Stephen Cusato’s Youtube channel; Not Another Cooking Show is as delightful as a home cooked meal. The title proves to be true; as it is as warm and inviting as the host himself. A wizard of food and photography, he eschews the idea of a “perfect meal,” and instead encourages people to cook with love. Mr. Cusato was generous enough to chat with your humble correspondent about his roundabout journey to creating his wonderful show. Bon Appetit! 😉
Stephen Cusato has always loved watching food. Growing up at a time when the Food Network was barely a thing, he would fall asleep to reruns of Japanese Iron Chef, and remembers being fascinated with watching the short order cooks across the counter at the local diner.
“Food wasn’t something that I was obsessed with, so I just assumed that I would study business and work in advertising like my dad. My dad worked in advertising in a day where people had offices with Nerf guns in them— it was a cool kind of world to work in. My dad worked on the Hess account, so I would always get Hess toy trucks every year. He asked me one year to be in a Hess commercial and I was like, “No, God, No!” I wish I did it now!” he says laughing.
While at Fairfield University, he studied abroad in Florence his junior year, and says the food culture left an impression on him. After graduation he headed into advertising, but the business had changed a lot since the time he was a kid.
“The reality of the industry by the time I entered the workforce in 2008—with the financial crisis— companies weren’t doing well. Advertising was changing with social media. I quickly realized, this is not the golden days of advertising. This is totally changing.”
After three years at the company, he ended up giving his two weeks notice after he got a permit approved by the Parks Department to operate a food truck. What was next on the menu? Grilled Cheese!
“I decided to get into food and start a food truck. I also started a food blog while I was developing it to build my name. My food truck ended up being called Food Freak’s Grilled Cheese. I wanted this dichotomy of a weird name matched with this tastefully designed, cute little cart—with really thoughtful food that was not grotesque in any way, but refined. I wanted to be very mature, like we’re a restaurant inside of a food truck. What I loved about that was the service aspect. One of my big food influences is Danny Meyer, (the restaurateur legend who owns Union Square Café, Grammercy Tavern, and Shake Shack) and he wrote a book called Setting the Table. Hospitality has always been a big thing for me, so I just loved interacting with customers and showing them we really cared. I knew when our customers were on vacation or when they were sick. We did that for a while—it was great—as well as huge music festivals, other events and catering.”
The Food Freak Grilled Cheese food truck even had its share of paparazzi, when Anne Hathaway stopped by on the day she got engaged, along with her fiancé! The food truck’s days, it would seem though, were numbered.
“We were stretching ourselves thin and not really building anything, and after a few years the city changed regulations on the cart sizes that were legal. When our permit ran out, we were faced at a crossroads; and we decided to stop. That was pretty hard for me. I had loved it and hated it. We were working 14-17 hour days, and it felt like we were shackled to it in some way, but it gave me cooking chops. My two partners were formally trained chefs and had base knowledge, so I was exposed to the basics and proper technique. And though I never went to culinary school, it’s like—you don’t have to.”
I know what you’re thinking. What’s being served up next? Here’s a clue: “Say cheese!
After spending some time trying to figure things out, a former advertising colleague asked him if he could take photos for their client, Tribe Hummus.
“They knew I could work with food, so they asked me, ‘Could you stage some photographs ? And I was like, ‘Yeah. Sure!’ I wasn’t a photographer or anything like that. I did a few things and they were pretty good. So I decided to figure out how to use a camera. I went on YouTube and learned as much as I could.”
And just like that he went from making—to photographing food!
“I would do 10 photo shoots a month for them, and worked with them for four or five years, along with some other clients. Over time, I did thousands of photo shoots that developed my camera skills and they got better and better. Then video became a big thing, and I was like, ‘I have a good eye for photography, it makes sense that I could also do video.’ Video is a different skill, but I find it to be more interesting than photography .You can do more with it.”
He found that doing a Youtube show was just a natural outgrowth of all his experience thus far.
“I found getting a camera was the final puzzle piece, I think. What’s funny is, when I was growing up—I forgot to mention—for some reason, I also wanted to be a director. I was obsessed with Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park and all these movies. So what’s funny is—I’m 32 now, and lo and behold, I’m sort of like a director working in food, you know what I mean? The show is literally an extracted pure version of who I am. And what I’m most proud about is, it’s allowed me to just fully embrace my identity in a way that I probably never have before. It’s just me telling the world who I am: I’m the guy who loves food and films it.”
When asked what he thinks is special and timeless about sharing a meal around the table, he says, “ I think it’s important because it’s one time where you can just slow down with your day. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re famous, or if you’re middle class, lower class, upper class—everybody eats every day. And you know, everybody has people in their lives that we don’t spend enough time with. The purpose of food is to bring people together. It’s just not the same if we do it alone; it’s so much better when you share it with other people. There’s just nothing better than a home cooked meal.”
He says what makes his show different is his goal to make food the star of the show; not himself.
“When I look at traditional TV cooking shows, especially on the Food Network; to me, it seems like everything around the food is perfect and scripted, and the food is more of an afterthought. So for me, I wanted the food to be perfect— and everything around it to be a little rough around the edges.”
“There’s just something about cooking to me that I think people are missing out on so much! And I’ve had people over to eat, and everyone says, ‘Oh, you eat like a five star restaurant every night.’ Through this show, I’m showing people it doesn’t take that much. It’s not like I’m doing anything that other people couldn’t do.”
“We’ve stopped cooking like a Grandma has, you know? There’s no love or attention or care in it—everyone wants to be fancy and show off. That’s why I focus on the basics; because nothing is more impressive than when you can absolutely nail a pasta. One of my favorite things that I made on the show that I love to eat is the Cheesy Gordita Crunch Taco Bell tacos. There’s just something about it that is so good because you made it yourself, and you can enjoy it knowing that it used to be something that was so bad for you.
He says one of the gratifying things about doing his show is being 100% in control of the content.
“I think that’s why I’m flourishing now, because for so many years, I would work for other people’s approval. And what’s cool about the show—and YouTube in general—is, if you approach it genuinely, it sort of exposes you, and you gain a better understanding of who you are in a weird way.”
“What’s funny is, I realized halfway through making the show that I was literally mimicking the same user experience that I had when people came to visit me on the food truck. There was a cutting board, and you had to kind of lean down to get on their level. And so I would lean in and talk through a square rectangular frame and talk to people casually.
What I love about Not Another Cooking Show is that its specific cinematography and friendly style give confidence to those who are a bit nervous to try their hand at cooking. As for Stephen, he’ll be continuing to put out videos that instruct, inspire…and make us hungry!
Catch his awesome food show here!