Brunch TikToker Nigel Kabvina On Embracing The Beauty In Imperfection - Exclusive Interview

The neverending algorithmic churn of TikTok never fails to put entertaining content in front of your eyes, but sometimes, it's nice to get recommendations that don't feel like they came straight from a mysterious computer calculation. That's where the social media platform's Discover List comes in: It's a curated selection of creators who are doing great, inspiring, and imaginative things with TikTok as a medium. That description definitely fits Nigel Kabvina (@sxmplyNi), a mixologist and beverage industry consultant who has become a full-time TikTok food content creator.

It's easy to see why Kabvina was picked for the Discover List — his content is unique and appealing. He's always dressed impeccably, there's great music in the background, and the (usually brunch) food he creates looks mouthwateringly delicious. He combines a strong grasp of technique and beautiful plating with a sense of fun, often leaving in little mistakes that make his videos feel more relatable. He cooks all of his food for a mysterious roommate who never appears on camera. We sat down with Nigel for an exclusive interview to get to the bottom of his TikTok success and find out once and for all if his roommate actually exists.

How mixology influenced Nigel Kabvina's cooking

You've been described as a mixologist, although a lot of your content on TikTok is food-based. Do you have a mixology background?

Yes. I even have some qualifications in mixology. I don't know if you've heard of WSET? They're the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It's a governing board where you can get a qualification in either wine or spirits. For instance, a lot of sommeliers will have that. I have a qualification in spirits production, and I can also teach. I have teaching qualifications in alcohol.

Did you ever work in bars?

I worked in a few around Manchester and London. Actually, I've trained over 200 bartenders across Europe. Similar to the European Bartender School, London has its own version. I trained quite a lot of people there. A girl I once trained last year won best female bartender in the world and 10th best bartender in the world. That was a great moment for me.

Does your experience as a mixologist inform your approach to food and cooking?

Definitely. When I joined TikTok, if you were creating content with alcohol, it very much limited you to an over-18 audience. Now there's a bit more of a relaxed feel. I wanted to have a broader approach, not limiting myself, but also not seeming like I was trying to encourage drinking.

There's a lot of my dishes where you wouldn't be able to tell that there's alcohol involved. For instance, there'll be a caramel sauce where I've used a Caribbean rum that I cooked up. I definitely didn't want to limit myself to alcohol, and I wanted the alcohol to be a subtle element of the food. My background leads to the theatrics in the videos because mixology's very over-the-top, isn't it?

Holiday cocktail and home bar essentials

Do you have any favorite holiday cocktails?

Oh, yes. I tried an eggnog for the first time last year, this very American cocktail. I love that. I also love an Irish coffee. One of my favorite bars in New York, Dead Rabbit, [does] an amazing Irish coffee — I've been obsessed with always trying to recreate it. The coffee and the cream reminds me of the cold weather and getting warm.

Are there any home bar essentials that people tend to overlook or that you think are underrated?

Yes. Bitters. Cocktail bitters for sure, but now there's such a vast array that you can get. I actually tend to use them a lot for cooking. For instance, I would elect to use vanilla bitters over vanilla extract because it'll throw a punch in — it only takes one dash. If you're starting off your bar, a lot of the time, people focus on alcohol, and then they have one party and it's all gone. Your bitters will last you a year or two.

For equipment, it's the little things. For instance, ice and storage — that's the first thing you should go for. People try and get fancy glasses, but again, one party and most of it's cracked and you have to pretend like it's okay. Your indestructible equipment should be the first thing.

Do you think it's important to have fancy ice?

People get lost in it. I went to this bar recently and it was 15 minutes to get my drink, and it was because he was carving the ice. [It's] an amazing craft, but I was in rush.

When he gave me the drink, I then pounded it in seconds and felt bad because he put so much effort in. Ice can be important, but if you're at home, definitely not. People want to be hosted, and they want their drinks to taste nice, and that's the important thing.

How he became a full-time TikToker

What made you decide to start making content for TikTok?

It actually started because during the time of lockdown, I was away from my mother, and my mother taught me how to cook. We were having a cook-off where we would cook a dish, try and make it look fancy, and then we would take a picture and send it to each other. One time, I decided to post it on my Instagram story. At that point, so many people messaged me: "How do you do this? This is crazy. I didn't know you could do that."

Creating a TikTok was so easy and user-friendly. I did a couple of random videos, but I did some dishes too. The first one was French toast — that was my first real viral moment. But I was always aware I could cook. It was just, "Okay, I guess I could do more of it." That was one side of it.

The other side was I started my consultancy company, which helps bars open. I thought, "The future of a portfolio will be videos for me. It'll be being able to say, 'Watch me actually make this stuff' instead of a picture, a still image." When I was doing my very much over-the-top stuff for the purpose of a portfolio one day, people were like, "This is insane, this is crazy."

That's what started it. It's been over a year. I started full-time last August, and it's been insane.

You didn't anticipate it becoming your full-time gig?

Absolutely not. No. Even when I did decide to do it, you have those moments of sheer panic of, "What have I done?"

Does it feel surreal?

Yes. It's impossible to even try and wrap your mind around the idea of 4 million people watching you. Recently, I used this example with a friend: "Imagine going into your kitchen and making a cup of coffee. Imagine 30 people walking into your kitchen and trying to watch you make this cup of coffee. Your brain can't conceive of this. Where would they go? There's not room. Where would they stand? What would I do?"

Nigel Kabvina's plans to expand beyond TikTok

How does it feel to get picked for the Discover List this year?

That's definitely surreal. It didn't set in straight away until TikTok posted it and I saw it on the webpage. My mind was like, "No, they'll add someone else instead of me. It's not real, not me." But it's very humbling. I'm honored.

Would you ever consider doing a cookbook or even opening a restaurant or a bar?

I have some really cool plans — I feel like everyone says "I've got some big things happening." I'm hoping to write two books. One of them will be a recipe book, and one of them will be an industry bartending book and also a memoir. I'm excited for that to come because people won't expect that from a TikToker. That would be cool.

I'm hoping to get a TV cooking show. I want it to be the first of its kind, and I want to integrate that TikTok style of food-making into TV. It would be interesting having the theatrics of TikTok, but then on top of that, creating something that the older audience that watches TV cooking shows can enjoy. But the younger generation has a very short attention span — you've got to keep up.

Why brunch is so important

What made you focus on brunch?

There were two elements to it. The first element was that especially as someone who has a habit of working a lot, I tend to forget about breakfast. A big element of the food I wanted to do was I wanted people — especially people who might be struggling with their appetite, might have some form of eating disorder, or struggling to eat breakfast themselves — to be reminded, "Let me have breakfast." And not only breakfast — but to eat at any time you want after you wake up. Don't feel pressured to be like, "It's 8:00 a.m. and I need to have four cuts of tuna, lean keto diet thing," whatever.

It's also about making sure that you are going a bit over the top for yourself. It's very easy when it's for someone else. I was here making it for my roommate, and at that time, my roommate was only having coffee and a banana for breakfast. I'm causing her to have this luxurious thing. It looks nice and gives you a bit more of an appetite. That was one element.

The other element was that the mixology side of stuff works perfectly with brunch. It's okay to have a mimosa with French toast. It's weird to have a Jack and Coke with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. I felt like brunch worked perfectly for me.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

On whether his roommate is real

You mentioned your roommate. We never see your roommate in the videos, so we were curious if she was a real person or a creative device you were using.

That's the number one question I get. It's funny, because first of all, I've had three roommates in the time since I've started. I tend to have short leases with people who live with me. I live with travelers. The other funny thing is all my roommates have had boyfriends. They've all seen people online saying, "He's in love with you, sis" about me.

The main reason I never actually showed my roommate was because my first roommate was a lawyer, and her firm was looking after the Queen's estate. For legal reasons, she couldn't have her face on screen. I was fine with that. She's allowed that secrecy.

Because I didn't show her, it created this lore and this idea of, "Is it a real person, is it not?" With that as well, people weren't attaching themselves to a specific person. I think if I had done that, it quickly would've become one of those relationship accounts where they start off very organically, and then they're suddenly doing pranks where they're like, "No, I need a better reaction! Cut. Start again."

Since then, I decided to keep my roommates off screen. In a very cheesy way, the TikTok audience [is] my roommate because the dish is for them.

The tastiest things to eat for brunch

Do you have any favorite tips or tricks for cooking eggs?

I'm a big advocate of however you like your egg is completely fine. For instance, my favorite is making eggs the French way, which means when they say butter, they mean a lot of butter — drowning in butter. You can't have them every day, but that's one of my favorite ways. If I'm making a French omelet — even scrambled eggs, whether you like them runny or on the well-done side — if you've got a good amount of butter in there, it's incredible. It's easy to make; anyone can do that.

Just add more butter.

That's my secret to all my dishes.

Would you say a French omelet cooked with a lot of butter is your favorite egg dish?

Definitely. Then, if I'm feeling sassy, some cheese and mushrooms — perfection. I don't know if you've ever seen a Wolfgang Puck interview, but in life, I hope we can all meet someone who talks about us the way Wolfgang Puck talks about butter. It's poetry; it's romance. It's like, "Oh, that's love."

What's your ideal brunch meal?

A balance between the sweet and savory. For one dish, you've got your sourdough, avocado, egg however you like it, some Sriracha on there, smoked salmon if you're into it. On the other plate, we've then got our French toast. That's almost like a breakfast dessert — super fluffy, [with] cream, and fruits to "make it healthy." Finally, a latte — probably a matcha latte or an espresso, super creamy, Dalgona, anything like that.

How he comes up with recipes

How do you decide what recipes to shoot?

It usually depends on who I'm cooking for. My current roommate now, Mona, loves pancakes and savory stuff. That's a big element in terms of what I'm inspired by. A lot of other times, it's actually music, funnily enough. Music and technology inspire a lot of things. Sometimes, I won't upload the video until I have the right sound. For me, the sound is more important than anything, because that creates that feeling, that non-diegetic sound.

The technology, I'm starting to use that a bit more. For instance, we went to a "Harry Potter" museum, and there was this floating figure thing and it was using levitating magnets, and I was like, "I'm going to turn that into a dish." I did it recently in a video for Sony: an apple that's actually floating above the bowl. That was something that came about from a museum trip.

You use modernist or slightly avant-garde techniques in the recipes a lot, like using dry ice and powders and edible candles. You were dyeing yucca with squid ink in that one video. Are those all self-taught techniques?

Yes. I do a lot of research with cocktail bars, and when you go to really over-the-top cocktail bars, you see that level of extra. It's like, "Oh! Why haven't I seen that in a dish?" Things go in trends — the gastronomy phase of the 2010s is gone, and now the default is minimal, very small plating.

I wanted the opposite of that. If fine dining is giving me minimal, how can I make maximal my thing? That dish with the yucca and the black squid ink was my idea of something artsy that's very playful.

Nigel Kabvina's video production process

It's very presentation-focused, and you're making the food look like something else.

Yeah. A big element as well [is] even in the videos where I'm trying to use something people may not have at home, I was trying to attach a relatable aspect to it or an accessible aspect to it. Sometimes I'll pair dry ice with blueberry pancakes, or I did dry ice one time with a bowl of cereal. It's not too obscure, but also something that someone at home would go, "I can relate to this." That drives people to watch the videos and feel a sense of attachment to it.

Also, in terms of access accessibility, you'll see that I will use a stencil. It's quite literally a kids' coloring stencil I got from Amazon. I wanted to find something that everyone at home could use. That was the driving force of that. A lot of times I do have fancy equipment and I can make things almost perfect, but I wanted it to have a little bit of imperfection.

How long does it take for you to make a video? Are you a one-man band?

Yes — I do everything on my phone. Actually, it's funny, because I edit everything on my phone. The app that I was using, I didn't even get the premium version. I sit there waiting for ads to play. Even though I started full-time in August last year, it wasn't until October or December that I got an actual tripod. I was just using my phone case.

People saw that and liked how it wasn't very professional. You could tell I wasn't using a 60-grand cinema camera, and people appreciate that.

The importance of imperfection

In your videos, you're combining this consumer-level production with pretty elevated aesthetics coming from you. You've said in the past that the aesthetic of the videos is inspired by wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection), a Japanese design concept.

It's beautiful when you start learning about other cultures and other languages, because you can have an idea and it's quite difficult to articulate, and then someone tells you, "It's a known thing here; there's a name for it." That was one of those moments.

When I first began, I came from families of chefs and worked in bars, and everything was always perfect and pristine. A lot of times, when I'm looking online and seeing plating videos, they look great and I understand the elements that are going on, but it's a very small percentage of the world that can actually sit there and be like, "Oh, that's cool."

There's a saying that in terms of plating, it's almost like a signature. It's almost like your own unique identity. I found that I would make something, and I would make it look great. Then it's like, "Oh, it's not perfect. It needs something." I needed to mess up a little bit. Or I would mess up while doing it and try and do my best to fix it. Then I'd post the video, and those would be my most viral videos. I figured out that actually, people also appreciate that.

The idea of the slight crack in the perfection is what makes it something beautiful. It's something that I think about a lot — sometimes not purposefully. Sometimes I'm not cognitively saying, "I'm going to mess it up."

In the early days, my friends were always chefs, and it would bother them how things weren't perfect. But my consumers, my target audience, was the everyday person, and they like that. People love to see people mess up. To see that reminds us we're human and we make mistakes. There's this niche of pottery videos, and the ones that go the most viral are the ones where people mess up. It's hard to explain. You can watch the two-minute video of this guy messing up, and it feels great.

You can follow Nigel Kabvina and stay up-to-date with his videos on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.

This interview has been edited for clarity.