From The Mosh Pit Into The Frying Pan
When metal musician Sahil Makhija launched his YouTube cooking channel, Headbanger’s Kitchen, he was resolutely carving out a new identity for himself. Verve gets Demonic Resurrection’s frontman and now cookbook author to open up about the move that helped his career and life do a one-eighty
When Headbanger’s Kitchen really took off, around four years ago, Sahil Makhija would get loads of comments from young metalheads who were fans of his blackened death metal band, Demonic Resurrection. “They’d say, ‘My mother watches your show’ or ‘My mom liked your chicken piccata recipe, and she made it for me’, you know? There was a kid who was like, ‘Listen, my parents hated metal. They thought it was all shit and druggies, blah blah blah. But they saw your show, and now they’re okay with it!’ It had a real impact,” he recounts over the phone.
Makhija has made a name for himself as one of the pioneers of extreme metal in the independent music circuit in India. He’s been the frontman of Mumbai’s Demonic Resurrection since it was founded in 2000, in addition to his solo project, Demonstealer, and a short-lived comedy rock band called Workshop. His dream had been to ‘make it’ as a musician. After several false dawns, and many highs and excruciating lows, Makhija finally decided to give up on that dream. “Demonic Resurrection still exists. If there’s a show, the band meets two days before and rehearses,” he says. “But I’ve gotten disillusioned with the music scene here and our inability to break into the global market.”
Meanwhile, he’s quietly built up a whole other career, one that excites him still. He is a full-time chef, having developed a loyal YouTube following over the past five years or so via his cooking show, Headbanger’s Kitchen, where he focuses mostly on keto recipes.
During the infancy of the Indian metal scene in the early 2000s, budget-strapped acts would come to Mumbai for gigs. “Bands like Kryptos would stay at my house. I’d make breakfast for them…omelettes and stuff, nothing too fancy,” he recalls. In 2007, soon after getting a camera phone, he made his first food post. Makhija prepared a chicken dish, clicked a photo of it and uploaded it along with the recipe as a Facebook Note. He continued to share his recipes on the social networking site for the next few years and, during this time, also encountered YouTube cooking shows like BBQ Pit Boys and Epic Meal Time, which featured over-the-top foods (like turducken, a chicken stuffed into a duck that is then stuffed into a turkey, he exemplifies). Then in 2010, he collaborated with film-maker
Srinivas Sunderrajan — who was already shooting a music video for Demonic Resurrection — for a recipe video, purely to promote his band. This culminated in a decision to work together on a food project and, the following year, they put out the first episode of Headbanger’s Kitchen.
“In any creative field, it’s kind of the same. You pick a project, you ideate, you execute it. Sitting down with a song is the same as working on a keto series. Each recipe is like a song for me,” he says. Today, he has over 4,75,000 subscribers, many of whom have clicked that damn bell icon to get notified when he posts new videos. These get anywhere between 10,000 to a million views, inviting intense discussions and conversations in the comments below.
“Horns up,” goes his catchphrase that kicks off each episode. The heavily bearded metalhead is most often seen in a classic black band tee and thick-rimmed glasses, with his shoulder-length hair either left free or tied up. One of his most popular videos, with over a million views, is a recipe for a flourless keto chocolate cake. There’s another for keto tea, the title of which is ‘Keto Masala Tea | Keto Tea | NOT CHAI TEA LATTE!!!!’ Aggressive metal music serves as the soundtrack to the cooking as Makhija throws the other phrases or words that he’s become associated with over the years at the camera. “Enough jibber-jabber” is one.
In 2014, the fourth season was successfully crowdfunded, and Makhija had a team working with him. He cooked for and interviewed metal bands, including the Dubai-based Nervecell, French band Gojira, and Indian ones like Undying Inc, Plague Throat and Bhayanak Maut, on the channel, where dishes such as Undying Meatzza and Bhayanak Bacon Bomb were born. He even sold his decadent made-to-order bacon bombs within the music community; he remembers catering a gig at the much-loved venue B69, a decrepit hole-in-the-wall that is now defunct. He made a hundred beef burgers and carried his own microwave to heat up the patties. Slowly, though, dwindling support and viewership as well as production costs, logistical issues and lack of sponsor interest meant the show ran out of steam. “After five years, we had no money. In the beginning, everyone’s excited. But then I was like, ‘Okay, the metal scene is too fickle; it’s not a sustainable audience’.” Sunderrajan and his team left to focus on other projects, and Makhija ditched the existing format, choosing instead to work at his own pace and convenience. He did a series called Bacon Tadka, where he’d take iconic Indian dishes and add bacon or “baconise” them. Through the course of the series, butter chicken, paneer paratha, dahi-rice, even the classic chhole-bhature, were all given the bacon treatment.
Soon, he pivoted to a set-up where he was doing, and continues to do, everything by himself: cooking the dish, writing the script, shooting, setting up the space, editing the videos, taking photos of the food and handling social media. Plenty of trial and error has gone into maintaining his YouTube fan base; he’s done daily vlogging, tried three videos a week (these days, he sticks to one) and experimented with different styles and formats — he did a Thai food month and tried out both keto and non-keto recipes. There’s also an ongoing Keto For Beginners series.
Makhija had noticed heavy engagement online when he uploaded the first few keto recipes. He decided on an identity for his show through his own experiences with the keto diet, realising that he could capitalise on the trend. By mid-2016, Headbanger’s Kitchen was almost entirely devoted to keto recipe videos, and Makhija saw his following rise considerably. “It’s always about catching the wave; it was a case of ‘right place, right time’,” he explains.
He’s now making more money than he ever has, largely due to the fact that a majority of his subscribers and viewers are based abroad, with a chunk of them situated in the US. Only around 20 per cent are Indian. His primary source of income is ad revenue through the YouTube channel and headbangerskitchen.com, his personal website. Keto Life, a keto cookbook commissioned by American publishing house, Cider Mill Press, came out last year. “In six days, I made 100 dishes, shot them and put down all the recipes for the book,” he reveals.
‘Celebrity chefs’ are often expected to be a little kooky, a little bit larger than life. They can be goofy and sunshine and rainbows or employ the temperamental artist trope — the tortured asshole — or just be nauseatingly enthusiastic about…teaspoons. Think Turkish chef Nusret Gokce, aka Salt Bae, with his sunglasses and white tee and mini moustache, and his insufferably self-important obsession with dribbling salt. But in the vast, endless wastelands of YouTube, a little showmanship can go a long way. And Makhija, too, has a distinct personality. He is witty and articulate and peppers his shows with throwaway wisecracks, signature lines, the odd dad joke and some slapstick now and then. Then there’s the obvious link to extreme metal that is at the heart of Headbanger’s Kitchen. And it all works.
He has cracked the YouTube code, aided perhaps by his natural ability to present in front of the camera and an audience. “How you see me in the videos is how I am as a person. What you see is 100 per cent Sahil. I haven’t tried to be anyone else. I think it’s all about being genuine. Your personality is evident on screen,” he says.
This emphasis on authenticity has encouraged him to be vocal about political issues of late, despite his previous reluctance to do so. He’s been outspoken about religion and the state of Indian politics on his personal social media pages and in his videos. A pet peeve is that he gets a lot of subscribers asking about ‘pure veg’ options. “The way food is viewed in India with this veg/non-veg angle bothers me.” He sounds off about how this food binary is a construct of the caste system. “Everywhere in the world, egg is vegetarian. But here, egg is considered non-vegetarian and milk is not! To me, that’s a problem.” Makhija receives quite a bit of flak thanks to his many meat-based recipes, but he is unperturbed. “I don’t give a shit anymore if people unfollow me; I have to speak up now. At first, I thought I’ll ignore it but now, the situation in the country — the BJP, this whole beef ban and lynchings — is reaching that level where you have to speak your mind.”
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