16-Year-Old TikTok Chef Builds a Food Empire From Her Grandparents' Minnesota Kitchen
“If I can inspire one young person to believe in themselves and know that they're capable of whatever they put their mind to, that makes it worth it for me,” Ariana Feygin, who competed on "MasterChef Junior," told Inside Edition Digital.
Seeing a 30-second TikTok for a sweet potato tortillas recipe go from “zero to a million views overnight” was the encouragement Ariana Feygin, 16, needed to keep going. She had started sharing her passion for cooking on the platform a few months into the pandemic to inspire other young chefs stuck at home to cook while in quarantine.
“I thought that if there's anything that I can do to put a smile on someone's face— help somebody from my house— I was going to do it,” Ariana said energetically from her kitchen while filming a day in her life for Inside Edition Digital’s “On The Rise." She asked how she should position her long, straight hair for the camera, ever concerned her single star earring was visible in the shot. Ariana’s videos are something she’s perfecting every day. But following the excitement over this particular sweet potato tortillas recipe, the teen’s TikTok page took off, raking in over 2.3 million followers, including some of the biggest celebrity chefs on the scene, like Gordon Ramsay, and TikTok’s Addison Rae.
"I remember jumping up and down, showing every single one of my family members, like guys this is it, this is happening! Look at this!” she said. Her growing fan base savors recipes like brownies, edible cookie dough, lasagna and samosas. They also benefit from learning recipes from the days Ariana spent on "MasterChef Junior." Now, she has amassed more than 2.3 million followers.
How Ariana Feygin Found a Balance Between Work and Play During the Pandemic by Living With Her Grandparents
With daily TikTok recipe content, the amount of cooking Ariana does has exponentially grown. Ariana spends about $100 a week on groceries that she gets delivered to her grandparents’ home in Plymouth, Minnesota, where she’s been living during the pandemic. Living there has afforded Ariana an opportunity to not only get quality time with her grandmother and grandfather, but also to streamline her schoolwork and budding career without her four younger siblings distracting her. “Because I was in this crazy, loud, chaotic household with all my family members who are all home all the time, it was so hard to focus,” the teen explained.
Cooking for her grandparents has been rewarding. “I think the culinary aspect has made the living situation with my grandma and grandpa a good deal for them, too,” she said. Dishes she's prepared for them include roasted salmon with fresh asparagus and brussel sprouts. The secret ingredient is in the brown sugar spice rub. “They're such a high-quality, too,” Howard Hirsch, Ariana’s grandfather, said of her meals.
But Ariana doesn’t prepare every meal. Sometimes it depends on who gets to the refrigerator first. Grandma Sophia does like to cook and when she does, Ariana is on sous chef duties by finely chopping all the vegetables.
“Chopping— it's not my favorite thing, but Ariana does it for a second and it becomes gorgeous, presentable and delicious,” Grandma Sophia Hirsch said as the three of them sat down to eat the salmon for lunch.
And the praise for their granddaughter isn’t contained to the meals she prepares. “We just got lucky. Ariana is [such an] amazing granddaughter,” Grandma Sophia told Inside Edition Digital. “She is kind, she is warm, she's caring. Very smart, has unbelievable sense of humor.”
The Path Ariana Feygin Took to Become a Chef
Cooking became a passion of Ariana’s early on. She was four years old and couldn’t even see over the counter top when, inspired by shows on Food Network, when she said she began "sauntering into the kitchen." According to Ariana, she used the biggest knife in the kitchen, too.
“I saw it as an art form and a way to learn about the world,” she said. “I think what drew me to it was the ability to be so free and creative and expressive.”
At first, her parents weren’t big fans of the idea of their little girl spending so much time in the kitchen, but their feelings began to shift when they realized stopping her would be nearly impossible. They “just let me go and let me do my thing and the rest is sort of history,” she said.
Ariana’s mom and dad are from Belarus, but they didn’t meet until they came to the United States and happened to be at the same birthday party. Ariana is a first-generation American. “I was born in a totally different environment than my parents were and it makes me feel very grateful,” she said. “But I still incorporate a lot of that Belarusian style food into my cooking.”
That was especially true when Ariana competed on the sixth season of “MasterChef Junior.” It took three consecutive years of auditions before she scored a spot on FOX show. She was 12. “If I would have given up that first year I never would have been able to experience all the things that I have afterwards,” she said. The producers wanted Ariana to make several Belarusian dishes on the show. “Even though I haven't been able to visit my home country, food is something that makes me feel more connected to my heritage and more connected to my family. It's really special,” she said.
What Ariana Feygin Has Done Since Competing on ‘MasterChef Junior’
Competing on “MasterChef Junior” has opened many doors for Ariana in the culinary world. She was able to train with chefs that she only “dreamed of meeting,” she said, and was afforded the opportunity to train at Michelin star restaurants around the country, including The French Laundry in Napa Valley.
It inspired her to create a private dining experience that helps raise money for different issues, ranging from world hunger to juvenile diabetes to pediatrics. Her dad, who previously worked in the medical field, runs the events with her as a sommelier, pairing wines with the meals they serve. So far, they’ve raised more than $500,000 for over 25 charitable causes. “Mind-blowing,” Ariana said.
Ariana has also found a niche in motivational speaking. She’s addressed as many as 11,000 people at once, and oftentimes her audiences are made up entirely of children. “It's one of my favorite things, when I can look out and see that moment where the expression in a kid’s face changes and they just feel inspired for me,” she said.
But above all, she hopes the children who come to listen to her speak feel inspired for themselves. “No matter what your environment is, if you put in enough hard work, if you persevere and don't give up through the challenges that you face, I truly believe that anything is possible,” she said.
She’s also got her eye on working with restaurants to transform their kids menus to offer more nuanced and healthier options. “I would get so offended,” she said of the times she was given kids menus filled with options not extending far beyond chicken fingers and french fries. Saying such options often seem to be only an afterthought, she called those options “the cheapest, not nutritionally conscious or creative.”
And all the While, Ariana Feygin Is Focused on Building a TikTok Empire
For now, Ariana is focused on her TikTok videos. To make sure they are posted consistently, she wakes up at 5 a.m. and heads straight to the kitchen for a shake made of frozen banana, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, vanilla extract, cocoa powder and freshly brewed coffee, which she calls the secret ingredient.
“It's like the ultimate energy blast for the day,” Ariana said. She then heads straight to her basement for a workout, which she’s diligent about completing not because of a desire to stay in shape, but to ensure she has high energy and is in “the best mood” throughout the day. “I can be having the worst day ever and I'll lift the weights, ferociously squat; suddenly whatever mood I was in before, it puts a smile on my face and it gets those endorphins pumping,” she said.
Ariana participates in remote schooling, which is in place because of COVID-19, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. After her schoolwork is complete, she heads downstairs to begin filming TikTok videos. She films close to the window in order to take advantage of the natural daylight.
Ariana edits her videos usually between 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. She estimates it takes about two hours to film her content and about an hour and a half to edit and post them. She also uses a content calendar to plan out her recipes accordingly and to keep her on schedule.
What began as a way to ensure she remained relevant and gained a following has turned into an unexpected revenue stream. She earned $10,000 from one viral Snapchat video. She now picks and chooses what brands with which she’s passionate to collaborate.
The most challenging part of it all, though, she says, is creating videos every single day.
“Even on those days when it's hard to get out of bed, I remind myself why I'm doing this and why I can keep going,” Ariana said proudly. “If I can inspire one young person to believe in themselves and know that they're capable of whatever they put their mind to, that makes it worth it for me. And I remind myself that I need to keep going.”
Every video starts the same way—”Hey, it’s Ariana”—a greeting which she says is intentional. “My goal is no matter where you are, what your life is like, what place you are in the world, what your background is, food is something that everyone can understand. And I'm here for everyone,” she said.
Since the recipes she crafts feed more than one, she often texts her friends to come over for some tin foil swans. “If I tried to eat the amount of food that I cook I don't know what shape my health would be in,” she joked. Often, it’s a race to see who comes over first to score her leftovers.
At this point, not much seems impossible for Ariana, but ask the chef to choose her favorite dish to make and you may just stump her. People ask Ariana that question all the time, but she loves all types of food, especially international cuisine. She’s found pleasure in cooking her way through the French Laundry cookbook and now is looking for a new challenge to explore. Perhaps, next up will be recipes perfected by Gordon Ramsey, one of her heroes, or to work her way through one of Julia Child’s famous cookbooks.
“That’s a passion project for me,” she said. “I'm going to have to start that probably during the summer when school is out.”
As a 16-year-old, Ariana feels she and her passions are not always taken seriously. After all, she’s a teen in the highly competitive culinary world. But those who doubt her drive or brush her time spent hustling off as a little hobby underestimate just how strong of “a little fire” Ariana says she’s got lit inside of her. And if her growing TikTok audience is any indication, she’s just gotten started.
“Age is just a number,” she said. “It doesn't define your abilities.”
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