Hilah Johnson has a dirty little secret—she loves Chick-fil-A sandwiches. The problem, as the Austin chef is quick to point out, is that she also loves her gay friends.
This conundrum prompted her to create her own interpretation of the fast food chain’s signature sandwich this summer, a succulent-looking clone (minus the MSG) that she boldly dubbed the “Chick-fil-Gay.”
It was a breakthrough moment for the darling 33-year-old, who has built a loyal YouTube following three million hits and 24,000 subscribers strong since her culinary web show debuted in 2010. But despite winning YouTube’s Next Chef competition last year and finally making enough money online to quit her job as a dental assistant, she had yet to create a truly viral video.
“I’d been aware of Chick-fil-A’s support for anti-gay groups for a long time and I wanted to create something for people who like the food, but not the company,” she said, noting that her timing was random. “But I didn’t expect what happened.”
What happened was Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy leaping feet-first into the gay marriage debate equivalent of hot grease, whether peanut oil or otherwise.
Johnson’s video, which had already been up for a month, went viral, providing an alternative recipe for disgruntled fast-fooders craving pickled chicken sandwiches and racking up more than 250,000 views in the process.
“One day I randomly started getting a bunch of comments, so I looked at the news and was like ‘oh… that happened!’” Johnson said, referring to Cathy’s statements to the Baptist Press that the company was “guilty as charged” for backing “the biblical definition of a family.” “I don’t know if I have any cosmic influence, but maybe—I mean damn!”
If an online cooking show is an unlikely battleground in a venomous culture war, then the easygoing chef is an even unlikelier participant. And while Johnson never intended to add her web series to the national debate, she’s happy to lend her voice to the fray.
“It shocks me that we still consider gay marriage an issue,” she said. “Why would anybody care who someone else wants to marry?”
That candor is a large part of her appeal. To be fair, her good looks factor in as well. Tall, curvy and blonde, Johnson is man’s Nordic fantasy, but her face is too friendly to capitalize on her potential intimidation factor. When I stopped by her place for an interview, she answered the door in a tank top and some leggy shorts. Her hair was a tousled mess and she looked like she’d been lying on the couch watching Julia Child reruns for the last 11 hours.
Disheveled or tidy, Johnson is naturally at ease with herself. It’s a quality that transfers to her show, where she regularly drops f-bombs, reveals deep-seated insecurities and hints at her penchant for binge drinking. Funny and self-deprecating, her nonchalance masks what might otherwise be considered precise comedic timing.
“I get accused of being stoned a lot on camera,” she said, before quickly denying the accusation. “I have been known to be drunk sometimes while we’re shooting, but I always let my audience know.”
For Johnson, cooking is an unceremonious affair. Many of her recipes come from a tiny box of notecards she inherited from her grandmother. Her kitchen is devoid of expansive chrome surfaces, Jacuzzi-size sinks and pricey dishwashers (her dishwasher is, in fact, broken). Instead, her cooking space is refreshingly snug, with orange soda-colored countertops and homely wood cabinets straight out of the Brady Bunch kitchen. It is a familiar space, the kind that actually makes you want to eat the food inside it.
It is also what makes her stand out among her mainstream counterparts. If Rachel Ray’s kitchen feels like an infomercial where everyone is on anti- depressants, and the Barefoot Contessa’s kitchen looks like the inside of a William Sonoma (inducing feelings of inadequacy among viewers), then Johnson’s kitchen is the kind of place you’d slam a plate of carnitas tacos before belching loudly and giving the chef a high-five. It is also Johnson’s real-life kitchen, the same one she stumbles into every morning to make coffee in her comfy Northeast Austin home.
Recently, a woman left a comment on Johnson’s site saying the chef’s willingness to screw up on camera, alter recipes and stay lighthearted had inspired her to be more adventurous in the kitchen. Johnson was flattered.
“There’s a time and place to be bogged down by a recipe, but when you’re making dinner for your family, there’s no reason to stress out if you only have white pepper instead of black pepper or Mexican oregano instead of Greek oregano,” she said. “Just fucking get it together, it’ll be totally fine—and probably totally edible!”
Shooting two or three shows a week, she hopes to knock out another 70 episodes during the fourth season of “Hilah’s Cooking.” Despite the hectic schedule, in which she hopes to take the show on the road to explore Texas cuisine, Johnson wants to retain her informal approach to the kitchen. This time around she’ll have the support of a new fan base that has sprung up in the wake of her Chick-fil-Gay video.
“Probably the best part of this entire experience has been realizing there is an entire community of people from the gay and straight community that feel the same way I do about human rights,” she said. “It’s sort of comforting to know we’re out there doing our thing.”