“My doctor was like, you can’t do this anymore”: A Q&A with Vartan Fresh, a Toronto mukbang artist who left the family business to eat professionally
Like most people in the Toronto restaurant industry, Vartan Kavafian saw his family’s business tank in March 2020. But the former manager of Fresh Burger (a GTA chain owned by his dad) had an unlikely backup plan: mukbang. Mukbang is a streaming art form and internet curiosity where everyday people—some with millions of followers—eat preposterous amounts of food (the junkier the better) on camera. Before the pandemic, Kavafian—Vartan Fresh to his fans—had made a few mukbang videos, but now he’s on track for full-on YouTube superstardom. We caught up with Kavafian to find how about how mukbang works, which foods are the most popular and the fitness regime he uses to offset all the extra calories.
For the uninitiated: Please explain what mukbang is. You are essentially eating on camera, but it’s more than that, right?
The word translates to “eating broadcast,” but I think of it as the art of eating for others to watch. Mukbang originated in South Korea—it’s still really big there. And now YouTube has helped it to become really popular all over the world. There are a lot of mukbangers with millions of followers—Veronica Wang is probably the biggest in Canada with 1.8 million subscribers. I’m not at that level yet—I have 144,000 followers right now—but I am hoping to hit one million subscribers by the end of the year. The key is to post as many videos as possible. And then if you can create better quality videos that helps too. I recently spent $500 on a new Canon 50 to up my game. At some point I would love to work with a professional videographer and an editor, but for now I’m doing everything by myself.
Were you a fan of the genre before you were a mukbanger?
Oh, definitely. I first started watching mukbang videos because I was trying to eat healthier, so watching other people eat junk food was a way to satisfy my cravings without blowing my diet. If I was craving a pizza I would go online and watch someone else eat a pizza while I was eating chicken breast and rice.
Really? If I was dieting I feel like watching someone else gorge on pizza would just make the cravings worse.
Many people have that same reaction, but there are a lot of mukbang fans who consider it a form of living vicariously. Other people watch it just for entertainment. And then there is the whole ASMR camp. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” so people who get pleasure from listening to chewing and eating sounds. I don’t really understand it, but I know a lot of my viewers are into it. For these fans, I do one video a week where I don’t talk at all, I just chew.
So is that a fetish sort of thing?
I think that’s part of it. There are definitely foods that work best for ASMR—anything crispy, like fried chicken. I will get comments on the ASMR videos that say things like “chew more loudly.” Those videos are actually harder to shoot because the microphone is up so loud, but I guess if people are into it…
Does mukbanging always mean junk food? Like, are there mukbangers who gorge on salad?
There are ASMR YouTubers who eat salad because that’s a whole subgenre of eating sounds. Mostly with mukbang, though, it’s junk food: burgers, fried chicken, pizza, spaghetti. I do a lot of burger videos because of my family’s business. I dropped out of the kinesiology program at York in 2013 to launch Fresh Burger with my dad. We didn’t even know how to operate a grill at the time and now we have seven locations. Before the pandemic I was overseeing plans to open a Fresh Burger in L.A., but that’s not happening anymore—at least not now.
I guess business has been hard over the last year?
Definitely during the first part of the pandemic, when everyone was at home and scared to go out. We never shut down, but business definitely took a huge hit. That’s why I decided to really focus on mukbang videos. I wasn’t sure when things were going to pick up and I needed a back up plan.
So you thought, “I know, I’ll become a professional binge eater”?
No, I had already made some mukbang videos before the pandemic. In 2019 I started posting more general vlogs. My first one ever was about how to make easy college meals, but they weren’t serious—for one video I ate ice covered in olive oil. I am typically a pretty shy guy, but I found that my personality really turned on when I got in front of a camera. My friends were saying that I should try mukbang, just because it was starting to get really popular and because I’ve always been someone who can eat a large amount of food. I was starting to slowly build up an audience, but the pandemic was a massive game changer. I think maybe because so many people were stuck at home, spending more time online and missing their favourite restaurants. My subscribers started increasing by the hundreds, then thousands. And every video would get up to 40,000 views on the first day, which felt huge at the time. Now my first-day views sometimes hit up to 100,000.
Your Jollibee video has 1.1 million views. Any idea why that one in particular did so well?
Jollibee is a Filipino chain and I know that I have a large Filipino fan base, so I think that’s part of it. Really though, the algorithm is mysterious and you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out why some videos take off and others don’t. I’ll do one with Indian food and it will get a ton of views and then the next time I eat Indian food, it doesn’t perform as well. I would say in general, classic American junk food tends to be consistently popular. Burgers and fries are also my all-time favourite foods, so I eat those a lot.
What kind of training and prep goes into your work?
Just making videos consistently, really. The ability to eat more definitely increases with the more you eat. I can now eat double the amount of food I could at this time last year. Because of this, dieting is very important. I count all of my calories and on non-filming days I consume just 1500 calories and no carbs. Exercise is important, too. I purchased a home gym at the beginning of the pandemic, and I do an hour and a half of weights and 45 minutes of cardio every day. I don’t take any days off from that. I can’t—it’s part of the job.
Still, habitual binge eating sounds like it could have pretty significant health implications. Have you consulted with a professional?
I see my doctor every three months for blood work, which is not typical. Last year during the first wave when my videos started blowing up, I went in for blood work and my liver was in really bad shape with a lot of fatty cells. My doctor was like, you can’t do this anymore. I told him he was out of his mind—I was getting so many views, I couldn’t stop. That would be like winning the lottery but turning down the money. So I bumped up my cardio and I started drinking green drinks multiple times a day—spinach and kale blended with water. When I went back for my next appointment my liver was back to normal, so that was a relief. There have definitely been times when I ate to the point that I felt really sick. Like, I considered going to the doctor because I was worried my stomach was going to explode. That never happened, though.
Isn’t gorging on five times more food than you need also kind of a waste?
I don’t think so. It’s better than buying too much food and then just throwing it out because you can’t eat it.
Do you get free food for your videos?
No. I’m sure if I contacted restaurants in advance they would want to give me free food, but being in the restaurant industry myself, I want to support other businesses—especially during the pandemic. What I love is that my videos can bring attention to a restaurant, which might increase business for them.
Has your success in mukbang brought business to your family’s restaurant?
I think it definitely has. A lot of the people who watch my videos live in Toronto and they will come into Fresh Burger and be like, “You’re Vartan Fresh, I watch you on YouTube.” My parents can’t believe that I’m making money just for eating. They’re a little worried about my diet, but they’re proud of my success.
So is mukbang your full-time job now?
Yes. I stopped working at the restaurant, even though I’m still there quite a bit. I am now at the point where I am earning a good living off of mukbanging. Most of my income comes through Google ad revenue, which can bring in anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 a month right now. I know of YouTubers in the two- to three-million subscribers range who earn $60,000 a month, so that’s what I’m aiming for. I have a couple of friends who have started creating online content—one is focused on fitness videos, and the other on gaming. Our plan is to create a content house and live together and make content for YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
Living in a house with your buddies, bingeing on junk food and making big bucks? Sounds pretty great.
Yeah, I think it would be. I also want to open my own Fresh Burger at some point—I guess I miss it. And other than YouTubing, it’s one of the only things I know how to do.