When Keith Lee received his walking papers from Bellator MMA in 2021, he wasn’t exactly sure what would come next for him.
After dedicating his life to fighting, the now 26-year-old veteran decided he needed to create a sustainable living for his growing family that wouldn’t necessarily rely on anybody else except himself. He wasn’t certain where he would end up, but he felt lost and decided to find a new job.
” I felt extremely expendable after my contract was terminated with Bellator,” Lee stated to MMA Fighting. “I promised myself I’m going to build something that no one can take away from me and that’s me being me. Completely separate from anything else I do. It’s just me and you can’t take away who I am.”
Fast forward to just over a year later, and Lee is now considered one of the most influential food critics in the world with a growing fan base that includes 7 million followers on TikTok, but how this all happened actually goes back to his career in mixed martial arts.
For most of his life, Lee has suffered from social anxiety, which can vary in terms of severity but it created serious issue for him considering he was competing in a public facing sport that essentially requires interaction beyond just fighting in a cage. Lee struggled with interviews, so he decided to try social media to help him feel more at ease in front of cameras.
” I started TikTok in order to be more familiar with conducting interviews for MMA, Lee said. “Because at the time, all I was doing was MMA. Within that, it was about me learning how to slow myself down, how to speak at a more monotone tone. This is how I normally speak, but I can get very excited and nervous if I need to talk fast.
“So I could see myself in the beginning of my videos, I was talking real fast and everything was kind of fast and choppy and I was like what do I do to slow myself down so I can articulate so you can understand what I’m saying.”
According to Lee, his first videos were not focused on food reviews. Instead, he was focusing more on content that revolved around his family. Nothing came easy, however, because Lee says his social anxiety made him struggle in front of the camera as he continuously worked at getting better at public speaking.
” It used to take me over an hour to film a 2-minute video, when I started,” Lee explained. Because I was so anxious. I’d sweat profusely, my hands would become clammy and I’d be looking at the video. It would feel like I was repeating my self non-stop, stuttering and it wouldn’t just be me. [in my head] There were a lot of people watching the video, even though I was only recording it and wasn’t uploading it.
” It would be me panicking. Through that I’ve learned how to relax, calm down and I think that’s what draws people.”
The family-related content Lee started creating eventually led him to making cooking videos but it was actually his wife’s pregnancy changed everything.
“She was craving a bunch of crazy stuff so I was like I might as well record it,” Lee said.
That’s when Lee got a call from People vs. Food — a popular YouTube channel with more than 12 million subscribers — to appear on their show. Lee was inspired by the invitation to appear on their show to think about how to make it a success.
“I was like OK, if I was to be on their show and I was a viewer, what would I look for if somebody was on a different platform?” Lee said. “What would I look for in order for me to go to their platform and watch their videos? Food reviews were my favorite thing. All day I could watch someone do food reviews. So let me start doing food reviews.
“I told my wife I guess I’m just going to start rolling out food reviews before I go on People vs. Food and literally from the beginning of November until now, I’ve gained from 1. 7 [million] to 6. 4 [million followers].”
Lee’s commitment to his particular style of food reviews, which typically involves him just sitting in front of the camera, explaining where he got the food, the different dishes he’ll be trying along with the cost he paid and then rating each item on a scale of 1 to 10, started getting him more and more attention.
Lee was shocked to discover that his food reviews had really started to explode after visiting a Las Vegas food truck that had reached him via social media.
“I did a review for a place called 303 Food Truck,” Lee said. It’s a food truck in Las Vegas. In an original video, he showed me a cheesecake sandwich that had mascarpone cream inside. The video was amazing and it got me tagged in like a million times. So I was like cool, I’ll go try it and not even thinking much of it.
“I tried it and that video within the first 24 hours was at like 6 million views. He called me back and he said ‘the line is out the door.’ It’s a food truck so from their parking lot to two parking lots over of huge lines of people. That’s crazy!”
News staffs in Las Vegas were notified of the attraction by a reporter who interviewed people in line. Lee’s TikTok review helped to inform them that the food truck was open to anyone from the United States.
That original video now has nearly 30 million views with the food truck still reporting astronomical sales months after his review went live online.
“From that video on, I’ve had five businesses sell over $50,000 in product in less than 12 hours just from a review,” Lee said.
While his food reviews have exploded in recent months, Lee emphatically stated that he doesn’t charge these businesses and he goes out of his way to always pay for his own meals, although occasionally some owners refuse to charge him.
Lee added that despite his increased notoriety thanks to TikTok, he still does his best to go undercover whenever he’s getting food from a restaurant that he intends to review. He never informs the business what he’s doing and usually the restaurants don’t discover he’s reviewed their food until after the videos have already been posted.
Customers flocking to restaurants to taste the exact same cuisine as Lee is a sign that the business owner has a great influence.
“They call me like ‘what did you just do?’ What just happened?” Lee said. That’s the way I do it .”
More recently, Lee has been tagged by several businesses struggling to survive or gain traction in a very competitive restaurant market, which has led him to trying out their food to let everybody know what they’ve been missing.
Lee promises that his food reviews are always brutally honest — if he doesn’t like a dish, he’ll absolutely rate it that way — but he’s also found some real hidden gems when checking out these lesser known restaurants.
A Las Vegas pizzeria called Frankenson’s is perhaps the latest business to experience growth thanks to Lee’s reviews. Owner Frank Steele recently spoke to KTNV in Las Vegas about the explosion of attention his restaurant received after Lee featured them in one of his videos.
@keith_lee125 Frankensons Pizzeria Taste test would you try it ? #foodcritic original sound – Keith Lee
” I have people who come from Iowa, California and Lake Havasu. I had people come down from Utah all because of this video,” Steele said. It’s been overwhelming. It’s been a blessing. This restaurant has been a dream of mine for 30 years.”
The video with Lee’s original review now sits at more than 22 million views.
Lee confesses that helping restaurants like that earn some well-deserved business is more than he could have ever hoped for when he first started doing food reviews on TikTok.
“It is the whole world to me,” Lee stated. “I love being a vessel of God. Although it’s difficult to express, again I get the meaning. My last fight, I got cut from Bellator in August of 2021 and I’ve fought once since then in September. This year gap was the most difficult time in my entire life. Trying to understand what’s going on and trying to rationalize that I got cut from a promotion that I’ve always wanted to work with and then completely rebrand myself and allow God to use me for what was supposed to be done.
” When I first started to see things like this, people being thankful for their things and businesses being saved, it hit me differently. It’s still to a point where I don’t fully understand grasp what’s going on all the time. I’m just making videos. Just a man with a camera .”
Professional fights, even within a well-established organization such as Bellator, rarely offer up-and coming fighters any real financial security. While he still loves mixed martial arts and continues training almost on a daily basis, Lee admits that his food reviews have finally provided a living for him and his family.
He even started a partnership with Chipotle just a few days ago after one of his reviews about a custom-made quesadilla and dipping sauce from the restaurant gained traction with his followers. Now the “Keithadilla” will be available starting in March and even Lee still can’t quite fathom how all this happened in such a short amount of time.
” My life has changed,” Lee stated. Lee said, “I don’t have much to say but I can tell you that my life has changed.” My fighting is in a completely different league now than it was before. It’s surreal. It hasn’t really hit me yet but to say the least, I can make a living off of it.”
Oh and one last thing — Lee still plans on fighting again as well.
As successful as his food reviews have become, Lee isn’t giving up on his MMA career because that’s still something that means the world to him even if his fight schedule might have to slow down a little bit.
“I plan to fight at least once or twice this year,” Lee said. “I do have a lot of deals on the table and a lot of deals I just closed so right now I’m going to focus on getting those settled. Before I make a commitment to anything, I need to know where I stand in my life. I love fighting and I want it to be a fulfilling career. I think that’s one of the main things I was put on this Earth to do. When I do it, I do it right.
“When I do anything, I put all my effort into it. Fighting is not something I can play with and I won’t take anything lightly. I refuse to get into a fight or schedule a fight and be half-assing it or shooting content. When I’m in camp, I’m in camp. So when I have time that’s going to be my main focus point but right now I’m just enjoying life.”