In 2010, Austin’s Hilah Johnson started an Internet cooking show with her boyfriend on a lark. Today, her YouTube channel has been viewed almost ten million times and has 100,000 subscribers. Johnson recently wrapped her most ambitious project yet, a Texas food travel show titled Hilah’s Texas Kitchen. The twelve-part series features on-location shoots with food experts who help Johnson decipher the secrets of puffy tacos, kolaches, and other Texas classics. While the show takes Texas food history seriously, it balances this with serious doses of quirk and humor. We sat down recently with Johnson to learn more about the show’s origins and her food discoveries around the state.
Tom Thornton: How did your show originally come about?
Hilah Johnson: It started from a sad independent movie experience. My partner was directing an independent horror film he cast me in. It was never finished. Later, he learned about SEO and web design, and suggested we start a cooking show. I never thought it would actually become our business. I figured I’d just go along with it and goof around on the weekends. We did that for over 2 years.
TT: Has it now become your job?
HJ: Yes! I quit my job last June. So now that’s what we do all day, which is weird.
TT: Did you grow up in Texas?
HJ: I did, in the Lake Travis area–I’m an 8th generation Texan. My dad’s side of the family was in the “Old 300” that settled Travis County. My grandma was a Daughter of the Republic of Texas. She just passed away this year, but always told me: “You need to get your DRT paperwork.” I thought it was just for old people, but now I should probably do it. She’d be happy if I did.
TT: What made you to decide to go on the road and discuss heritage foods around Texas?
HJ: It’s an idea that I’d had for a long time. Then about a year ago there was a show on the internet that pissed me off, where two dudes explored Texas – but they were being jackasses and wearing ten-gallon hats. They were very disrespectful and obnoxious. We have enough stereotypes to deal with in Texas! We wanted to show Texas through the eyes of someone that actually likes it. But it’s expensive to do a travel show. That’s how we partnered with Tastemade. The audience response was great. I got comments like: “I didn’t know Texas grew grapefruit.” There was visible proof that we were changing some people’s perception of our state.
TT: In “Hilah’s Texas Kitchen”, you often feature a dish prepped by an expert, then show how your family made the dish. Were the dishes you chose from childhood memories?
HJ: Mostly. Because I come from a Texas family, we ate chicken fried steak and chili. Some dishes I didn’t eat as a kid – like kolaches, but I have my great grandma’s recipe collection, and she had a kolache recipe. I tried her recipe and it was good! Another reason I do that: people get locked into this idea that there is one way to make something – that’s frustrating! People will email and say I did a dish wrong because that’s not the way their mom does it. It’s not wrong. It’s a variation! Even within Texas, every family has their own chili recipe that’s “the best” and their own way to make chicken fried steak. There are lots of bests!
TT: Did you learn any tips or tricks on Texas cooking during filming?
HJ: I learned a lot in the chuck wagon episode with (singer-songwriter) K.R. Wood. In the 80s he actually wrote an album that’s the history of Texas in song. He does this chuck wagon, he teaches pioneer days at schools. It was cool to learn about the old cattle drive days. That chili was a pain in the ass to cook! It was so hot, we needed beers by mid-morning. And the Puffy Tacos were something I had never made before. That was fun to experiment with.
TT: Did you have a favorite show?
HJ: Yes, a couple. Seeing the organic grapefruit orchard down in the Valley, and learning Dennis Holbrook’s story about growing up in the orchards. When he was young they were spraying poison all over the place with no protective gear. He volunteered for a test to get his blood levels checked for pesticides and he was off the charts, so he decided to go organic back in the eighties.
My other favorite day was the dairy goat farm outside of Houston. We’re known for cattle, but goats do so well here in Texas! I learned to milk a goat, and squirted goat milk directly into my mouth from the teat. The farmers were a great couple in their late thirties. A while back they decided: “Let’s give up the city life and learn how to be goat farmers.” They learned how on Google. We met very entrepreneurial and inspiring people.
TT: Was it challenging to do the episode in West because of this year’s tragedy?
HJ: Yes. Remarkably, the people that we met and talked to seemed really resolute. They weren’t crying. They had accepted that this horrible thing happened and were moving on. I was surprised. I felt we had to do a West episode, because they’re famous for kolaches. But I didn’t feel we could ignore the explosion. It was hard to keep some levity in the show.
TT: The sweet older lady who spoke to you about the town heritage was lovely.
HJ: God, every time I watch that video, I start to cry. Especially when she says: “They’ll build back. West will be strong again.” God bless her. I was surprised that rather than being angry, which I would’ve been, they were hopeful and grateful to the people in their community that stepped up to help. That’s a good way to deal with adversity.
TT: Your shows have a lot of silliness and goofiness to them. Is that the secret sauce? You seem unafraid to break with convention.
HJ: I like being silly – I want cooking to be fun and unintimidating. I think the reason Hilah Cooking exists is to take intimidation out of cooking for people nervous to try making new things, or people stuck in a rut who only make three dishes. If you screw it up, it’s not the end of the world! Your family will still eat it. It is hard to skirt the line between being silly and fun without coming off like you’re making fun of your audience. Your intentions need to be good.
TT: What is next for the show?
HJ: We start Season 5 on September 24th. We’ll ramp up to three episodes a week, and will have our Slow Cooker book out soon.