Inspiring Culinary Joy, One Dish at a Time
By Eliana Chow
Ever since he was a teenager, cooking was a creative outlet for Ethan Chlebowski ’16, a way to decompress after a long day of school or work. But when he entered the consulting world at Deloitte, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from NC State under his belt, his culinary passion went dormant for a season. His work weeks were heavy with travel, and in the evenings, he found himself opting for takeout or frozen dinners out of sheer exhaustion.
A Leap Into the Unknown
In 2018, Chlebowski returned to the kitchen and began posting educational videos to his YouTube channel in an effort to rediscover his passion for cooking. He made it a personal goal to film and edit one video each weekend, encouraging himself to make more meals from scratch. “Sharing my love for cooking became something I looked forward to every week,” he reflects. “It was the thing that kept me going in a high-pressure day job.”
One year into the project, Chlebowski’s channel had attracted 900 subscribers and was steadily growing, but he wasn’t making any income. At that point, he identified three options for the next stage of his career: continue climbing the ladder in consulting, go to graduate school or drop everything to pursue content creation full-time. “I went with the third option, because I believed it would bring me the deepest personal satisfaction,” he shares. By the summer of 2020, one year after quitting his job at Deloitte and beginning to publish two to three videos per week, Chlebowski’s following had multiplied to 20,000 subscribers, an audience that generated wages equivalent to a part-time job.
Chlebowski credits his NC State professors with instilling in him the willingness to take risks. In June 2020, that mindset was tested when a close friend asked Chlebowski to move to California with him. Having lived with his parents since leaving Deloitte, Chlebowski was ready to step out on his own again. The Pennsylvania native wasted no time embarking on yet another adventure filled with unknowns. As it turned out, he was in for the surprise of a lifetime.
That July, one month into making the cross-country move and searching for a part-time job, Chlebowski’s YouTube following ballooned to 170,000 subscribers. “Almost overnight, I went from making part-time wages and living in my parents’ house to having a full-time salary doing something I absolutely loved,” he remembers.
Applying Familiar Skills in New Contexts
Chlebowski’s goal for the channel is simple: inspire more people to cook. Among other educational videos, he shares how to put healthier and creative spins on restaurant favorites like waffle fries and chicken sandwiches.
But, as he soon discovered, there is nothing simple about running a one-man show. In addition to the time that he spends filming and editing, Chlebowski handles everything from web analytics and social media engagement to sponsorships and finances. Thanks to his accounting background, he knows his way around financial decisions, with Excel spreadsheets tracking every expense, revenue source and end-of-year total.
On the creative end, he spends significant amounts of time fine-tuning the storytelling elements of his videos, both in the scriptwriting and film editing processes. “When it comes to communicating well, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a chef with an original recipe or an analyst with breakthrough data,” he says. “You could have all the best information and intentions, but if you’re unable to effectively engage with your audience, the information generates minimal impact.”
While Chlebowski’s path might have been unconventional, his accounting degree and consulting experience are far from wasted. “My favorite videos to make are the ones that go beyond a simple recipe,” he shares. “I published one about the chemistry behind perfect barbeque, and another comparing prices for pantry essentials. Those projects allowed me to tap into my love for quantifying content and developing creative ways to share that information.”
Looking ahead, Chlebowski plans to hire a trained editor to manage the video side of the work by the end of the year. This will give him free hours to start tackling three long-term goals he hopes will expand the business: writing a cookbook, planning an online culinary course and developing his own chef’s knife. The future looks bright for this accounting major turned cooking content creator.
“I’ve had the privilege of seeing this project grow over the years, even when the progress seemed slow at first,” he concludes. “I like to describe my success as the ‘compound interest’ of countless hours of hard work. When taken individually, an hour might yield very few returns. But when taken together, they add up to something beautiful.”
This post was originally published in Poole College of Management News.