Austin's Hilah Cooking!
Isn't it funny what you can discover when you're dicking around on YouTube?
For example, we came across a clip of a blond-haired, Lisa Kudrow-looking woman ranting about how her roommate has been stealing her ketchup from their refrigerator. This is particularly hilarious not only because it appears this woman is losing her damn mind over a condiment, but also because she refers to her roommate as a "sketchy bitch" near the end. (It turns out that this clip comes from Project: Rant, a viral-video series where actors recreate anonymous online posts from very bitter, occasionally disillusioned people.)
We were so intrigued by this particular rant re-enactor that we started snooping around to see who she is and if there were any more videos featuring her. We eventually discovered that her name is Hilah Johnson, and she lives in Austin. We also found out that she does many things: She's an actress, a musician (she appears in a video with her band, The Hot As Shits) and, most surprisingly, a damn fine cook.
Since early last year, Johnson, 31, has been hosting her own cooking show, Hilah Cooking!, which you can find on YouTube or her website, www.hilahcooking.com. Broadcast from her home, the show invites audiences into her kitchen as she irreverently whips up everything from biscuits to cocktails to breakfast tacos, occasionally while drinking a tall can of Lone Star Beer. She also wrote The Breakfast Taco Book, which you can download for free on her Web site.
We talked to our new favorite cook-to-watch about her show, her love for cooking and the best place to get breakfast tacos right here in H-Town.
Can we start with where you're originally from?
I grew up just outside of Austin, in Hudson Bend. My dad's people were with the Old 300 of Stephen F. Austin. I moved around a couple of times as a rebellious young adult, but I always came back to Austin, which is where I live now.
So, how the hell did the cooking show began?
Our friend Chris -- he's a filmmaker and now my "business partner," if an online cooking show can be called a business -- was staying with my husband and me after a movie that he had devoted his entire foreseeable future to collapsed. He was really depressed and broke, and so we consoled him as best as we could, namely by giving him a bed and feeding him dinner and doing a lot of whiskey-drinking on the front porch. It was during one of those porch-drinking sessions that we hit on the idea to make a web series -- a manageable project that would be doable on a zero budget and with hardly any equipment -- and a cooking show seemed natural since I cook all the time anyway.
What's the viewer/subscriber count?
Oh, gosh, um, I think we've got around a thousand newsletter subscribers, and 2,000 YouTube subscribers. With all the different ways of watching the videos tallied up, I think it's like 3,000 views per video within a week. Don't quote me on that, though; Chris is the one who checks the stats and everything.
I saw in one interview you did where you said that cooking began at a very young age. How old were you when you started cooking and what did you start with?
Yeah, I was probably around five or six when my parents started letting me in the kitchen to help, though I'm not sure how much "help" I was. But around seven, I got my very own cookbook. That's when I started cooking by myself. Brownies, I remember distinctly. My dad would request them. And spaghetti sauce. I put a bay leaf and some Tabasco sauce in it and blew my parents' minds. [Laughs]
How would you describe the style of cooking you partake in, apart from "Hilah Cooking!" of course?
Improvisational. That's been one of the hardest things actually, to make myself slow down and take mental notes of what I'm doing so that I can recreate it on the show and be able to type out the recipe on the site later. When I'm cooking at home, I tend to just wing it, and make things up as I go. It wouldn't really be that helpful, I don't think, if I just did that all the time on the show, although sometimes I can't help it.
The show is a joy to watch because not only do you have a very relaxed, funny demeanor as a host, but the show has something of a working-class feel. We don't want to describe it as "white-trash" or "trailer-parky," but it does have a blue-collar vibe to it. Was that the vibe you were going for?
I don't know that we ever really discussed what the vibe or tone of the show should be. We just started, and it had to be fun and relaxed and not take itself seriously at all, since that's how we are as people. Confidence and honesty come through on camera; there's no way the show would have been as successful as it is if I had tried to be like Martha Stewart or someone. Not that I dislike her, I think we'd probably get along fine. But, obviously, we are different, you know?
And, you know, I have a dead-end job and we live paycheck-to-paycheck most months. So, I guess I am working-class, and I'm just cooking what I like to eat. I gotta veer off here and say something about the phrase "white-trash," though, because it bothers me so much. I mean, I appreciate the humor that can come from "white-trash" culture -- thinking of shows like My Name is Earl and Eastbound and Down -- but I think the term is thrown around way too often, and applied to people who really don't deserve it. Not everyone who is poor is trashy, and not everyone who is not poor is not trashy. What you eat or where you live doesn't make you trashy. Hairstyles don't make you trashy. What's trashy is littering. Hatefulness is trashy; neglecting or abusing pets and kids is trashy. I guess, basically, being an irresponsible dick is what makes for trashy, not just whether or not you drink beer in the middle of the day, or spend your free time horsing around making cooking videos. [Laughs]
The look you had on your earlier shows were great. It looked like you woke up after a night of heavy drinking at a Nashville Pussy show. However, in recent shows, you've been looking very Happy Homemaker-ish. Is this a conscious change you made, in case TV execs are watching, or you wanted to just look pretty for your viewers?
[Laughs] I think you're thinking of just two episodes in particular: hangover tacos and biscuits, and the follow-up to the biscuits episode, featuring my friend FreekZone, which only subscribers get to watch. And I'll tell you a secret: I was totally acting! We just thought it would be funny to do a couple of episodes that were more like skits than cooking shows since we both like making movies. We'll do more episodes like that in the future, I'm sure.
Let's talk about The Breakfast Taco Book. What made you decide to do a book, and why you decided to drop it for free online?
I found that I really liked writing on the web site -- little stories or terrible jokes about whatever the episode is about -- and it occurred to me to write a small cookbook. Chris realized that we had already made videos for practically everything that has to do with breakfast tacos, so that seemed like a great subject. But, you know, it was our first big project, so we figured we'd just stick it out there for free and see what happened. I fantasized about getting a book deal or something, but so far, no dice. I have gotten a ton of great comments and emails about it, though. So, it's been really satisfying in that way.
You appear to be a big advocate for breakfast tacos. Why do you enjoy them so much?
Is this a trick question? I enjoy them because they are fast, spicy, portable, and offer endless combinations!
You have a tour of breakfast taco stops in Austin in the book. Have you ever visited any good breakfast taco spots in Houston?
Jalisciensces [Taqueria Los Jaliscienses, 10599 Telephone Rd.]! We have them in Austin, too, so I don't know if that counts as, like, a Houston institution or anything. They were real good, though. I don't get to Houston much, except to catch some Doomsday Wrestling.
Your hangover tacos recipe is brilliant, mainly because it doesn't take that much work. How long does it take to conceive a recipe and bring it to the show?
Mostly, I do recipes that I cook for myself regularly, so there's not a whole lot of recipes created expressly for the show. But there are a few, like the "Hallow-peno poppers," that I came up with for a particular episode, and I'll make them once or twice before shooting.
That one in particular, I think I tried it the day before and, then, we filmed it. So, clearly not very long. I think that's okay right now, since I stick to real simple, basic recipes and techniques for the most part.
Have there been recipes that you wanted to do on the show but couldn't pull off?
Yeah, anything that costs more than $12. Someone requested that I demonstrate how to cook a rack of lamb, and I'm like, "Mail me some cash, bro, and I'll get right on top of that." Right now, the food costs come out of my pocket, so I gotta keep things cheap.
Would you like to have a Food Network show or something like that? We were gonna suggest the title Braised and Confused for your show. But we just found out that's the name of a food blog.
Aw, hell! That would have been a great title! Um, yeah, you know, if Food Network showed up and offered me a show, I would certainly hear them out. Let me know if you come up with any more clever names for me, just in case.
Have you ever thought about doing live cooking demonstrations at bars and clubs, like the way Paula Deen and Anthony Bourdain do at big theaters?
Actually, I am doing something like that soon! Central Market asked me to be a guest chef for one of their classes. On January 14, I'll be demonstrating four recipes: sweet potato biscuits, spinach soup, beef roulade and fried pies. It's very exciting, especially since I don't have any formal training, to be tapped by an actual chef who thinks I'm good enough to teach a class there. I'd never thought about doing a demo at a bar, but that's an interesting idea! I predict a food fight. Maybe I should plan on getting a dog cage for myself. Or a poncho.
Any other stuff that you're working on, on the show or elsewhere?
I'm working on another cookbook that we'll release later this year. And working on training our puppy not to jump, bite, scratch, or do anything else that sucks. That's pretty much it.
You have your fingers in so many things over in Austin: singer, actress, filmmaker and, of course, culinary goddess. Is there one thing you would like to make a name or career out of, or are you liking this renaissance-woman groove you're on?
You know, I am really enjoying getting to do lots of different creative projects, and feel so lucky to have the free time to do all of them. I would be totally happy for the rest of my life if any one of them turned into a career.
Finally, has anyone ever rolled up and called you a "sketchy bitch," after you did that Project: Rant "Ketchup Thief" video?
[Laughs] I wish! I loved that rant; it was the first one I ever did and it's still my favorite.