Tieghan Gerard was busy lighting pumpkin spice-scented candles when I arrived at her sunlit studio last month. After more than a year of negotiations with the representatives who guard her schedule and her image, she’d agreed to cook two recipes I’d chosen from the thousands on her immensely popular recipe site, Half Baked Harvest.
Instead, her staple white chicken chili simmered in a pumpkin-shaped Dutch oven. She sliced apples and toasted pumpkin seeds for her fall harvest salad before moving on to her favorite part of the process: arranging the shot. She tucked and pulled the greens, fanned out the apples so they looked plush and dotted the shiny seeds on top.
“I’ve always been about the visuals,” she said of her recipe-development process. “I work backward from how I want it to look.”
Since 2012, Ms. Gerard has published a new recipe on Half Baked Harvest nearly every day, each illustrated by dozens of photos and videos that she shoots here in the hilltop compound where she also lives. This fire hose of new content keeps her followers — 5.4 million on Instagram alone — well-fed and loyal. Celebrities like Gigi and Bella Hadid, Emma Roberts and Blake Lively extended her reach during the pandemic, with posts about cooking her recipes at home.
From the beginning, her recipes — many of them cheesy, crispy, creamy or a combination — hit a sweet spot between approachable and aspirational. She burrowed into it, thanking and responding to fans around the clock.
“I feel like I grew up with her,” said Tina Nowak, 34, who said she often uses all three Half Baked Harvest cookbooks in her kitchen outside Chicago.
But Ms. Gerard has also become an unwilling lightning rod for controversy, entangled in issues that have galvanized the food world in the last decade: cultural appropriation, intellectual property, body shaming, privilege and racism.
Half Baked Harvest began as a chronicle of the big family dinners Ms. Gerard cooked for her parents, brothers and sisters — her seven siblings range in age from 3 to 38. Her intense productivity, paired with lifelong anxieties that have kept her near family, helped her build one of the food world’s most consistently successful platforms.
“I love the work, and I have to be creative,” because she spends so much of her life at home, she said.
Eleven years later, much remains the same for Ms. Gerard, who turned 30 last month. She has lived here since she was 14, apart from a brief attempt at fashion school in Los Angeles that was cut short by homesickness. Her mother, Jen, 57, still runs the business side of Half Baked Harvest from her house a few hundred yards up the hill. She still doesn’t like to drive, and she hasn’t traveled outside North America except to watch her brother, the Olympic snowboarder Red Gerard, win a gold medal at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
And Ms. Gerard’s recipes are still essential cooking for thousands of women living between America’s coasts, including her 700,000 daily email subscribers and the more than two million readers of her cookbooks. The 25- to 44-year-old women who make up her core demographic are still fiercely loyal; she said that 60 percent of subscribers open her newsletter every day, a stunningly high number.
But just as much has changed. Ms. Gerard, who is white, has long been called out for mispronouncing dishes from other cultures and misidentifying her creations, like calling tacos with pineapple “Hawaiian” and noodles with honey and peanut butter “Chinese.”
But the objections have intensified since 2021, when she posted a recipe for “pho” that was wildly unrelated to the Vietnamese dish, and many longtime fans spoke out about her pattern of disrespecting foods from nonwhite cultures. She apologized, promising to “do more research.”
When it happened again last March, this time with a “banh mi rice bowl,” the pushback was so strong that it was covered by NBC News. Ms. Gerard apologized again. (Both recipes remain on the site, with tweaked titles.)
“I think she is somewhat ignorant about other cultures, but in a sincerely interested way,” said Andrea Nguyen, a Vietnamese American food expert, who said she sympathized with the relentless demand for new content and praised Ms. Gerard’s work ethic. “In an ideal world, her mistakes would inspire people to do more research and less name-calling.”
Just this month, Ms. Gerard published a “Thai” beef stew sweetened with pomegranate juice, an ingredient traditional in Middle Eastern cooking.
“I think she’s a great food stylist,” said Hannah Selinger, who writes about food and restaurants. “But why isn’t she more interested in food, and why does she get a seat at the table when there are so many people who actually know this stuff?”
Detractors have also flooded her comment sections when fellow bloggers, like Gaby Dalkin of What’s Gaby Cooking and Adrianna Guevara Adarme of A Cozy Kitchen, publicly accused Ms. Gerard of copying their recipes. Her recipes and persona have generated so much online conflict that most of the sources I contacted refused to go on the record.
Ms. Gerard characterized her missteps as respectful enthusiasm for flavors from other cultures. Her critics say she enjoys unearned privilege because of her wealth and whiteness; she says she has worked hard for a decade to earn her following and success. They say she has no particular cooking skills and posts the same recipes over and over again; she says she meets her readers where they are.
When Ms. Gerard began Half Baked Harvest on WordPress in 2012, Instagram was only two years old, and she was a 19-year-old with a photography hobby.
Few knew then just how much Instagram, YouTube and other visual media would determine what the world wanted to eat. From the start, Ms. Gerard’s dishes, photographed in warm, high-altitude light, looked bountiful and beautiful — and homemade.
“I felt like I didn’t have to know a lot about cooking to be able to do what she did,” said Erica Vargas, a longtime Half Baked Harvest fan.
At first, home cooks — especially the large cohort of millennials who were just starting their own households — were drawn to her family life as much as to her recipes. Unlike other domestic goddesses like Ina Garten and Joanna Gaines, Ms. Gerard was young, unmarried and a proudly inexpert cook. Her parents spent little time in the kitchen when she was growing up, she said. Unable to tolerate the nightly chaos that was dinnertime, she started doing the cooking herself.
She learned how entirely from the internet. Where Julia Child studied with professional chefs, and Martha Stewart built her empire on a catering business, Ms. Gerard cites restaurant menus and other food websites as her culinary inspiration. Her studio kitchen holds six KitchenAid mixers, but no cookbooks. (KitchenAid, among other companies, sponsored the building of her studio.)
Her breakthrough moment came in 2017, when Anthropologie, the fashion and lifestyle retailer, began stocking her first cookbook. Her most recent book, “Half Baked Harvest Every Day,” published in 2022 during the pandemic, spent 33 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Ms. Gerard is a regular on “Good Morning America” and “Today,” has her own line of candles, touts cosmetic brands and recently collaborated with Home Chef, the meal-kit delivery service owned by Kroger.
But she also devotes considerable resources to the persistent online critics who parse her likes, scour her photos and analyze her body language. Ms. Gerard now has four full-time and two part-time employees; part of their job is to delete negative comments across her blog and social media accounts, creating an online echo chamber where she feels safe.
“I follow people who make me feel good,” she said. She dismisses most criticism of her as “internet hate” and said the vast majority of her audience are fans.
On Reddit, where her staff cannot moderate conversations, anonymous commenters publish detailed theories about her motivations and inner demons to a weekly “snark” thread dedicated to her. Last month, members of the FoodieSnark subreddit monitored geotags in Chicago to track how many fans showed up at a promotional appearance for her new pumpkin-spice candle.
“People have kindly called her out and not-so kindly called her out,” said Hanna, a contributor to the thread who declined to provide her surname in order to avoid online harassment. “At this point it’s bizarre that she never seems to take accountability or learn from her mistakes.”
The criticism that bothers Ms. Gerard most is more personal: that beneath all of the melted cheese and creamy sauces, she is concealing a chronic eating disorder. Day after day, followers — some with concern, others with vitriol — accuse her of peddling high-fat, high-calorie food while never eating it herself.
Ms. Gerard said she does not have an eating disorder but has long suffered from social anxiety and separation anxiety. She said that she is treating those “privately,” and that she calms herself with long hours of work, often forgetting to eat and sleep.
Her mother, also a small and intense woman, said the constant online discussion of Ms. Gerard’s body feels sexist and judgmental. “It’s unfortunate that people feel entitled to comment on someone being underweight, when they would never do that if the person was overweight,” she said.
Despite her success in the food world, Ms. Gerard is now trying to elbow her way out of it. She built Half Baked Harvest on a homespun, rustic image, but now she wears Bottega Veneta cashmere sweaters, promotes $500 red-light anti-aging masks and posts breathlessly from runway shows at New York Fashion Week.
The Half Baked Harvest site is no longer exclusively a destination for recipes, as Ms. Gerard tirelessly posts links to clothes, jewelry and hotels, luring visitors to linger inside her bubble. “I want those clickbacks,” she said firmly. “TikTok could go away any minute. I don’t own Instagram, but the site is all mine.”
The approaching holidays are her favorite time of year — and the busiest time for her site: According to Jen Gerard, November and December each bring in 23 million to 25 million page views. But Tieghan Gerard dreads the technical questions they always bring, like how to safely defrost a turkey or how to modify a recipe based on high-altitude cooking. (Silverthorne is more than 8,000 feet above sea level.)
“How would I know that?” she said. “I’m not Google.”