Statistics show that Gen Z are more confident in the kitchen than any previous generation. While hordes of recipes are at our fingertips, content by huge companies like “Tasty” or “Cookist” presents a faceless experience that’s all about the end result, sadly sidestepping the fun you can have along the way.
This is where MOB Kitchen comes in. Founded by Ben Lebus, MOB Kitchen started with the sole objective of creating recipes to feed four people for under £10. For Ben, this felt like the best way to coax young people into the kitchen. This wasn’t the result of some corporate mogul tapping into youth culture; MOB Kitchen was born out of Ben’s own experiences. I sat down with this Deliveroo driver turned Instagram sensation over Zoom and we chatted about all things culinary and Come Dine With Me.
“Food presentation, the theatre around food; I really learnt all about that at my dad’s Italian restaurant, Cibo. Although, I’ve always loved food. I’ve always loved cooking and just the act of making something for someone. I spent a lot of time watching TV British cooking shows: Jamie, Gordon, Nigella. I’d watch those people over Match of the Day.”
It was during his time at Edinburgh University, Ben realised that his love for food wasn’t universally shared.
“In second year, when me and my mates moved into our first house, I’d see them cooking a lot of bacon sarnies, pesto pasta, even pasta and butter; really, really simple things that showed they had a total lack of understanding about cooking. They weren’t excited or confident about getting into a kitchen. I realised there was a gap in the market.”
If you do a quick Google search for a student cook-book, it’s a bit like Groundhog day. Book after book claims that it’s recipes require the least ingredients or the least money. Sure, this is useful, but does it actually deliver tasty food that you’d be excited to eat? And more importantly, does it reflect what the modern student really wants to be eating? Ben Lebus thinks not.
Going to uni is a part of your life where you are more vulnerable; you don’t have a lot of money and you’re not going to be living as well as you are when you start working. The last thing you really want is for someone to be talking down to you, reminding you of that,
Students spend their money; they’re not in the market for saving. They want to live like they’re not constrained or on a budget, and we wanted to create a platform that gave them options and recipes and ideas that allowed them to do that with a realistic cost.
MOB was born out of the realisation that there was a huge divide between what the authors of student cookbooks think the student experience is like, or remember it to be like, and what it actually is now.
“My experience of cooking at university with my mates was that we’d come home, pile our food on the table and whack on some tunes. It was just a very relaxed atmosphere where we could switch off from what had happened in the day, cook something and listen to music together. It was more about the experience. That’s the feel and energy that we want to give off with MOB; that cooking isn’t a chore. Yes, it’s accessible, but it’s also enjoyable.”
After ni, Ben moved back in with his parents in Oxford, pursuing MOB whilst working as a Deliveroo driver. This experience probably resonates with a lot of young people - post-university, Gen Z and millennials frequently find themselves living under the same roof as their parents in a kind of child-adult limbo. Ben talks about the ups and the downs of this time:
“I feel very, very grateful and very lucky to have had parents who were happy to let me move back in for free. I was really privileged to do that and I know that isn’t an option that’s open to most.
I also have a real awareness that this allowed me to pursue MOB as a full time thing rather than it being a long, drawn-out process. It was crucial for me. I wanted to dedicate all of my time and energy to it and I was only really able to do that while my Mum and Dad supported me.
I would say if anyone’s in this situation now, with your parents supporting you more than you usually would, then make the most of it. That little thing you had on the side or project you have on the weekends, just go for it! Everyone’s got so much energy built up at the moment and it’s a cool thing to be able to focus on.
MOB kitchen started on YouTube, but the content wasn’t really achieving the sort of traction Ben had imagined. In order to thrive, MOB would have to adopt the square format popular on Instagram and Facebook. Ben discusses the challenges of putting out videos in this space whilst maintaining the integrity of your brand:
At first our content didn’t go viral. The food content that was going viral at the time were deep-fried chocolate brownies and exploding cheese pools, all that crap. We’re now four and a half years in and we’re more established, but there’s never been a viral take-off moment. It’s been a more slow and steady build throughout. That’s probably the biggest hurdle, because of the kind of content we put out, we weren’t able to latch onto that food-porn trend that was allowing people to grow so quickly.
Before this interview, I, like most people my age, was scrolling through TikTok. I noticed that MOB Kitchen has just created its own account. In this sense, MOB is the perfect example of a brand that adapts to the ever-changing online culture.
MOB started as a Facebook page when I was at Uni. I’m 28, so when I was graduating no-one was really on Instagram - it was all Facebook.
It’s difficult because you spend so much time and resources focusing on one platform and then you suddenly read in the news that after two years of effort, “Facebook’s dead, it’s all about Instagram now”.
You have to constantly be nimble and try to recognise different trends early on. Then you can switch focus and make moves for the business that you think will be good long term.
The Tiktok strategy is way more about this very raw, rough and ready, not overly-produced content. I think they can smell a corporate video from a fucking mile off. Our content on Instagram is great but it’s of a high production value, so we had to switch the strategy. We’ve uploaded three videos to Tiktok. On one of them, I’m getting a lot of hate in the comments for my accent… But it’s doing really well and our following’s built out.
At the start of the first lockdown, MOB kitchen was just a team of four now just over a year later, they are just about to hire their fifthteenth employee.
We’re looking into an app quite seriously at the moment; we want to make the MOB cooking experience a much more seamless thing. We’ve also just started really getting into representing new, up and coming food talent. It’s about finding and diversifying what MOB is.
We’re in the middle of a period of real growth which is daunting, but exciting.
If you were on “Come Dine With Me”, how would you play the show personality-wise? A harsh “what a sad little life Jane” vibe, or “I’m just here to have fun and make friends”?
I can be quite critical over other people’s food maybe so I would be harsh but only about the food. It wouldn’t get nasty.
There was the kale trend back in 2011 and currently it’s an obsession with chia and flax seeds. Name a food trend that you believe is here to stay, and one that you simply just don’t get?
Lockdown trends are interesting; the banana bread and the focaccia bread that everyone was getting into. They’re indicative of people having more time on their hands. When people start getting out and about a bit more, you might see a bit of a drop off in that.
In terms of a trend that I don’t get, that TikTok feta pasta. That really doesn't tickle my fancy.
Garlic crusher: good tool or waste of time?
Of all the tools you should get it’s a microplane; to grate garlic, lemon zest and parmesan. Go for that rather than the garlic crusher.
People always ask what the best ‘date-night’ food is. What would you say is the worst?
I think it’s disgusting making out with someone who’s eaten onion or garlic, so…
While conducting the research for this interview, I came across a Daily Mail article that referred to you as a “dashing Deliveroo driver”. Thoughts?
Very flattering from whoever wrote that article. Quite nice, considering it’s coming from the Daily Mail. But if you scroll down you’ll find a comment that says I look like Guy Fawkes.
Words by Charlotte Hingley
Illustrations by Kiran Samra