about cooking?

Loads! Sometimes entirely new recipes or ingredients that are highlighted for us to explore in our video formats such as ‘Food Trends’ or ‘Pretentious Ingredients’. Whilst other times it’s simply a helpful tip or snippet of information about an ingredient or recipe origin. All of this context helps. One thing is for sure, they often help to correct our pronunciation of ingredients or dishes from languages less familiar to us. For instance, I once got loads of helpful advice and reassurance when trying to make kombucha for the first time and the SCOBY looked evil! Haha 

How much influence do your audience have on the recipes you produce?

At two levels… broadly speaking the thousands of engagements each week help to steer the direction of the next recipes and topics we focus on. But also, at a granular level. When it comes to specific dishes or destinations that we are less familiar with we reach out for input from our global community. They swiftly jump into action and help by suggesting cool tips and tricks or flavour combinations that inform our food development and production teams. We also regularly host feedback sessions (1-on-1 and in the form of questionnaires) with our Meal Packs subscribers to make sure the content is serving them well… all of their suggestions filter into the development process to continually improve the product.

You recently broadcast a live event, how different did that feel to pre-recorded episodes and what additional prep did you undertake?

The Live shows were a very different operation to the usual pre- and post-production that our team usually handles, so we brought in an external production team to provide some expertise. There was a huge amount of extra planning and contingency across all areas of the business – from sales to customer service and beyond!

Once we began the Pass It On challenge, the pressure felt pretty similar for us on-screen to the normal way we shoot it. We always film it in ‘real-time’ and therefore the pressure remains high even without a live audience. The addition of a talk-back earpiece to give us time checks plus highlight a few comments from the audience added an extra dimension… it all felt very grown up. Whilst we’ve been on live TV and radio plenty of times before… never in front of people who paid to watch our show. The adrenaline was high and it was great fun.     

With multiple recipe books, a hugely successful social media following, meal app and a number of tv appearances under your belt, what’s the next challenge for 2021?

As we emerge from lockdown it’s more clear than ever before that food (cooking at home midweek, hosting with friends/family and eating out) has the power to connect us. As many return to a physical workspace and with ever decreasing ‘work-from-home’ options, the speed, ease and efficiency of midweek cooking is hugely important again. As is understanding where our food comes from, how it fuels us and how we can engage with food responsibly whilst also making tight budgets stretch further. Therefore, all those tools you mention… from our video content to our meal planning and recipe app… need to continue to grow and adapt to support people. That will remain the focus of our entire team over the coming months and onwards into 2022. That said, with our finger always on the pulse we will also be dipping our toes into a few other projects… no spoilers yet… but keep an eye on our social media channels to be the first to hear!

What recipe have you selected to share with us and why?

We’ve chosen the Thai Green Tofu Lettuce Cups because they’re simply stunning – lettuce cups are stuffed with fragrant crumbled tofu, shallots, chili and served on a bed of a light bright avocado vinaigrette so you don’t miss the dairy fat. Super fresh, super vibrant, super green – absolutely perfect for blowing away those January blues!