Known to 15 million TikTok followers for his candid restaurant reviews and multi-thousand-dollar tips, here’s how the MMA-fighter-turned-social-media-phenomenon became the voice of a generation of diners
There is no shortage of food opinions online. (Hi, you’re on Eater.) But over the past year, Keith Lee has emerged as the voice millions of people turn to for their restaurant recommendations. He’s on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, has collaborated with MrBeast, and as of this writing has over 15 million followers on TikTok. When thousands of people post their opinions about food on social media every day, how did Lee become the one with millions of followers, the power to shut down restaurants, and the authority to rate food in cities he’s never lived in?
Who is Keith Lee?
For anyone with a TikTok account, Keith Lee is instantly recognizable: a guy sitting in his car, eating a takeout container of food and rating its quality with a quick-paced monotone and painstaking precision — 7.3 out of 10 for a plate of chicken and rice, 9.4 for a triple cheeseburger. To his followers, Lee is a bona fide food critic with a staggering degree of perceived credibility. But before he earned his massive following on the platform, Lee was a mixed martial arts fighter nicknamed “Killa,” with an 8-5 record across 13 fights. His last fight, a win, came in September 2022, right around the time he was becoming the food world’s most prominent new authority.
Shortly after his TikTok account started to take off, Lee began making videos as a way to combat his social anxiety, and the rest is history. He almost always eats the food he reviews in his car, speaking directly to the camera about what he likes and dislikes about a specific dish. Lee rates dishes on a scale from one to 10, and he is surprisingly critical of what he eats. Even if he gives an oxtail dish a nine, he might say he didn’t like the texture of the gravy, or that he bit into a few gristly pieces of meat. He’s also very serious about his credibility.
Lee typically doesn’t visit establishments himself, instead employing family members to anonymously place orders with the restaurants he reviews. He insists he does not accept complimentary food and that he almost exclusively visits places recommended to him in TikTok comments or submitted to his direct messages, though he’ll also visit establishments that reach out and request reviews.
“The Keith Lee effect” on restaurants
If you ask Janel Prator about Keith Lee, you can practically hear the smile in her voice. A California native, Prator moved to the Houston area about two years ago and opened the Puddery, a dessert business known for Prator’s creamy banana pudding that she’s operated on and off since 2006. She eventually decided to go all in and open a brick-and-mortar location in the Houston suburb of Pearland. Unfortunately, business didn’t take off quite as quickly as she’d expected.
“I didn’t know anyone here, and no one knew me,” she says. “It was just word of mouth, trying to run ads to get people to come through the doors. But it was awfully expensive, and it has been a struggle to keep consistent customers coming in.”
Prator followed Lee online and decided to shoot her shot. She reached out to him via social media, offering to ship him cups of pudding to try. He never responded. Then she found out Lee was coming to Houston and started to ramp up her requests. She posted about it on Instagram and sent him multiple DMs. Still nothing.
“I knew this was my one and only chance to get him to come to the Puddery because I didn’t know when he would ever come back to Houston,” Prator says. “I just decided I’m going to do everything I can to get his attention, out of all the thousands of restaurants in Houston. I was gonna make sure that he saw me. No matter what.”
It worked. On November 28, Lee posted a review of the Puddery on TikTok, along with other reviews of popular Houston restaurants like the Waffle Bus and the Breakfast Klub. It was a rave, with Lee even going so far as to say the pudding was better than the one his wife Ronni makes. But considering Lee’s blunt candor, especially about the food he eats, it was still a risk. What if he had gone to the Puddery and told everyone it sucked? Or his characteristic aversion to anything “too sweet” (one of his most common critiques) clashed with the restaurant’s core focus on treats?
“Keith Lee is known for not liking desserts and for being picky about textures, so people told me in the comments that he wasn’t going to like my pudding,” Prator says. “But I felt in my heart that he’s going to like it. I have confidence in my product. I put my all into my product.”
In the days following the video, Prator was absolutely slammed with new business. She went from having six customers a day to 150 or 200 and had to shut down for a few days to keep up with the lines snaking from the front door. She’s worked wildly long hours over the last few weeks, and she’s hiring new staff to help meet the demand.
“I’m just so grateful,” Prator says. “This man literally changed my life and didn’t want anything in return. It’s very rare that someone is willing to come and help you and not want anything in return. I think people can pick up on that. They trust that he’s not going to lie.”
How has Keith Lee caused controversy?
As much as Lee can change the trajectory of a restaurant for the better, the sheer amount of attention he draws in any city he visits can also cause drama — or at least a round of secondary discourse — about where he went, where he should have gone, and whether his opinions were correct.
Earlier this year, Lee visited Atlanta and was not impressed with the offerings, to say the least. He spoke of bad service and weird service charges, and as Eater Atlanta’s Beth McKibben wrote, “What Lee discovered in Atlanta is what locals already know: The city has more than a few clubstaurants giving ATL a bad name by imposing inequitable rules on service and takeout, while also offering deference to social media influencers and famous patrons.” But his presence inspired ire, with fans spamming restaurants — including one he didn’t even visit but which had a similar name to one he didn’t like — with bad reviews and harassing employees. Lee took to TikTok to ask followers to please be normal.
More recently, Lee visited New York, where locals worried his MO of driving and eating in his car would give him a warped experience of the city’s food scene, given that New York is much more conducive to walking and public transportation. New Yorkers have also judged his food choices, like when he ordered a salmon chopped cheese at Taste Budz deli (though Taste Budz should perhaps be judged for even offering that item). But despite Lee’s negative review, Taste Budz was still slammed after his video went up.
Why do people love Keith Lee?
There is, of course, Lee’s commitment to restaurants that focus on takeout, and specifically Black-owned restaurants instead of the Bad Romans and Carbones of the world. He visits neither the same trendy restaurants all over TikTok nor the restaurants getting reviewed in the country’s leading papers and magazines. This allows him to dominate a niche, creating a whole category: The Kind of Restaurant Keith Lee Might Go to.
An influencer’s most valuable currency is authenticity. From the rise of Chowhound and Yelp, the newer wave of food critics have argued they are more trustworthy than the “establishment,” members of which are often entrenched in the restaurant industry. But as influencing has become its own profession, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern who is telling you the truth and who has a secret agenda.
“I think it’s an energy,” Prator says. “People can tell he just wants to do good and have a positive impact on people’s lives and businesses. He’s very genuine. When he came here, he didn’t come in and demand that I pay him. I can’t even contact him. He’s like this mythical creature who dropped this blessings bomb on me and disappeared. I don’t even have a way to contact him via email.”
Despite his fame, Lee has held onto his image of being just a regular guy telling you what he thinks about food. There are no glamour shots of cheese pulls, no selfies with beautiful cocktails. He’s just there to talk about how the food tastes straight out of its Styrofoam clamshell. And though the restaurants that request him are quite aware of when he’s in their cities — and probably on high alert for anyone who could look like Lee’s mom — he continues to protect his identity so he does not receive preferential treatment.
Though he positions himself as the opposite of the food media establishment, Lee finds success because he takes a page from the pro’s book. The art of staying anonymous while one reviews restaurants is a time-honored tradition in food media, whether it means making your reservation under a different name, keeping your face off social media, or donning a disguise. One of iconic critic Ruth Reichl’s most famous reviews, of Le Cirque in 1993, compared her experiences dining anonymously in the restaurant to when she was recognized as the New York Times’ critic during subsequent visits. At a time when many food influencers don’t disclose when they receive comped meals or explicit invitations, Lee basically stands out for his journalistic ethics.
And journalism is something that has, unfortunately, been shrinking in basically every city in America. There are ever-fewer staff critics at local papers, and those who do exist usually have fewer resources to devote to reviewing. Lee provides a service people are clearly clamoring for without the backing of a media company, without the hypocrisy of being paid by the restaurants themselves. (It’s unclear, however, whether he derives income from his reviews, though last year he expected to make $150 a day through the TikTok Creator Fund.)
We do not know the full extent of whether Lee is actually all the things he says he is, or what restaurant owners and his social media followers hope for him to be. But on some level, it doesn’t matter. He has the power to command customers, make businesses change their practices, and cause entire cities to question how their restaurant industry looks. Perhaps he is the establishment now. At the very least, fortunately, he appears to be a generous tipper.
Copy edited by Kelli Pate