How a YouTube cooking sensation made the jump to TV fame

From the Wayne’s World School of Broadcasting, Laura Vitale has gone from her basement studio to YouTube celebrity to the latest Cooking Channel Web-to-TV sensation.

After the economy went south in 2008 and her father closed his New Jersey restaurants, Vitale found herself without an outlet for her culinary skills and cooking passion. So, while remodeling their home, Joe Vitale went Garth and Wayne on his wife and built a model kitchen in their basement in hopes Laura would take the hint and whisk her way into the world of cooking videos. Four and a half years and more than 850 YouTube videos later, Vitale will debut her series, Simply Laura, on the Cooking Channel at 1:30pm Sept. 27.

The basement studio gathered dust for about a year, Vitale told the Daily Dot, but one night, after too many glasses of wine, she took the plunge. Her husband filmed her first show using a $49 point-and-shoot video camera, but the admittedly rather crude early episodes captured the interest of fans who related to her charm, passion for food, everyday cooking skills, and ability to connect with her audience. Vitale now has more than 1.3 million YouTube highly engaged subscribers filling her comment field with requests for her take on their favorites dishes.

Vitale’s path from basement to the big screen is punctuated by a series of fortunate breaks, including a mention in Entertainment Weekly in which her YouTube food work was mentioned as a don’t-miss along with the prophetic words, “Hey Food Network, I think we’ve found your next star.”

Walking into the Food Network offices, which sit above the bustling Chelsea Market in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, Vitale was awestruck by her surroundings, despite her webseries fame. The large framed pictures of Iron Chefs Bobby Flay and Morimoto that dot the entrance to the offices nearly brought tears to her eyes. “I still can’t believe it,” says Vitale. “When my commercial [for the new show] comes on, I do a double-take.”

Vitale believes her passion for cooking will come through in her new series. The first show is a tribute to her Nonna, who still lives in Naples, with such recipes as pasta al forno with mini meatballs and a side of spicy broccolini. That initial show brings to mind Vitale’s all-time favorite food, potato gnocchi. “It was the first thing I remember making,” Vitale recalls. “I was 3 or 4, and my grandfather built me a little stool out of crates and I would stand next to grandmother.  She would mix the dough for the gnocchi, and I would make them on the homemade wooden gnocchi board.”

Vitale, who came to the U.S. as a teen, has come a long way since her first video, preparing “Bruschetta with Tomato & Basil” in January 2010. Although the lighting was off and the amount of ambient noise was distracting, you could sense her commitment to her craft.  “Every time we filmed, I learned something new,” notes the YouTube celebrity chef. “But the one thing I did keep was the belief that I love to cook.”

Even with her new Cooking Channel series, Vitale will continue her Laura in the Kitchen work on YouTube, with husband Joe as a one-man band shooting, editing, and producing. And, if that’s not enough, the overachieving video chef also is working on a cookbook that she hopes to have in print by late 2015. In fact, Vitale had just finished testing her recipes for roasted squash soup and cornbread dumplings when we chatted on the phone.

In speaking with Vitale and watching countless episodes of her YouTube series, her authentic take on food and its role in the home and hearth comes through loud and clear. Her technique may not be Cordon Bleu, and she may not chiffonade like a Culinary Institute of America graduate, but she gets the job done in a manner that makes her accessible to a wide variety of food fans.

“I never had an interest in going to culinary school,” says Vitale. “My take on food is different—it’s more about that the kitchen is the heart of the home and not another chore to do. It’s the place you go to to prepare something for your friends and family or reward yourself after a long day.

“I have always thought the dining table is where laughs are shared and memories made,” she continues. “I am here to celebrate that.”

Screengrab via Laura in the Kitchen/YouTube

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.