Janet Kushner didn’t realize she was getting YouTube famous until she was on a shuttle to the Austin airport and the driver stopped her.
“Señora Janet? Señora Janet!” she said as she recognized the Mexico City native, who was traveling with her husband from their home in Lakeway to Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, for vacation.
“That was when we realized our channel was really starting to grow,” Kushner says now. It was 2017, two years after they’d started Jauja Cocina Mexicana, a retirement project that has turned into a full-time job for both Kushner and her husband, a former dentist and medical researcher.
They now have more than 2 million subscribers to the YouTube channel (youtube.com/JaujaCocinaMexicana), which features videos of Janet cooking traditional Mexican dishes, from pozoles and pasteles to tortas and tacos. Last year, they hosted a meetup at a shopping center in Mexico City, where more than 200 people showed up, some from as far away as Tijuana, and many bearing gifts for their online friend.
With Jack behind the camera and Janet in charge of developing the recipes, they continue to produce two videos a week and respond to the more than 1,000 comments and Facebook messages they get each day.
It’s a passion project that started as a way for Janet to feel less homesick for her native country after they moved to Austin about six years ago. She and Jack knew each other when they were younger, but they both pursued separate families and careers before reconnecting 12 years ago.
Janet was living in Tulum, where she was running a small hotel. Jack was in Boston, where he’d spent enough winters to know he wanted to move somewhere warmer. He ended up moving to Tulum and started helping her with marketing the hotel online, and she quickly ascended to the top ranking on TripAdvisor.
Janet had always loved food, but she hadn’t considered herself a culinary expert. “Both my grandmothers were really good cooks, but when they were in the kitchen, you weren’t supposed to be there, so I couldn’t see what they were doing,” she says. Her aunt was more forthcoming with cooking advice, and so were the many maids and cooking helpers she’d hired over the years.
When living in Tulum, she learned how to cook traditional Yucatan dishes, including cochinita pibil, and had always dreamed of opening a restaurant, but as she approached 50, she and Jack started looking at retirement in the U.S., and Austin looked appealing.
He’s a golfer, and so they found a house in Lakeway, but Kushner felt isolated. She spoke English but didn’t fit in. “She kept threatening to move back to Mexico,” Jack says.
The only thing that made her feel better was cooking.
“I started cooking because I wanted to remember the flavors and the smell of my Mexico,” Janet says, but she was disappointed by the recipes and tutorials she found online. “I went to find some other recipes, and I kept telling him, ‘Que hacen en el internet?’ They didn’t even know what they were doing.”
She tried out a few recipes, and when two recipes from a notable Mexican cooking show failed, Kushner realized that she was going to have to develop the recipes herself. Jack said she might as well film the process and share those dishes with others.
So, together, they started making cooking videos in English and in Spanish and uploading them to YouTube, and to their surprise, people started watching and commenting. The English videos weren’t getting as many views, so they stopped making two videos for each dish and Jack started adding English subtitles to the Spanish videos.
He started studying the YouTube algorithm so the videos would get better placement, and they kept improving the video quality to keep viewers watching for longer.
“Janet really has a commitment to education,” Jack says. Many of the viewers didn’t learn how to cook — or cook well — from their family members, and they view Janet as a friend they can turn to for cooking advice, he says.
Thirty percent of their viewers are from the U.S. — mostly from California, Illinois, Texas and Florida, but other states, too — and 60 percent come from Mexico. Other viewers stream from Egypt, France or the Netherlands. “We get dudes writing from Japan asking about how to make tortillas,” he says.
Four years later, they continue to post two videos a week, and a new video can get more than 150,000 views in a day. The name Jauja refers to a city in Peru whose rich soil inspired the phrase “pais de Jauja,” referring to a paradise or place of prosperity and abundance. Her most-viewed video — a tutorial on making tortitas (cakes) of potato and cheese — has more than 13 million views.
Janet spends Sundays working on the recipes so she can prepare them on camera on Mondays and Wednesdays. They film during the day, and Jack gets up at 1:30 a.m to edit and upload the video so it’s available by the time most computer users are getting to their desks on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
She shops for the ingredients at H-E-B, but she’ll sometimes make a trip to Fiesta or a neighborhood Mexican market for chiles, banana leaves or other specialty ingredients.
Janet says it’s moving when people tell her that they now enjoy cooking for their in-laws or children who otherwise might not spend as much time at home. “They call Janet a ‘salvamarido,'” a marriage-saver, Jack says. “They’ll say, ‘For years, my husband never came home for lunch,’ or, ‘He didn’t like my cooking, he wouldn’t show up, and then I discovered you and started making your recipes, and now my husband is here for lunch. And now he won’t leave me alone.’”
The amount of work that goes into each video can wear on both of them some days. “We’re not spring chickens anymore,” Janet Kushner says. She wants to go to one video a week, but Jack isn’t sure they can still maintain the videos needed to keep the channel profitable and highly ranked by search engines.
“This has been a way for Janet to connect with her roots and to remember the scents and flavors of her youth,” Jack says. “This channel is who she is.”
They continue to respond to every comment on YouTube and Facebook, but they also want to get out and meet more of their fans.
They hope to write a cookbook someday and maybe take their meetups on the road. Kushner’s biggest dream would be to follow in the footsteps of Josefina Velazquez de Leon, the Mexican cookbook author and culinary anthropologist who traveled around the country interviewing home cooks about their family foods and whose work influenced Diana Kennedy in the 1950s and 1960s.
Many of those home cooks are the ones today who email or leave comments about Kushner’s food reminding them of their own family foodways.
Austinite Ricardo Martínez says that he first started watching Kushner’s videos because they were easy to follow and the recipes always turned out well. “Watching her feels like visiting a favorite tía to learn old family recipes,” he says. For several years, he’s hosted a pozolada, or pozole party, the Saturday before Thanksgiving using Janet's pozole rojo recipe. “Everybody is impressed that I don’t use canned hominy.”
She has seen her audience evolve over the years. When she started, Kushner would use a molcajete and people would leave a negative comment about using a specialized tool. “Now, people tell me, ‘Señora, I have my molcajete now!’”
She doesn’t want to see culinary traditions and know-how lie dormant or remain unknown. Documenting them in a format that can be easily shared is important to both Kushners.
When they aren’t making videos, sometimes they’ll go out for barbecue or Tex-Mex. Chuy’s is a favorite, especially their flour tortillas. “I told him to banish my tortillas de harina recipe,” she says. “I’m from Mexico City, I don’t know how to make them.”
Amid all the tracking of page views and completion rates, “at the beginning of the day, it’s all about the human connection,” Jack Kushner says. “If a person like Janet is able to connect with viewers, and if viewers are able to feel that connection and feel like the channel is for them, that’s what makes the channel grow.”
Janet Kushner's recipe for cochinita pibil calls for a molcajete, a mortar and pestle with a rough texture that was used for centuries before the invention of blenders and food processors. You could make this recado rojo using another kitchen tool, such as a spice grinder or food processor, but it won't have the same texture as from a molcajete.
— Addie Broyles
For the recado rojo:
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
6 whole allspice seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
10 garlic cloves
1/4 white onion, sliced
2 heaping tablespoons ground achiote powder
2 tablespoons water
1/4 to 1/3 cup sour orange juice (or equal parts orange juice and lime juice)
For the cochinita:
4 1/2 to 7 pounds pork shoulder, cut into large pieces
1/2 to 3/4 cup sour orange juice (or equal parts orange juice and lime juice)
1/2 cup water
Homemade corn tortillas
Using a molcajete, crush the spices and salt together, leaving out the achiote powder. Then grind the garlic with the crushed spices and then add the sliced onions, continuing to combine the ingredients until a paste starts to form. Add the achiote, water and then the sour orange juice. Set aside.
Lightly roast the banana leaves on a comal or over a flame until the color changes to a deeper green and the leaves soften. In a Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, line the pot with banana leaves with some leaves hanging over the edge so you can fold them over the top.
With gloves on your hands, spread a small layer of the achiote paste on each piece of the pork, and then place each piece of pork in the banana leaf-covered pot. You won’t use all of the achiote paste to rub on the meat. To the extra paste, add the additional sour orange juice to make a liquid that you can pour over the pork. Fold the leaves over the meat and then cover the pot with a lid. Let the meat rest in the refrigerator overnight.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Pour the water between the leaves and the pot so there’s enough steam in the pot to cook the meat. Bake for about 3 hours and 25 minutes or until the meat is soft, juicy and tender. Serve with homemade corn tortillas and habanero salsa. Serves 8 to 10.
— Adapted from a recipe by Janet Kushner, Jauja Cocina Mexicana
Tortitas de papas y queso (potato and cheese cakes)
This recipe for these little cakes, or tortitas, made with potato and cheese, is the most-viewed recipe on Jauja Cocina Mexicana. She has several other versions of tortitas on the YouTube channel, but this simple version remains the most popular among viewers.
— Addie Broyles
1 pound white potatoes
1/4 pound panela, añejo or fresco cheese, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
Fresh green salad
Cover the potatoes in a pot of salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 40 minutes until they are cooked through. Cool the potatoes enough to handle them and then peel off the skin. Cool the potatoes completely and then mash them with a potato masher. Add the crumbled cheese and salt and mix together.
Whisk an egg and then add to the potato and cheese mixture. Add the breadcrumbs and mix until just combined. You might have to add a little more breadcrumbs if the texture is too wet. Rub your hands with a little oil so the mixture doesn't stick, and then roll a small ball of the mixture between your hands and then flatten into a disc.
Add a few tablespoons of oil to a medium frying pan over medium-high heat and then fry the potato cakes for several minutes and then flip to continue cooking. Once they are golden brown, remove the cakes and then place on a paper towel-covered plate. Serve with a salad. Serves 3 to 4.
— Adapted from a recipe by Janet Kushner, Jauja Cocina Mexicana