Carla Lalli Music is creating a community from the comfort of her kitchen

When the world switched to work-from-home mode in March 2020, people found comfort in food. Baking banana bread became a coping mechanism for quarantine and keeping your sourdough starter alive provided ultimate bragging rights. There was a growing demand for all things food, and chef, award-winning cookbook author, and cooking show host Carla Lalli Music was ready to deliver.

If you’re into watching other people cook mouthwatering meals (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?), you’ll probably recognize Carla from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen. As a former food editor-at-large for the magazine and a frequent face on their YouTube channel, Carla was quick to join her virtual team in producing at-home videos for the first few months of the pandemic.

Then June 2020 happened. Offensive tweets and pictures from company execs circulated the web and BIPOC staff members called out major pay gaps between them and their white co-workers. Many white staff stood by their BIPOC colleagues and demanded Bon Appétit fix their issues. Carla publicly announced that she wouldn’t contribute as a host until changes were made, but after months without a move in the right direction, she announced she was leaving Bon Appétit video.

While she didn’t know exactly what her next project looked like, she knew she wanted to have more control. “I wasn’t super anxious to go put a ton of trust into a new brand to shape my career,” she says. “What I kept hearing from people was that it’s a really good time to experiment. I took that to heart.” As a Test Kitchen veteran and respected chef, she knew a thing or two about experimenting. So, she set out to create something that felt as authentic to herself as it would to her community: “Carla’s Cooking Show.”

Her namesake web series is all about, well, whatever she wants it to be about. If she feels like sharing her thoughts on cast iron skillets, that’s exactly what she does. Every season Carla picks an essential piece of equipment and does a deep dive with her viewers on how to use it in their everyday lives. But don’t be fooled, it’s no regular cooking show. You can expect cat cameos, kitchen caddy reveals, and lots of behind-the-scenes-goodness. It’s 100% Carla from conception to creation. Her patrons come to see all the imperfect realness that they love about Carla, and Carla doesn’t disappoint. Although jokes and puns are always a highlight of her videos, her 20-ish-minute episodes are also super helpful for both beginners and long-time chefs. She focuses less on perfect technique and professional skills, and more on sharing simple ways to make things taste good.

Carla Lalli Music stands in front of her grill in her backyard

Photograph by Gentl and Hyers

“When you’re representing a big brand, you’re working inside of a corporate structure,” Carla explains. Creative decisions, final cuts, and video ideas are largely out of the creator’s hands.
Patreon’s platform gives her complete control, not only of her creations but of her relationship with her patrons. It’s a smaller audience than she’s used to but a much more intimate one. “It’s like I’ve been inviting people into my home,” she says.

From planning to posting, Carla brings everyone along with her on the journey. She gets her patrons to weigh in on which kitchen tools they want her to use and she’s always eager to jump into the comment section to answer any questions. “It’s all the fun of that social media exchange of likes, comments, and feedback but without the nastiness,” she says. It’s a positive space for anyone to say hi to Carla, share anecdotes, and give feedback.

The relationship she’s building with her patrons is important to Carla because she knows delicious food isn’t enough to keep people coming back. If it’s just ingredient lists and instructions people want, they can get that from a quick Google search. If they want to watch someone show them how it’s done, Bobby Flay has a few (dozen) cooking shows on TV. The difference is the relationship; you can’t get that through a blog post and you certainly can’t get that through Food Network. “Recipes are like a dime a dozen. There are millions of recipes out there,” she says. Creators like Carla have to ask themselves: Why is somebody going to watch my videos? Why are they going to support me? “Because they have a connection with me,” she says.

It’s something Carla realized from the moment she launched on the platform. “People are just psyched to be there and they feel like they’re connecting with me one-on-one,” she says. Other platforms seemed like a beast or a “giant lava pit” where there was so much unknown. With her tight-knit Patreon community, she can focus on producing videos and recipes she loves while giving people attention and value by creating a safe space where everyone can experiment together.

Coming from a high-energy test kitchen, she had to figure out how to build a connection with her viewers from the comfort of her home — and with nobody else on screen. Carla was used to interacting with other chefs in the Bon Appétit kitchen or with their on-set cameraman. “If I could see him shaking, holding in laughter when he was holding the camera, I knew that I was connecting.” It’s the exact opposite type of energy she was getting from self-taping Instagram Lives and Stories during the early days of quarantine. When she started her Patreon account, she knew she needed someone behind the camera to bounce energy off of and make her feel comfortable. And it’s a good thing she did. If you’re already a patron, you’ll know the background comments from her producer are easily some of the best parts of the show.

“For me, the hardest part is just feeling natural. Being conversational, being silly,” she admits. “I’m not an actress. I can only do that if I feel relaxed and feel safe.” Carla’s smaller, intimate community on Patreon does just that. She can really let people in (literally and metaphorically), which is something she was already working on with her second cookbook. Set to launch this year, Carla says a big part of her book is about getting personal and sharing why food is so important in her life.

For someone who produces books, a cooking show, and a newsletter, one of the perks of creating on Patreon is versatility. “I have one hub for all of the types of content that I’m hoping to create in the next year,” she says. It’s also a great way to workshop some of her ideas and get people excited about new projects.

Patreon gave Carla the space she needed to start her show, but what she’s building is completely her own. Every day she gets to create a positive environment for both herself and her patrons. “It just feels like you’re in a good arena for constructive feedback from people who want to see you succeed.”