You’re not going to get things thrown at you just because you’re on a TV programme

Jan 19, 2022
Chetna Makan keeps it real by basing all her YouTube videos on family life

Chetna Makan has certainly been busy since reaching the semi-finals of The Great British Bake Off in 2014. Known on the show for combining Indian flavours with traditional British bakes, she went on to write The Cardamom Trail, the first of five cookbooks to date. Her most recent, Chetna’s 30-Minute Indian, offers speedy, straightforward recipes, inspired by her followers’ current desire for quick, everyday dishes – an evolution of their early-pandemic obsession with sourdough and slow-cooking.

Her YouTube channel, Food with Chetna, filmed in her home kitchen by her two children, features sweet and savoury recipes, with a focus on simple and incredibly tempting Indian dishes. She also currently writes the Taste column in Waitrose magazine and is a regular contributor to Food52.

Here she chats to Stevie Williams about what it takes to start a YouTube channel, whether to enter a TV cooking competition, and how she fits running successful social media feeds around a busy schedule.


How do you go about organising your YouTube channel? What does it take to put one together? 

All YouTubers work very differently. I know that because I was part of a YouTube programme where I met 25 amazing women who also had a YouTube channel. It was quite a learning curve because I realised how differently I work from everyone else – my channel is not a planned channel, I don’t plan things, I literally come up with things. Like right now I’m thinking: ‘I might just cook cauliflower and I’ll shoot it and I’ll post it tomorrow.’

This is how it is. It’s very close to my actual real life – what I do and what we eat is normally what I film, so it is absolutely not planned for YouTube. I don’t think and make a list and search for trending things. It’s my real-life kitchen where I’m cooking things and what I cook for my family is what I film, which is why it is so close to my heart and so special to me. It’s my family kitchen, my kids film it – it’s very raw and real. 

I think if you’re starting out, you can be yourself, which is why I like YouTube. So you can decide how fancy you want it, how much technology you want to use – it’s all up to you.

When I started the channel, I used to get a camera guy, editor and sound people to come and film it and I did that for years. Only then, because of lockdown, my cameraman couldn’t come over. I didn’t want to stop doing YouTube because I really enjoy it, so my kids said: ‘Why don’t you film it on your phone?’ And I’d just bought this new phone, so it was perfect. They filmed it for me and now, for almost two years, I haven’t filmed with a camera guy because I just find that my YouTube content is better and more relaxed and more homely without.

So, I think if people want to start, they just need to do what they love. YouTube is such a creative world. The only thing that I was told years ago, and have actually stuck with, is consistency – that’s all you need with YouTube to be successful, I think. I have been consistent, I never miss my videos – actually only in the last three months I’ve missed a couple of videos, and then I’ve simply moved the date. I think consistency is key with YouTube for sure.

Would you recommend entering a TV competition as a way to start a career in food media? How have things changed since you were on The Great British Bake Off?

Things have changed since I was on the show and I think if people want to do something in food and that is why they want to go onto a reality programme, that’s absolutely fine, there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s eight years now since I did Bake Off, and we all went in just for the fun of it, for the experience, because we all love baking. We are all big feeders and there was no feeling of competition when we went in there – all the bakers from my year group feel the same.

There’s nothing wrong with it, but people who are going in now have their websites ready, they’re already on social media, whereas I joined Instagram, Facebook, Twitter after I went on the show, after we finished filming.

I guess if you want to go into something like this, one thing you have to remember is you have to really work hard. Just because you’re on a TV programme, you’re not going to get things thrown at you – yes, in the beginning when the programme starts, you’ll get attention and love from brands and all these publications, but that’s very short-lived because, in a few months’ time, don’t forget, there’ll be another set of bakers.

I think if you want a long-term career of this, then without hard work, there is no other way. I think going into a reality show might help a little bit to open doors maybe, but I think if you don’t get into a reality programme, it doesn’t mean that you can’t try and get into this industry.

How much time do you spend on social media and do you have other people helping you out?

I’m a one-man band. I work on my own, I film, I edit, I post, I reply, I am my own agent, I work on my own, I write my own books, I test my recipes – I do everything myself, so there is nobody in the team, it’s just me. So yes, I do spend a lot of time on social media, purely because I really enjoy it. With Twitter and Facebook, I do it because I do it and don’t spend too much time on it, but Instagram is something where I do spend a lot of time. That’s my favourite platform and, after YouTube, I love Instagram because I enjoy that I can put anything I want. My Instagram is a balance of my kitchen and my life, which I quite enjoy. I don’t want to be only and purely food photos – I am making the food so my Instagram reflects that too – you’ll see me pop up now and again.

Your food looks lovely on Instagram and it's a hot topic how ‘Instagrammable’ food is, but obviously you want something that’s also going to taste great. How do you get that balance of the reality but also something that’s visually attractive? 

For me, the most important thing is that the food should taste good and I’ve always said that and I really will continue to say that, and I don’t care how the picture looks. All my pictures are shot on the phone, all of them are shot in natural light, all of them are literally when I’m about to eat and I take a picture, so it’s not styled. I’ll use the nofilter hashtag or I’ll say #realfood because that is real food. I think maybe that is what some of the people that are following me like: that it is not plated up and there’s not a nice cup of coffee there or a flower there, it’s not like that at all, it’s just how am plating my food. 

I think it depends what you want because I follow a lot of foodies who, everything is so immaculate and I have been behind the scenes with them and they spend so long preparing the shot – but if they get joy from it, that’s absolutely fine! It depends what you want. I just want my stuff to be real, so what they’re going to see is what they will get from their kitchen if they try my recipe – that is my theory.

As it’s you who is doing everything, how does your average day work? Do you try to work Monday to Friday so you’ve got the weekend with the kids?

The morning is with kids and once they’re off to school, I will try and go for my exercise, which I absolutely love. Then I have my long list here and my notebook, where I write all the recipes. I could be writing a book, so I’ll maybe have four recipes to do for the book or if not, it depends on what I have in the day: what I am filming next, or I’m doing brand work or the Waitrose column. I’ll work until the kids come back and then I’ll spend some time with them. Then, because it’s from home and because it’s from my kitchen, I’ll do a bit of work through to the evening.

No, I don’t work Monday to Friday because of the simple reason that my kids are filming my videos! But they’re not long. Last weekend, on Saturday my daughter filmed a video for me and on Sunday my son filmed a video for me, which was for brand work, so I had to get them involved, but it was done in half an hour and then we went out for lunch. So that’s alright, it doesn’t take all day. I don’t want them to spend their day off filming for me either, so it’s balanced.

They have got their studies too, so if they’re studying on a Saturday or Sunday, then why don’t I utilise my time? Yesterday, I was in London all day for social events, so I just didn’t get any work done, so that is the luxury of working for yourself: I can balance my days and weekends accordingly.

Do you fit in social media around that? Do you have a schedule for when you reply to things or is it just as and when you feel like it?

I’ve spoken to a few foodies recently and they say they do a half hour or one hour just replying to things, but that doesn’t work for me. When I finish this interview, I’ll quickly go on Instagram and post something because I usually post around afternoon time, just because this is the time I sit down. I post something and then I do a job and then I’ll go back, so I don’t have a structure for it. Actually, I don’t mind that, because when I’m working, picking up the phone to do some replies is a nice break and then I go back to working.

I think it depends what works for you. I think that’s all social media or YouTube is about: what works for you. What if I’ve got a recipe to finish and I can’t sit for that hour that day to do social media content? You have to find your own happy balance in social media.

Do you get other friends and family involved in any recipe testing when you’re putting a book together? 

No, I recipe test until I’m happy. It could be once – sometimes it is once because it’s a recipe that I’ve been making forever and then I know I just need to get it measured – sometimes it’s twice, sometimes it’s three times. Once the book is being shot, it’s recipe tested by the team anyway. 

Actually, I met some food writers yesterday and they both said that they had recipe testers for books or recipes and I was saying that I never have in seven years, and actually I still don’t feel the need for it because I’m confident that my recipes work, so I don’t want to change anything. If it’s not broken, why fix it? 

How do you come up with so many different ideas for so many different outlets?

I think it helps because the different outlets are asking me for recipes. For example, I’m doing a column for Waitrose, so they give me direction as to the season etc, so then it’s not like I’m flailing around in the world. It’s so much easier, because I know I’m cooking for December and it needs to be festive and they’ll tell me if it needs to be vegetarian or not.

Or, if I’m working with a brand, they’ll tell me they want it for Halloween and it should be a bake recipe, so that’s easy and I give them options and they’ll chose. So actually, because I work for so many people, they give me a brief, which is very helpful and solves all the problems. I think I’d find it really difficult if somebody said just write something, a column, six recipes, whatever you feel like!

What would you say has been your proudest or most exciting moment as a food writer?

I’ve enjoyed everything! I guess the release of my first book was very special because I never, ever thought that I was going to do anything like this and actually, I haven’t done this since, but when the first book came into my hands, I actually cried. Obviously, it feels special for every book and I feel very emotional and I just can’t believe it, but the first one was beyond… I was just so overwhelmed.

Is there anything across food media that you’d like to do more of or build more on?

I would love to do more YouTube; I want to do some experimentation. If I was only a YouTuber, I would have all the time in the world to try different things, but as YouTube is a small part of my whole work, I am just not able to put all my ideas into action. 

Any other advice for any aspiring food writers and YouTubers?

Find something that makes you happy and that you’re passionate about because without passion, this is very hard work. This is such a creative field and you don’t even have to find a niche, just your style.

I think my food is simple, it’s approachable. I’m trying to simplify Indian food as much as I can and make people cook more at home. I think you just have to find that little, special thing that you might have to offer and be passionate about it – that’s all, and then half the work is done.

Follow Chetna on Instagram and Twitter @chetnamakan

Subscribe to get the inside track on the world of food publishing and how you can carve a slice of it.