Mercer professor Adam Ragusea turns a viral moment into a new career
Von Traci Burns
Photo by Jessica Whitley
"My neighbors might be suspicious of a Yankee in their midst baking cookies, but I think if I use White Lily I'll be fine," says Adam Ragusea with a smile.
Testing a recipe for his YouTube cooking channel, he measures the South's favorite flour to toss with delicate curls of chilled butter. The bright, 200-square-foot kitchen of his bungalow home in Historic Vineville also serves as the filming location for many of his videos, which have amassed a staggering 30 million views and nearly 400,000 subscribers over the past year — enough for him to make the leap from journalism professor at Mercer University to a full-time YouTuber.
Ragusea's fans have formed a (mostly) positive, likeable community in the always-active comment sections of his videos. They bond over inside jokes and a shared sense of humor. One fan describes Ragusea as "if Keanu Reeves and Alton Brown had a child". They appreciate the videos' no-nonsense, confident style, compliment Ragusea on his rapidly growing videographing skills, and admire his soothing voice.
They are particularly fascinated by the talented way he guides home cooks through the steps of preparing something simple but delicious like lasagna or a fried chicken dinner, making nutrition through nutrition more accessible to all.
Ragusea, who is married to writer Lauren Morrill and has two young sons, is originally from Pennsylvania but has lived in Macon since 2012 and worked as an office manager for Georgia Public Broadcasting for two years before joining Mercer's Center for Collaborative Journalism, where he teaches journalism and media production courses.
“Mercer is all about multimedia facilities and skills, so I had to teach video,” says Ragusea. “The only reason I made my first three cooking videos was to practice; I knew I would be more likely to do it if I gave myself a job that I knew I would enjoy.”
In December 2018, Ragusea uploaded one of these videos to YouTube, entitled "Bake New York Pizza at Home". In it, he outlines his quest to recreate the perfect cake of his nostalgic dreams. It's a refreshing change from most cooking videos; no lengthy intro, just a confident narrator who trusts his viewers to join in.
Ragusea intended to use it as an educational tool to share with his students, but thanks to YouTube's algorithm, the number of views started skyrocketing in March 2019.
Ragusea has applied to YouTube's affiliate program, which allows creators with at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time to monetize ads. When his approval went through, he took advantage of his newfound spotlight and uploaded a grilled chocolate chip cookie video that quickly went viral again. This time, the increase was directly related to a popular repost on the Reddit forum.
Viewers connect with Ragusea's direct, didactic style.
"Here I feel like my background really helped me," he says. "I don't feel like I can write better than many other veteran journalists, but that skill, common as it is in the news, is completely uncommon on YouTube. Don't waste your audience's time. I often put the most important things first in my videos so when people get off the ship they still have the information they need.”
His plan is to become a full-time YouTube content creator after completing the current academic year at Mercer. It wasn't an easy decision for him, but he has the audience and reach to make it not only financially feasible, but surprisingly lucrative.
“There are two different sources of income,” he says. “The YouTube affiliate program — they sell ads for you and take half of it — and in-video sponsorship, which is a flat-rate deal. You have to reach incredible scale for this to work. I never thought I could do it, but lo and behold, I did it.”
Ragusea is currently able to make nearly six times his current salary so it's a no-brainer for him.
"I have kids. I don't have any money in their college accounts," he says. "I still get scared sometimes because the public is fickle, but I felt like it was time, a risk for me to enter into yourself."
Plus, worst case scenario? "I'm going back to teaching," he says, "and after this experience I'll be all the more employable."
Endlessly complementary to Mercer's model for teaching journalism, Ragusea has absorbed invaluable information about the inner workings of the media world during this whirlwind journey. Most impressively, he is able to teach what he is learning in real time, giving students the tools to become accomplished professionals in an ever-changing medium.
"That was always the ideal for him - it was just about finding the way," says his wife Lauren Morrill. "It is aenormousamount of work. People are always like, "Oh, YouTube, that looks cool" and stuff like thatIscool, but it's also hours of planning, filming, editing and researching.”
Ragusea perfected his video shooting craft in front of a captive, growing audience; He estimates that in addition to his full-time professor's workload, he spends more than 30 hours a week editing.
Morrill has been a hard worker too - as a writer she often works from home so there have been adjustments there and Ragusea is grateful for her support and help as the family dynamic transitions into her new iteration.
A concrete help that probably sounds simpler than it is? "It keeps the kids from running into the kitchen while I'm shooting," he says.
Now he's rolling out cookie dough while thinking about the shape.
“The traditional is the circle and the reason for that is that there are no dry corners – but I kind ofHowdry corners,” he says, admitting that his favorite cookie shape is a triangle, particularly because of all the crunchy edges. Today he is trying out a smorgasbord of shapes for this test run and laments the waste that comes with the round cut: "Of course you can roll them out again and bake them, but it's not that tender, not that good."
With his newfound audience and posting schedule—Thursdays for recipe videos, Mondays for food-related explanations, quizzes and questions—he's excited to break new ground, whether through travel, to embracing some of his own favorite comfort foods in their natural environment to introduce items, or by challenging himself with newer recipes.
"I think home cooking has been infected with a lot of impractical ideas from the professional kitchen via the celebrity chef phenomenon," says Ragusea. “Who used to teach us how to cook? Julia child! She was a housewife. Now we have Gordon Ramsay teaching all these fine dining things that aren't really relevant. I have chefs who hate me because some of my methods are unorthodox, but I'm not striving for the best possible iteration of each dish here, I'm striving for accessibility. I go for good enough.”
For him, Macon was the perfect place to do all of this.
"It's a position of strength," he says. "Even if earnings plummeted, I could afford to be a quarter of my current height and still live in this beautiful house."
He goes on to discuss his attempts to represent Macon on a larger scale: "There's a location tag feature on YouTube that not many people use, so I always tag Macon to represent my city. The problem, however, is that it's mostly combat videos that use this tag. I fight because there's no positive content associated with this tag unless people use it — but if I'm the only positive content..." his voice trailes off uncertainly.
He loves field trips to places around town like Society Garden, Grow and the Ocmulgee Brewpub.
"My particular inspiration for this is Mr. Rogers, who changed America's mind about Pittsburgh through the platform he had," he says. “Pittsburgh had a very difficult 20th century - it wasn't known as a pretty place. Seeing Mr. Rogers go out, to the shoe store downtown, changed America's attitude towards the city. So I try to be Mr. Rogers and go on a field trip.”
Farm-to-table restaurant Grow appeared in one of Ragusea's videos. This spring, the restaurant hosted a series of themed pop-ups featuring local home chefs, and Ragusea, along with musician Michael "Big Mike" Ventimiglia, took over for a day celebrating homemade Italian fare, including Ragusea's homemade bread, lasagna and amaretto -pound cake with strawberries.
"When I came up with the idea for the pop-ups, I thought of Adam because I'd been following his YouTube videos," says Grow owner Saralyn Collins. “He worked so hard; He literally spent a week on this lasagna. We were sold out that day and everyone was raving about his food. His red sauce was probably the best I've ever had.”
The kitchen smells amazing, buttery and warm. Ragusea pulls the tray out of the oven, admiring the fact that despite their different shapes, the biscuits all seem to be cooked to perfection at the same time. He holds up one of the round biscuits; It's golden brown on top and has partially split open during baking, resulting in something that's about as tempting as a cookie gets.
"Look at that! That's the platonic ideal of a cookie!" he says, admiring his work. He pauses, confused, aware of his status as a non-Native Southerner preparing such a culturally iconic meal, and says then: "I have to admit I learned how to bake cookies from some of the best here in Macon - Jeneane's, H&H."
In recent months, Ragusea found himself in a way of being a role model that he didn't expect. YouTube's audience is younger and Ragusea's viewers are 90 percent male between the ages of 18 and 24.
“I try to be a positive role model. Cooking doesn't have to be about showing off, it can be about making people happy with your food," he says. “I was initially a bit appalled and dismayed by the audience I was attracting, but I see it as an opportunity to model good behavior. Growing up in the 90's, manhood was flipped on its head and it felt like there were two ways you could be a man - football dude or fey indie rocker. At 18 I discovered two male role models - Anthony Bourdain and Henry Rollins. Two alpha guys who were also enlightened and woken up. When I found her, I thought, okay, I can be like that. I'm trying to be that for those guys."