A weekday morning in Chinatown, and Jesse Burgess and Will Warr, the duo behind food filmmakers Topjaw, are tucking into lunch at Speedboat Bar. It’s not yet midday but the table is laden with minced beef, spicy prawn ceviche and the restaurant’s virally popular Tom Yam Mama Noodles. Their enthusiasm stops just short of licking the plates. 

Much like the noodles, Burgess and Warr are riding a wave of internet success. It’s been one year since Topjaw, which posts videos across YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, launched its Best of London series where guests, mostly chefs, are quizzed on their favourite bars, cafés and restaurants. And the response has been rapturous. Everyone from Stanley Tucci to Michel Roux Jr has contributed their best bakeries, pubs and Sunday roasts and in doing so they have transformed the fortunes of new and lesser-known restaurants (Donia’s Instagram following increased by more than 50 per cent after Topjaw posted about it), as well as burnishing the reputations of longtime favourites such as The Connaught Bar.

Warr and Burgess, the duo behind Topjaw
Warr and Burgess, the duo behind Topjaw © Suki Dhanda

Burgess and Warr met almost a decade ago: Burgess, a former fashion model, was working for sweet company Candy Kittens when Warr, a “budding young filmmaker”, was introduced. Making films was initially just “something to do”. “Some guys play golf – we make films about food and drink together,” says Burgess, who has been a food obsessive since sampling the beluga caviar and shellfish brought home by his private-jet-flight-attendant mother as a child. In Warr, Burgess found someone equally fascinated by the “charm” of independent restaurants – “it takes a certain kind of headcase to open a restaurant,” he says. “We are forever interested in their stories.”

From the beginning Burgess took on the role of presenter and Warr the camerawork. Early videos documented the presenter investigating London’s best burger joint and twizzling pizza dough at Pizza Pilgrims. Viewers trickled in tentatively, but the channel struggled to catch the zeitgeist. At the start of 2023, Burgess and Warr issued themselves an ultimatum: “Go for it or pack it in”. Going “hell for leather” meant trying a different tack – something quicker, more information-dense. At the time Topjaw was producing a 20-minute city guide every month or so. The videos were high-production, but the hours spent editing and filming weren’t worth the payoff. “It’s amazing to make a film and have a couple hundred thousand people watch it – that’s what Channel 4 gets,” says Burgess, who has also worked as a property developer and interior designer; Warr runs his own production company. “But short-form is where everybody is.”

Warr (left) and Burgess in Speedboat Bar
Warr (left) and Burgess in Speedboat Bar © Joshua Tarn

The short-form format was already a crowded market. On YouTube, videos of under a minute make up almost 60 per cent of views. Topjaw needed a niche. Burgess recalls going to a restaurant with a friend, who observed him “chatting to the chef, saying, ‘This is great, that’s opened up, that’s gone off the boil.’ That type of thing.” Afterwards the friend turned to him: “That chat you had,” he said of the gossipy, Q&A style that has since become Topjaw’s hallmark, “that should be your short-form.” 

The first Best of London episode was a one-minute interview with Dom Fernando, founder of Sri Lankan restaurant Paradise Soho. The clip is almost clumsy compared to more recent episodes, which now come with music, sound effects and meme accompaniments. Burgess and Warr release seven videos a week, and flit between interviews with Claude Bosi, Monica Galetti and St John’s Trevor Gulliver (restaurant recommendations are stored in the Topjaw map). The schoolboyish bluster, industry recommendations and general passion for eating well have proven a winning combination: Topjaw’s YouTube channel has more than 28mn total views and they are currently picking up around 2,000 new Instagram followers a day.

Moreover, the pair are turning restaurants into destinations. The duo were early fans of The Devonshire and Crisp Pizza, where securing a reservation is now almost impossible. Crisp’s founder Carl McCluskey says the exposure from the videos has been “amazing”. Oisín Rogers, The Devonshire’s no-nonsense landlord, echoes these sentiments, pointing to the hordes of diners who have cited Topjaw as their reason for booking. “They’ve opened us up to audiences that we might have taken longer to reach,” he says. The majority of Topjaw’s followers are between the ages of 24 and 35. Are they trying to oust the more traditional food critics? “Not at all,” says Burgess crossly. “I had lunch with Giles Coren last week... he’s a brilliant writer. What I love about food critics is that they go in unannounced, they pay and they can say whatever they want.” Can Topjaw not? “Food critics are the only people who have that licence,” he replies. Restaurants tend to offer them free food, although Topjaw aren’t obliged to review them. Besides, they want the tone of Topjaw to be more celebratory. Asked whether they aspire to be like any other food influencers, Burgess can only mention the late Anthony Bourdain. 

Thai beers in the fridge at Speedboat Bar
Thai beers in the fridge at Speedboat Bar © Joshua Tarn

But perhaps the Topjaw boys aren’t so different from critics after all. As Tim Hayward, FT Magazine’s food columnist, says, traditional restaurant criticism is in a period of “self-analysis”. Gone are the days of “panning reviews”; in place are thoughtful, funny pieces from writers who love the restaurant industry. “Our job is to be entertaining for 1,000 words once a week,” says Hayward, who has watched Burgess and Warr from the start. “It’s difficult to be rude about Topjaw, even if one wanted to – they’re doing the same thing as critics: being entertaining within their medium.” 

Now that Instagram’s algorithm is working in their favour, Burgess and Warr are committed to “feeding the beast”. This means creating new content and expanding the “Best of” model to other cities: they’re currently working on a New York extension. They’ve also launched other short series: comparing cans of tuna and other ingredients in “Budget vs Bougie”, and reviewing a string of new restaurant openings. None yet has been as popular as the Best of London series.

As for their personal ambitions, Burgess has “a bit more of an obsession with what will get engagement”, while Warr yearns for the “beautiful B-roll” of their longer pieces. “I love long-form, shooting landscape, cinematic and epic,” he says. “The dream is one day to have our own Netflix show.” It might take a while: one of Topjaw’s last longer videos was a 15-minute guide to Reykjavík sponsored by easyJet (Topjaw earns most of its revenue via brand partnerships). The video has had just under 70,000 views. “That’s bleak,” says Warr. He folds his arms before picking up the dictaphone between us and shouting into the microphone: “That’s fucking bleak!”

A selection of dishes at Speedboat Bar in London
A selection of dishes at Speedboat Bar in London © Suki Dhanda

By now the spread is all but gone, save the prawns – Burgess isn’t “good with spice” – and a three-foot tower of beer. “We’re going to do everything,” assures Burgess. The two men fill their cups merrily. This is the Topjaw appeal in a nutshell: a floppy-haired cocktail of good looks, good times and cheery public-school confidence. And some great food, eaten very quickly.

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