Like many other restaurant workers, Brandon Skier found himself out of work because of the pandemic. Here’s how he built his new career as TikTok star Sad Papi.
In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Brandon Skier.
If Brandon Skier knew he was going to become TikTok famous, he certainly wouldn’t have chosen the handle @sad_papi to be his forever pseudonym. “The name was a joke,” he admits, a play on Drake’s @champagnepapi moniker. “I made my account to pass time. I never had any intention of that being my brand, but I started growing and that was it. The handle stuck.”
With zero tech skills and a decade of restaurant experience under his belt, the former line cook and Los Angeles native entered the social media world as a last resort. He’d lost his fine dining job when the pandemic hit and couldn’t find another in the spring of 2020, as restaurants throughout the city were forced to close their doors. But Skier didn’t want to give up his lifelong passion for food, so he started posting cooking videos on TikTok.
Nearly two years later, Skier has amassed 1.9 million followers (known lovingly as his papitas). His tasting menu-style dishes, relaxed approach, and tattooed aesthetic set him apart from competitors on the platform and have landed him partnerships with brands like Hedley & Bennett, East Fork, and Made In. Needless to say, he no longer plans to seek another line cook gig. In the following interview, Skier shares his take on culinary school, his daily routine, and the key to staying relevant.
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Brandon Skier: My dad was a cook who paid his way through college and my grandpa was a baker, so I was just surrounded by food since I was a kid. My plan was always to go into fine dining and open a restaurant. I grew up watching the original Japanese Iron Chef and Gordon Ramsay, so that’s all I ever really wanted to do.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
When I was 15 years old, I got a work permit and I started restoring classic cars. Someone took me in as an apprentice. I worked my way up to become a parts and production manager for a body shop, and I was making a very cushy living for a young teenager. There were nice benefits, but I was behind a desk all the time and I didn’t want that. I wanted to be in food, so I quit and took a fry cook job making minimum wage.
How did you get into the industry?
I always had big aspirations for cooking, but when I wanted to make the switch to restaurants, I knew I wouldn’t get hired at a fine dining establishment. So I looked at Jonathan Gold’s 101 [Best Restaurants] List [in the LA Times]. I picked the restaurants that seemed attainable for me at the moment and I just started sending out applications.
I would go in and say, “I have no experience, but I want to learn,” and they would say, “No thank you. We need someone who has at least two years of experience.” Eventually, I got hired at Plan Check, a Japanese American fusion restaurant by Ernesto Uchimura. I was there for a year and then went to Superba Food + Bread, which was opened by this super group of chefs.
I was there for two years and then I went to Redbird, with chef Neal Fraser, for three years. While I was at Redbird, my friend was a sous chef at Providence, and I would go in there all the time and work on my days off. From there I went to be part of the opening team at Auburn and I was there until the day it closed.
Did you go to culinary school or college? Would you recommend it?
I kind of did it backwards. I started working in the restaurant industry, for about three years, and then I went to culinary school at the Art Institute in Hollywood. I was already working in restaurants and I grew up with cooks, so I felt like I didn’t get as much out of [culinary school] as I thought I was going to. And I got a mountain of student debt.
If you don’t know the fundamentals, like terminology and basic cooking techniques, then culinary school is going to be worth it. If you already have fair cooking chops, then I would say it’s probably not worth it. It’s very expensive for the salary you’re going to get afterward.
When was the first time you felt successful?
The first time I felt successful was the first time I got a dish on the menu at Redbird. Chef Neal was super cool and if you thought you had something good, you could make it [for the staff]. He would give you his critiques and feedback. If he really liked it, he’d put it on the menu. [My first dish] was a beet salad with whipped goat cheese, sudachi, pistachios, and pistachio oil. All the garnishes were from our garden, as well.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
COVID hit and the restaurant I was working in, Auburn, closed permanently. It was a new, fine dining restaurant, we just didn’t have the money to stay open, and we weren’t outfitted for to-go food, so they shut down. I was trying to look for another job and nobody was hiring. Restaurants were closing left and right. Nobody was really sure what the restaurant industry was going to look like.
I had downloaded TikTok just to pass the time and I kept seeing food videos. I was like, “I can do that.” So I just posted a video and said, “Hey, I’m a cook. If I started posting food videos, would anybody be interested in watching?” And I think that video got over a million views in a day, so I just started posting short little videos of recipes and cooking hacks from a restaurant worker and it blew up. It was just for fun and I was doing it until I found another restaurant job.
The turning point for me was when four or five big creators on social media [including @acooknamedmatt, @sulheejessica, and Skier’s now-girlfriend @veggiekins] messaged me asking if I’d considered doing this full time. They offered tips on upgrading my camera, and said I didn’t really need to go back to the restaurant to make a living.
A lot of people were telling me the same thing at the same time, so I just went for it. I took all my money — I was on unemployment at the time — and bought a camera. I didn’t even have a laptop, so I bought a laptop and downloaded editing software and taught myself how to edit and film. I never looked back. Here I am.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
I wake up and, very similar to a restaurant, I work off a makeshift prep list, but it’s my content schedule. I have a whiteboard and write down all the things I’m going to work on — all the things I’m doing R&D on, what I need to film that day, what needs to get edited — and then I’ll see if there’s any overlap and if I can work on more than one thing at a time.
I’ll do a grocery run if I have to, come back, set up, and start my projects. That will last for hours. In between, I’m probably responding to emails or text messages from my manager. When I finish filming, I’ll start editing and then put the final polish on it. Then, I will respond to a slew of emails and I’m pretty much glued to the computer for a while.
Next, I’ll upload — I try to post every single day on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube — and engage. I used to respond to almost every comment that I got. Now it’s just not feasible — there are just too many. I set aside about an hour a day to respond to comments and DMs. Then I’ll put my phone away, make dinner, and go over my list again toward the end of the night.
Which social media platform do you focus on? Why?
If you are looking to build a platform and grow very quickly, TikTok is the best for that. Instagram is the best for monetization, if you want to do brand partnerships, and it pays a little more through the creative fund [Meta] has established [to compensate content creators directly], as well. YouTube is also good at taking care of their creators.
What would surprise people about your job?
Probably the hours. People think content creators just cook something, film it, and post it, like it’s a rinky-dink fun time. I didn’t realize how much work went into it. As a line cook, I was working two jobs for a long time and I’m pretty much working the exact same hours.
I’m nonstop doing something. Everything that I do is related to work in some fashion, but I get to do it primarily at home, I get to be comfortable most of the time, and I get to pick what I’m working on.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
First of all, find your niche. There’s a lot of food content out there, and if you’re just hopping on every single trend and doing generic stuff, you’re going to fade away just like the trend will. Find out what your niche is, stick to it, and be yourself. People are going to appreciate someone who’s genuine rather than someone who just does the baked feta pasta.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.