In an Oct. 1 TikTok, June, a dining hall worker in Berkeley College (she’s been working at Yale for six years and almost three of those have been spent in Berkeley), stands in front of a refrigerator in the Berkeley dining hall, striped apron and surgical mask on, dancing to “Round Rock” by OHBOYPRINCE. When the lyrics reach “bend it bend it bend it over,” her coworker, Darnell Moncrease, pops in, nodding on rhythm. June laughs, and the TikTok ends.
In another, the camera focuses on June flouring and frying tofu on the Berkeley College stovetop, complete with a satisfying sizzle and emojis.
On Nov. 15, June shows off the brunch of the day: golden potatoes, applewood bacon, egg frittata (zooming in and out in time with the enunciation of every syllable), vegan meatless sausage and roasted asparagus. Her earlier videos have now received upwards of 30,000 views. This one, however, reached 600,000 people. After this, her videos continued in a similar fashion, narrating the day’s meals and showing the final product, aesthetically arranged for students to pick up.
It was a Nov. 17 video of basmati rice, wasabi peppercorn-flaked steak, “peanuty” tofu, crispy vegetable spring rolls and roasted broccoli that skyrocketed June into TikTok virality: That video has 1.5 million views and counting.
When I Zoomed with June over Thanksgiving weekend, she couldn’t stop smiling, especially when I mentioned that I was in the presence of a viral sensation.
“When I woke up the next morning [after posting the viral TikTok],” June recounted, “I saw all these notifications. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I go to TikTok, and I’m like, ‘NO.’ That was at like, 15,000 views.” Now, that 15,000 has been multiplied over 100 times.
In particular, June mentioned how the excitement of Yale students in turn made her even happier, especially when they would mention that friends from back home had seen her videos.
In Berkeley College, June is now a celebrity, regularly encountering students who recognize her from TikTok and tell her that they’ve seen her latest video. Beyond pure entertainment, though, the videos also have a functional purpose: “[Yale students] are encouraged to watch [them] now because they want to know what they’re eating,” June adds.
June has had a TikTok account for some time, but only started posting videos consistently after some students asked her to film what was at the dining hall so they could decide whether to order out or not.
Now, however, her videos are reaching a much larger audience — June receives daily messages from TikTokers as far away as the United Kingdom (“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy,’” June says of the comments). And, though most of the comments are positive, there are always some which talk disparagingly about the food at their own schools and how badly they wish they could eat at Yale instead. But June says that those represent a very small portion of what is an overwhelmingly happy comment section.
Perhaps the most surprising part of our conversation was the support that June’s social media endeavors have received from the rest of the Yale dining staff (looking at you, Sherwin-Williams).
Chef Vincent Gustavson, for example, was the one who initially convinced June to make TikToks of the food specifically. The day after she went viral, June recalls marching up to him: “I was like, ‘You are awesome. You made me go viral.’ I was so excited.” Often, other chefs and coworkers will make guest appearances in her videos. June’s most recent TikTok, from Nov. 20, features her, coworker Courtney Marion and three students dancing in the dining hall with the caption “IM TOTALLY GOING TO MISS MY BABIESSS.”
Sometimes, like in a Nov. 20 TikTok of that day’s lunch (vegetable barley pilaf, West Coast chicken thighs with fresh citrus, roasted local delicata squash and roasted sweet potatoes with sauteed kale and crispy chickpeas), another chef narrates the menu of the day — June came in at the end for her signature “ooooohhh” as the camera panned over the food arranged in takeout containers.
She noted that the chefs — Gustavson, Diderot Desgrottes and Joshua Fontaine — also provide advice, such as making sure that she is speaking loud enough for viewers to understand what the foods are that day.
But no matter who is behind the camera, June says, everything happens in one take, as they film the food right before they begin service for that meal. “I have to hurry up and get my TikTok in and then hurry up and start preparing the meals. So it’s like boom, boom hurry up. One time, one and done.”
June doesn’t plan to stop producing TikToks anytime soon and will continue to do so when most students are away from campus (she was planning on releasing a new one a few days ago but didn’t love the menu, so she refrained). She especially wants everyone to know that students remaining at Yale over break “are still eating good.”
As for the post-COVID future, June is excited to TikTok the normal dining experience, pizza station and all. “I think it will be way better once [the audience can] see all the other stuff that we offer that we couldn’t do because of COVID,” she added.
Our Zoom ended with June still smiling, just as in the beginning, along with the promise of post-pandemic meetups and many future TikToks. And when I asked if she had anything to say before leaving, she didn’t hesitate: “The chefs that create the meals is definitely important because they are the ones who made this possible for me to even go viral. So I love them. They definitely get a major shout out.”
Madison Hahamy | email@example.com