Going YouTube full time with Max Miller and why Total War was the perfect fit
As you’ve hopefully seen over the past few weeks, we ran a few partnerships and campaigns to create content around the release of Total War: ROME REMASTERED. One such was with the ever-handsome, talented chef and historian Max Miller – though he prefers storyteller to any of those titles – on his channel, Tasting History. With auspicious timing, we managed to catch Max just as he was transitioning from the channel being a lockdown/furlough side-project to making YouTube his full-time job.
We sat down to chat with him about making that move, his history with Total War, love of strategy games, and the grimmest and tastiest things he’s come across in a year of Tasting History. Tomorrow, we’ll have a post detailing all the recipes and videos that Max used in the collab.
CA: Not going to lie, you scared us all a bit there Max with the “I QUIT” video just after your first Rome video went out! We thought ‘oh god, the reaction must have been awful!’
Max Miller: Hahahah!
You know what, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for that Rome video. It ended up getting probably at least twice as many, if not three times as many views as it typically would, because that I QUIT video went so big. It passed along a lot of views to other videos, especially the Posca video, so turned out to be a good marketing ploy on my part, haha.
Well let’s start there – was there a plan for moving to full–time YouTube and putting that video out?
Extremely spur of the moment. I didn’t know when Disney was going to call me to come back. I didn’t know when I would have to officially make that decision.
I had been telling myself I could do both for quite some time – even though my fiancé was consistent in telling me “You cannot do both things, there are not two of you.” I kept telling myself ‘well, I can figure out a way.’
So, I hadn’t planned on doing that video, and even after I had the discussion with Disney, I still didn’t plan on doing a video. The only reason I ended up filming that, was I had just finished filming the final week’s Rome episode – the Placenta Cake.
I had the camera up and everything, and I was like – ‘you know what, maybe I’ll just talk a little about leaving Disney and stuff. It can just be a little video, that I send to my biggest fans, because no-one actually cares what I’m doing with my life.’
So I hadn’t planned on putting it on the channel but after Jose, my fiancé, watched it, he said “put it up, maybe people will care” – and it’s been one of the most watched videos on my channel, haha.
I think these videos explaining having to leave a dual life to work on YouTube full-time always strike a chord with people. Were you surprised how much the community cared?
I was blown away, absolutely blown away. We sat there watching the subscribers go up and the views go up. The positive feedback, you know, the amount of comments.
I mean it has five times as many comments as any other video – 99% of which are thrilled I’m sticking with the channel. They feel the disappointment of leaving a job that you love, the fear of leaving a secure job for something that is very insecure, and all depends on me, the excitement of being my own boss.
Many people have had similar experiences, like you said, they can relate, and they made that known in the comments, which was really, really nice.
The channel itself wasn’t started long before lockdown started right? November, December 2019?
No, that’s when I actually “started” the channel, as in, that’s when you create the Gmail account.
The first video didn’t actually go up until the very last week of February. So it was about two weeks before lockdown here in Los Angeles, and about four weeks before I was furloughed.
So, starting the channel wasn’t related to COVID?
You know, they were not interlinked at all. I never thought I would make an income doing this, in my wildest dreams I thought it could maybe be a side hustle where I could make a few hundred dollars a month – you know, pay for my car payments kind of thing.
The reason that I made that Gmail account, I think a few days after Christmas, was at a Christmas party at work – I would bring in foods I had made at home, many of which were not historical foods, but sometimes they were. I made a medieval cheesecake, and brought that into work, told people about it.
One of my co-workers at the Christmas party, said ‘you should make a YouTube channel, you should put this on YouTube, you’re interesting, you’re clearly passionate about it – and you can talk to people who want to listen rather than lecturing us all day!’
[laughs] She did not say that last part, but I think that was implied! I was like ‘hmm, maybe’ so two or three days later, whenever it was, I said let me start a YouTube channel that would be where I could put this. But it was another month before I actually buckled down, and was like, alright, I’m gonna get a camera, I’m gonna make one of these videos, just to see what it was like.
I hadn’t planned on doing weekly videos, hadn’t planned on doing this long term. Until lockdown and when I was furloughed and then again, I didn’t expect to make money off of it. It was more of a “I need something to keep me busy so that one – I can stay out of my fiancés way and two – so I have something to do all day besides sit and watch tv and eat junk food.”
That’s what it was, because I had no job.
We’re all in the same boat, don’t you worry, I think everyone can relate to that.
And I needed something that wouldn’t cost me a lot of money, because I had ceased to make an income.
So, in those first episodes it cost me very little money because I had already bought the camera and everything, so it was just ingredients. In the first few months there was nothing outlandish, I think apples were probably the most expensive ingredient I had.
The first time I thought ‘oh this could maybe be something’ was when the garum video went out and the channel really blew up. That wasn’t until the end of June.
What was it exactly about the garum video – was it just the response or was it the first one that really spiked?
Oh yeah, I mean if you look at my analytics, it looks like a flat line and then a perpendicular line. It just hit a wall. I think I had like 6k subscribers, which was fantastic. That’s still great. I had a set myself a lofty goal of 10,000 subscribers in one year.
I think that’s reasonable for the start of a new channel.
I think so, it depends on what your channel is about. I think my biggest video at that point maybe had 10 or 20 thousand views, but most were under a thousand views. I had like 6000 subscribers, and then on the Sunday morning after I had released the garum video on the Tuesday before, we noticed I had hit 10,000 subscribers overnight, and we were like woah.
By that Friday we hit 100,000 subscribers and the video had half a million views. It’s just one thing. That happens for a lot of channels – the algorithm picks you up and you’ve got that one video that really goes wide.
The trick is: is that video typical of your channel? Is the next video going to make those new subscribers, those new viewers – are they going to like it?
A lot of channels, the video that goes big, is something that has nothing to do with their channel, it was something clickbait-y, or something very topical that isn’t necessarily what their channel is about. That one video is not going to sustain you for very long.
Luckily, that video is EXACTLY what my channel is about and so the next video – those same viewers came back, and they enjoyed that as well and it’s just continued. I was fortunate, very, very fortunate.
What was it about historical cooking specifically that was attractive to you?
So, it was the history that got me into cooking rather than the other way around.
I have always loved history since I was a little kid, and I never cooked, I never baked, all through college, all through my 20’s, nothing. I would heat up a frozen pizza, that was about the closest thing.
Then I went on a trip to Disney World with a friend and she was extremely sick the entire time, so we spent a vast majority of the trip locked in our hotel room.
We watched an entire season of the Great British Bake Off, and I became obsessed with it. This was back in the old days when Mary Berry was on the show, and Mel & Sue. Pretty much every episode Mel & Sue would have a 2 or 3 minute aside where they would talk about the history of whatever they were baking.
Whether it was the history of the Sally Lunn Bun, or I think they did the history of croissants, different things. I loved that aspect, and that idea of tying history into the food is what made me want to actually try baking those things for myself.
As soon as I got home from that trip, I baked everything on the show. Everything that they had made on the show, I baked.
Literally back to backed it, went through the lot?
Pretty much, yeah.
I taught myself… Well, Mary Berry & Paul Hollywood taught me to bake, in those first trials. I got the cookbooks, I watched their master classes and just followed along, and got better and better as I went through, as you will with any endeavor. Then I went back and watched the older seasons and made a lot of those dishes as well.
So that’s what got me into historical baking, it wasn’t always baking things from “history” – like a croissant is modern, but a croissant is also historic. I would bake a modern croissant, but then I would tell my friends the history of the croissant, or whatever it was.
When did the research element come into each part of your shows, or was it about the audience’s response to history?
It was more about doing things that I wanted to talk about. I love history outside of English baking history, though you’ll find I do tend to go back to that quite a bit, especially English history.
It’s a rich vein.
It’s a rich vein, and there’s a common language, so reading historical documents in English is a lot easier than reading old historical documents in, you know, Russian.
If you watch the very first episodes… There is an episode that never aired, for the prince biscuit, and my fiancé took some of the raw footage and cut it together to make a pseudo-episode. It’s cringe-worthy, it’s one of the very first things I ever filmed, and I look so nervous and robotic.
But out of the entire episode there’s maybe a minute or two of history. That’s typical of those very first episodes, there’s very little history in comparison with the food. Whereas now, the history takes up half, if not more, of the episode – usually more.
It’s a real educational journey that is almost facilitated by a dish.
Right, exactly, and that is because that’s what I enjoy most. You know, I never got away from the food, obviously, I still make the dishes and talk about the food, but I wanted to tell stories that weren’t necessarily just the story of the food.
The story of the people that were eating it, the time period it came from, let people fall down these – and by people I mean me – let me fall down these historical rabbit holes. That kind of opened up what was going to make it into different episodes.
It definitely came from me rather than the audience because I remember in those first episodes where I did allow myself to do that, I was worried the audience was going to NOT like it. That they were going to say “too much history, get back to the food” – sometimes I do get those comments – or say “you really stretched this one, it’s not really about the food.”
And I do! I want to tell the story and if I need to stretch it to connect it to the food, then I do. I tell the stories I want to tell, because if I’m not excited about the story, if I’m not interested in the history, it’s going to come across.
I found that, while I have taken so much inspiration from my audience, ideas from my audience, suggestions for shows, ways to improve the show – it always comes down to: what do I like? Because if I’m not liking it, then there’s no way I’m convincing anyone else.
You can watch creators who clearly aren’t that interested in what they’re talking about. Often, it’s because they’ve succeeded at one video that’s about a certain topic and then they end up leaning into that topic but really they only wanted to make one or two videos on that, rather than an entire channel. After six or eight months, you can tell – they want to do something else. I didn’t want to fall into that.
I think that relates a lot to jobs – you start something, what you did like about it is great, but that might be 10% of what the role actually is.
Which raises an interesting point: You’re a charismatic person, good speaker – Disney feels very far removed from historical researcher and cook, maybe with YouTube somewhere in the middle, how do they all combine?
[with an accent] I’m a complicated man! [laughs]
I enjoy so many different things and for me history was never a career path, it was just something that I enjoyed. Performing and telling stories was the career path and at first I did that on stage over a microphone and then when I started with Disney in cruise line performing.
Then I moved into the more lucrative and steady side of things, behind the scenes at the movie studio, but you’re still telling stories. That said, I wasn’t actually working on the movies, I was working on the marketing and everything, so I was working with people who were telling stories.
Most of the positions I had at Disney I loved every minute of it, but there was one position where I went into it thinking it was one thing and it turned out to be something very different – the passion faded very quickly, which does happen, but it still had a creative side to it.
I feel that ‘food history’ – I don’t think of myself as a historian and I don’t think of myself as a chef, I think of myself as a storyteller. That’s what I’m doing on the show and that’s what I’ve always been doing. I like telling stories, these stories are simply historical stories through the lens of food. I don’t see them as vastly different from a musical on Broadway.
It’s still entertainment, there’s education to it, but its entertainment.
Was gaming a part of your childhood growing up? Was Total War a game you played at all?
During my childhood, no. My brother was the gamer, he played videogames almost ad nauseam. I never really got into them, would play a little bit here and there, but I didn’t really get into videogames until college.
One of the games I played was Total War. I played ROME: Total War, I played Civilization, I played Sim City. I don’t like fast-paced games, I like more strategy, turn-based, that kind of thing where I don’t have to stress. Fighting games where you need to press buttons very quickly, I don’t like those, they stress me out too much.
So Total War was always perfect for that. Crusader Kings, those kinds of games. Then I didn’t really play much except for those types of games, until I met my fiancé who is a huge gamer. I do not consider myself a gamer, I play some videogames, but he is a gamer, he plays everything and loves it.
He introduced me to a few more things but he is very good at knowing what stresses me out, so we play the occasional Pokémon game, or Animal Crossing, where the stress level is very, very low.
I play a lot of Civilization, hours and hours and hours, and I’m guessing if I can find the time I will also be doing the same thing with the new, remastered ROME: Total War as well.
Do you have a favorite faction?
I always liked playing as the Carthaginians. I’ve always thought Hannibal Barka was a pretty incredible leader. Also, if I remember correctly, the Egyptians. I’ve always enjoyed playing the Egyptians in anything.
And would you call your rulership style fair?
No. Aggressive. If I ever run for office, do not vote for me. I’m a ‘this is what I believe and I’m sticking with it’ kind of attitude.
Ah, scorched earth campaigns, then?
Very scorched earth. When I play games that have many different victory settings, I do always just pick complete oblivion, domination, that’s the only way to win. [laughs] Unless everyone else is dead, it’s not a victory!
How do you think your community has responded to a collaboration like this, one that is a bit outside the norm?
Most of the feedback has been “what an unexpected yet perfect sponsorship it is.”
Yeah, we’ll take that.
Yeah. Especially because most of the stuff I’ve done has been very educational – great courses, CuriosityStream, that kind of thing. So this was a bit different, yet still extremely relevant, especially because rather than taking a sponsor and putting it into a video… I made the four videos, because of the sponsor, because of the game. Rome Month would not be happening if you hadn’t brought the idea to me, and I don’t think anybody is minding four weeks of Roman recipes.
Thats great there’s been such a good response, it feels like the Rome videos do particularly well on your channel.
Anything “ancient” does particularly well. Ancient being before the fall of Rome, I suppose. Everything I’ve done – Babylonian, only done one Egyptian thing but it did rather well, anything Greek, Roman, they all tend to do rather well. Medieval does very well, the later you get, typically the less interested.
Why do you think that is?
I honestly don’t know. Part of me wonders if it becomes more central to a specific culture. As you go later in history, foods become more associated with Germany, Italy, England so it kind of cuts out a certain group of people who might not be interested in French food, or Chinese food, or whatever.
Whereas ancient Rome, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt – they’re all part of our collective history, I guess, almost wherever you live in the world.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever made?
I think that the Cockentrice that I did a couple of months ago is up there. I didn’t think I would actually do that. Half-pig, half-rooster. It made me hesitant to do the Honeyed Pork video, a whole pig, because an uncooked pig, heck even a cooked pig, is kind of creepy to look at. I don’t think I will be cooking whole animals like that again for quite some time.
That’s just a personal preference, there’s a reason we call it ham and pork rather than pig when we eat it, it distances us, and if you have a slab of bacon or a pork chop, it’s not an animal. But if you have a whole pig, with a face, it’s an animal – what’s horrible is they are the same thing, but in our mind they are not. I have no problem making these meats that have already been butchered but taking the whole animal – I have some squeamishness about it.
A lot of the dishes that I think are interesting but won’t be trying, it’s not necessarily because it’s too gross or anything, it’s that it’s too hard or impossible to get. Good luck finding flamingo tongues, or hippo meat. We actually wanted to do kangaroo, and they do still eat kangaroo meat down in Australia but you can’t get it here. So that’s off the list. I can’t even make haggis because we can’t get sheep’s lung here in the United States. That’s typically the reason something doesn’t make the list – I can’t find the ingredients.
What about the best or most enjoyable thing you’ve done?
I just found a recipe for Pizza from 1570, and I’m really looking forward to making it. Pizza is my favorite food pretty much, but it has no… other than the shape there is no correlation between this pizza and modern pizza, so I’m really curious to see what it is, what it tastes like.
When you put the ingredients together it still looks like something that’s going to be tasty, but very different from a modern pizza.
Any crazy levels of research? Ever ended up in a fifth level basement archive with a magnifying glass on your eye trying to transcribe a manuscript just to make an ancient panini.
No, ha! The reason is because, until very recently, no place was open. Everything has to be done online. We were locked down; I couldn’t leave the house, let alone go to the British museum.
The amazing thing is there is so much online. There are hundreds and hundreds of old cookbooks online because for the most part they’re all public domain. There have been groups like the University of Michigan, the Guttenberg project, the library of congress here in the United States, the British museum, that have put these works online.
I have a ton of books, don’t get me wrong, but I usually can do 80% of the research online and then I switch to my books for the rest.
Whenever I’ve hit something where I’m like “ah, I do need to go to that certain museum” – I just don’t do it. I move onto a different video. There are so many ideas that it’s not worth harping on one and pulling my hair out to research, when I can just do something else.
Pick your battles. Maybe in five years when I’m running low on ideas then I’ll have to scrounge a little bit harder, but until then I do with what I can find relatively easily. Even online, you can’t just Google it, sometimes you have to go down these weird little rabbit holes to find things. So, it does take a long time, especially because I like to work with primary sources and stuff like that.
Is that something you get picked up on, if you don’t have it 100% correct?
I do my research as best I can, sometimes I get things wrong – it’s not often but it’s happened – and I usually try to correct that in a later video.
What often ends up happening is the history that we think we know isn’t history, isn’t true. It’s often invented tradition, which the Victorians were notorious for. They would just make something up and that then gets passed down enough, through actual historians, that it ends up becoming accepted truth even though there is nothing to back it up.
Those are often the pitfalls because you don’t know what you don’t know. If ten historians say ‘this is true’ you kind of have to accept it. Then somebody will point out ‘actually, that’s been debunked’ and I didn’t come across that debunking in my research. Plus the problem with YouTube is once you put the video up, you can’t change it, it’s there.
So, that does happen, but it’s very rare. Very rare.
Finally – we give you complete control over Total War so we can do another collab, what area of history do you focus on?
I always find with a lot of games that do medieval Europe, they start a little bit later than I really enjoy. I really like the 11th century with the end of the Viking Age, and the Saxons and the Normans – that conflagration of about 80 years, that’s what I always enjoy.
I also think a pre-Spanish and post-Spanish time period around Central America, Mexico, all of the wars that were taking place with the Aztecs just before the Spanish conquest when they took over, as well as then when the Spaniards come over. I think that’s an interesting time period.
What’s interesting is we often think of that history starting with Cortés meeting Moctezuma* but the Aztecs in the century before had kind of devastated Central America and Southern Mexico with war. There is a bunch of stuff going on there before the Europeans arrive. It’s fascinating and we know a lot about it, surprisingly.
There’s also Egypt… the thing with Egypt is it covers such a swathe of time. It ends with the Romans, sort of, not really but kind of, maybe. But how far do you go back? Do you go back to the old kingdom when they’re fighting against the Nubians in the middle kingdom? You’re covering 3,000 years of history there.
Total War’s a long game! Thanks for joining us Max and good luck with the channel.
*Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés and Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, the top men on either side of the eventual destruction of the Aztec empire at the hands of the Spanish and their South American allies in 1521.