Kabita's Kitchen

The inadvertent wonders of clickbait gave Pune-based YouTube cook Kabita Singh her most popular lockdown video. ‘Instant Jalebi For The Whole Family With Just Four Spoons Of Maida’, posted on April 10, has 11 million views. The title, her husband’s suggestion, came about as she was doing a trial run. “The words ‘4 Spoons’ made people curious. They wanted to see how it could be done,” she says.

Several niche cooking channels have turned into viral sensations during the pandemic, a time when the DIY approach is preferable to the riskier option of ordering food. Take Kabita’s Kitchen — it currently has 8.85 million subscribers, 2.4 million of whom signed up after the lockdown began. What the channel lacks in fancy graphics and snazzy editing, it makes up for by making cooking look easy. Singh knows this too. “The simplicity is why people like my channel,” she says. Most of her recipes, from chicken curry to rasmalai, are made with readily available ingredients and Singh herself is quietly unassuming as she breaks them down in great detail.

A carefully calibrated strategy was behind the channel’s massive lockdown success. Capitalizing on requests for ‘street-style’ and ‘restaurant-style’ food in the early days of the pandemic, Singh increased the number of videos posted per week from three to five or six. “I noticed that people were craving chips since they had been advised not to eat food from out,” she says. Her ‘Instant Potato Chips’, posted on March 30, now has 7 million views.

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Singh tripled her average views per video between March and June – but the rigorous schedule took its toll. “I worked very hard for the first three months of lockdown, shooting, editing, cooking, taking care of my nine-year-old son and three year-old-daughter, and managing the house. I reduced the number of videos because I feared it would affect my health,” she says. Her per-video views have dipped since, but are still double that of her pre-lockdown uploads. In June, she appeared on comedian Tanmay Bhat’s YouTube vlog, her level-headedness a foil to his exuberance as she walks him through the process of making a Parle G cake over Zoom. It was Bhat who got her number from a YouTube partner and reached out with a pitch she describes as “a matter of great happiness”. Even actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh called the channel his ustaad (master) in a recent Film Companion interview.

What goes into keeping a massively popular YouTube channel up and running? “A lot of work,” says Singh. She taught herself to work a camera, handle lighting and edit her videos by watching YouTube tutorials. Once a week, she checks Google Trends to find out what recipes people are searching for. Subscribing to other Indian cooking channels gives her a sense of what videos are racking up the views. Once she’s decided her menu, she shoots two or three videos a day, depending on how much of her time her children need. She sets up one camera in her kitchen while a cinematographer she hired a year-and-a-half ago sets up the other. He colour-corrects the videos once they’ve been edited, which Singh only does at night, once the children are asleep. Her husband sits nearby, reading and responding to comments on previous videos and making notes of what viewers want to see next. The two of them work till 11.30 PM. The videos appear on her channel two days later. Singh doesn’t shoot over the weekend, preferring to spend that time with her family.

When she started the channel in October 2014, Singh wasn’t thinking big. Her son had just started preschool and having quit the finance sector, she figured she could use that time to try out new recipes. For a year, she shot and uploaded whatever she was cooking that day – chole, dal, green chutney. Comments such as “You made a girl who could not make tea into someone looked up to in the family circle for good food” began trickling in. Singh eventually realized that her viewers fell into two categories – novice cooks or people living alone – and adjusted her shooting style accordingly.

“I started mentioning minor details, such as the intensity of flame. I used only simple household ingredients so that viewers would find it convenient.  If I was making a recipe that involved baking, I’d do an alternate version using a kadai so that people who didn’t have an oven could also try it. I kept the cooking setup simple and homely so people would find it relatable,” she says. A breakthrough moment came 89 videos later, when she posted a recipe for Bread Gulab Jamun. It now has 24 million views.

For the next two years, she posted as and when she found the time. “Later, I realized that it was better to create a schedule so viewers could know when to expect my videos and that would increase audience interaction would be higher,” she says. For the past three years, Singh’s posted a video every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. “I noticed that videos posted according to the schedule got higher views than those posted randomly.”

Running a YouTube channel is a lucrative business – based on her views and engagement, the platform Influencer Marketing Hub estimates that Singh currently earns $3,779 per video. In August, she posted 18 videos, which would make her monthly earnings $68,022. While Singh declines to confirm that figure, she does say she earns as much as her husband, an assistant vice president at Barclays Bank. Endorsement deals with Nestlé, Dabur, Britannia, Marico, Complan and more, signed after she hit the 3-million subscriber mark, supplement this income.

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Still, she says she leaves the number crunching to her husband, preferring to focus on the cooking instead. “My biggest intention is to instil confidence in viewers. I feel mentally satisfied even if I shoot just one video a day. But a day without shooting feels like a day wasted. Even while sleeping, I’m still trying to figure out what recipes I can make,” she says.

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