Sara O'Donnell and the Making of "Average Betty"
Simone Paz Sara O'Donnell in her kitchen
"You don't take perfectly awesome Oreo cookies, scrape out the cream filling and refill them with toothpaste," pontificates a well-lit Sara O'Donnell. She's looking into the camera, warning against the stupidity of food-related April Fools' pranks. "Here's a better idea -- why not refill them with cement? 'Oh! I broke all the teeth in your mouth. April Fools'!' "
In another video clip, she rapidly peels, chops and parboils potatoes. "Today I'm channeling my inner Napoleon Dynamite," she says wryly. "It's a little more difficult to mash these potatoes, but no pain, no tots."
O'Donnell is a new kind of food star. A pretty, cheerful brunette with a refreshingly understated wit, she operates under the brand name "Average Betty." That's meant, obviously, to conjure a nonelitist vibe, as the 35-year-old instructs from her suburban-rustic Tarzana kitchen on such doable food projects as white bean crostini, red velvet cupcakes and potato gnocchi with brown-butter mushroom sauce.
But unlike Bourdain, Ramsey, Ray, Fieri and other nationally known food stars, O'Donnell is solely an Internet phenomenon, a self-created culinary personality finding an audience without the benefit of a book deal, magazines or a TV show.
And while she's not a trained chef, she's finding a revenue stream just the same. O'Donnell cut a deal with YouTube that allows her to share in the profits generated by her videos. She also has been named one of YouTube's "Next Chefs," a select group of 16 people worldwide who each received $10,000 of grant money, $5,000 of equipment and expert tutoring from the Google/YouTube crew.
Even those potatoes come with financial remuneration. O'Donnell pitched the Idaho Potato Commission on a partnership, and it agreed: The group now pays her to use (and talk up) its spuds. She has integrated the vegetable into such diverse dishes as Potato Cup Frittata, Spicy Thai Potato Salad and the intriguingly named Potato Volcano.
"A potato is completely natural," she says. "What is better than whole food for average people to be wrapping their head around?"
O'Donnell's two- to three-minute videos move along briskly, thanks to quick-cut, time-lapse edits. Her straightforward delivery is appealing, and while a good portion of the shots display crucial recipe steps -- the mashing of the potato, the breaking of the egg, the pressing of grooves into the gnocchi -- O'Donnell gives herself enough face time to make an audience connection, adding a touch of levity to what could be a purely educational format.
"I wanted to make the most different cooking show that I could imagine," she recalls. "When I launched, it was a combination of Saturday Night Live and Food Network, and I wanted to have that Stephen Colbert man-on-the-street angle."
While she used to do some episodes in a sketch-comedy format, going so far as to dress in silly costumes, O'Donnell has veered into a more serious foodie realm, occasionally having accomplished or celebrity chefs as guests.
Growing up in Tampa, Fla., O'Donnell was raised on basic, all-American meals. "I didn't have a taco until I was in, like, the fourth or fifth grade," she recalls. "I was, like, 'Wow, what's Mexican food?' -- which then became my favorite thing ever. My mom was by no means a gourmet, but she makes the best dinner rolls. And her pies were great."
After graduating from UCLA with a degree in art history, O'Donnell went to work for a nephrologist, using Flash animation to bring to life human bodies and their blood, urine and other fluids. Then came a position as art director in charge of illustration and animation on a video project teaching dialysis patients about nutrition. Skills learned on those jobs now are put to use in editing her own videos.
While Averagebetty.com has been O'Donnell's full-time job for almost four years, only in the last year has she been able to monetize her venture, with her website traffic accruing money through Federated Media, and her video views gaining profit-share in the YouTube "Partner" program.
She also vlogs for Disney/Babble Family Kitchen, develops recipes for Farmer John and has formed relationships with various food boards -- in addition to potato, she's also got support from turkey, honey and avocado.
"The deal is about the association of my personality and brand with their product and brand," O'Donnell says. "My goal is to be authentic with my message and true to my audience."
Sponsors like the Idaho Potato Commission get it, she says. They don't "want me to beat my audience over the head with any specific message."
Thanks to her Average Betty success -- she averages 75,000 to 100,000 monthly views on YouTube -- O'Donnell was invited to the Culinary Institute of America's West Coast location in Napa, where she made cupcakes with a dozen top executive chefs. She also attended the food and wine festival in Aspen, where she interviewed Giada DiLaurentiis and Thomas Keller.
She raves about the Google/YouTube crew's tutoring.
"Amazing guest speakers would come and talk to us. Like, one week the guy from Canon explained all the new video equipment. And they did an extensive background check on us just for us to get there. It really makes me feel like I've got a relationship with Google/YouTube now."
O'Donnell's husband, Lee, a philosophy major-turned-computer programmer, was originally her cameraman. (She recently started using a professional videographer.)
But Lee still serves a second, even more important role: home recipe tester. The couple doesn't have kids, so he stands in for fussy eaters everywhere.
"Sometimes I tell him he's actually the Average Betty, because he's a pretty picky eater," O'Donnell says. "On occasion I'll drop an ingredient because he doesn't like it, like, 'Get rid of the raisin.' He kind of represents the average palate."