How Food Critic Keith Lee Went From MMA Fighter to TikTok Star

arly on a
cool Los Angeles afternoon, while most of the city is still deciding what’s for lunch, one of the country’s fastest-rising food critics is in a Studio City parking lot, absolutely housing a spicy double cheeseburger. 

“My eyes are getting [watery],” Keith Lee says, laughing as he works his way through the bun, pausing to hold out a thick slice of jalapeno to the iPhone propped up on his dashboard. 

There’s no graceful way to eat in a car, but Lee has figured out a rhythm to both do it and film it at the same time, phone balanced perfectly while his sister Erma, out of view, helpfully rummages through a large, greasy paper bag to hand Lee another burger, this one covered in bacon and even more cheese. 

“Not you eating the onions off the console,” Erma jokes, cackling as Lee laughs so hard he has to catch his breath. Without any context, the scene might simply be two siblings bonding over a meal. But when Lee posts a supercut of the video on TikTok that night, 4.8 million people tune in. Even before Lee has properly finished his lunch, a sizable queue is trailing from Easy Street Burgers’ cash register out of the open door and down the sidewalk. 

To say Lee is everywhere would be an understatement. Inside, people pay at the till next to a sticker with Lee’s face on it. When Lee walks in and pays for at least 50 burgers (including a $4,000-plus tip for the four kitchen workers sweating over the grill in the back), people who seconds ago were shoving seasoned fries and cheese-laden buns into their mouths abandon them entirely, grabbing napkins and cellphones to take photos. Dameon Graham, a 45-year-old visiting from Atlanta, doesn’t even make it to the register before he’s gaping. “Is that Keith Lee?” he asks excitedly. In a few seconds, he’s shaking Lee’s hand. “I saw you on TikTok, that’s the only reason I’m here,” Graham tells him, posing for a photo his wife takes. It is carefully controlled chaos, with Lee willingly making his way to outstretched phones like he’s on an impromptu step-and-repeat. But for Lee, this experience — the photo requests or smiling fans or lines for restaurants down the block — isn’t a fluke. It’s a phenomenon that’s become so commonplace it has its own name: the Keith Lee effect

It’s taken less than four years for Lee, 27, to go from being a Las Vegas-based MMA fighter to arguably the internet’s biggest and most beloved food critic. While he started by posting general content about his life, it was his TikToks cooking dinner and documenting his wife Ronni’s pregnancy cravings that kick-started mainstream interest in his page. People tuned in to watch Lee, at odd hours of the night, collect assorted snacks or takeout, often cooking whatever he couldn’t find. Cooking tutorials became taste tests, first of novelty snacks, then chain-restaurant dishes, and eventually, the now-famous restaurant reviews. 

Keith Lee at Easy Street Burger in Los Angels. “I’m not famous, I’m just popular,” says the TikToker. 

Photograph by Cheril Sanchez

His approach is simple: eat at mom-and-pop shops nationwide, and then rate their food. Lee’s video format is consistent, appearing on most TikToks inside a car with a heavy to-go bag of food and a staccato catchphrase: “I got it, let’s try it, and rate it one through 10.” Through this, Lee netted more than 16 million TikTok followers and the respect of hundreds of restaurateurs across the country. His reviews have helped stop businesses from closing, jump-started their online presence, and, in one case, spun a city’s food scene into complete turmoil in less than two videos. Lee’s fans span from teenagers to their parents, uncles, and aunts, a generational divide that other influencers couldn’t even pay to win over. Lee has become the Everyman voice of food TikTok. He’s a bona fide star — just don’t let him hear you say it. 

“I’m not famous, I’m just popular,” Lee says, in a sentiment that he’ll repeat again and again throughout the weekend. Since I’ve just seen the equivalent of an orderly mob choose getting a picture with him over finishing lunch, I push back, but Lee refuses to budge, his signature sheepish grin on full display. “When I look at myself in the mirror now, I don’t see somebody who’s a celebrity, even when I go outside and take pictures with people. I think fame and celebrity are what you make of it,” he says. “And if I accept the title ‘celebrity,’ then I’ll have to accept whatever else you put on me. I’m a human being. I’m a person. I’m not somebody famous. I’m not an influencer. I’m Keith. And I eat food.” 

There’s a common script content creators follow when they go from app famous to suddenly influential outside of the screen. They didn’t expect this, they’re grateful for the attention, they’re just like you, and also, they’ll be moving into their mini mansion in Beverly Hills, where their videos will suddenly revolve around red-carpet events, parties, and how much better their lives are since their followers rewarded their vlogs with cold, hard cash. Lee has the gratefulness part down, but even as his follower count has skyrocketed past 16 million, his formula for videos has remained shockingly consistent. A special aspect of his stoic personality is that many of the standard-issue platitudes he says about his career or ascent to fame manage to ring both true and achingly authentic. Lee is direct with his praise, and gentle with his critiques. A dessert too sweet? He’s quick to explain that it might just not be his preference. Waited too long for his order? It could simply be a busy day for a swamped kitchen. He refuses to conform to the standard TikTok approach, even if that means giving restaurants second chances or passing workers $1,000 tips. Even before he films his burger review, he prays three times — something he says is a necessary part of his process. “Before I do anything, I thank God, but it’s more thanking him in advance,” he explains. “I thank him for the courage to not be an asshole but still be honest. It’s a very fine line, especially when you are quote-unquote critiquing somebody’s livelihood.” 

From any other person, this earnestness would undoubtedly come off as cringe. There’s simply no reason it should work — but for Lee, it does. Lee calls it being fair. But if you talk to Janel Prator, owner of the Texas bakery the Puddery, she calls Lee’s online presence — and his visit to her struggling restaurant in November 2023 — “a miracle.” After bringing her banana-pudding recipe to work potlucks, Prator started a business selling banana-pudding-based desserts — first through friends, then at bake sales and festivals, and eventually opening up a shop in Houston. She had loyal customers, but not enough. Prator remembers using buy-now, pay-later schemes to balance inventory and pay her rent. A good day was 30 customers. On the average day, she could sometimes see two. “It was mentally draining,” Prator tells Rolling Stone. “I was questioning my life choices.” On the day Lee visited her store, he was one of five customers. The next day, there were 130 customers snaked into a “theme-park line” around the block. Prator still can’t talk about it without getting emotional, but says that since Lee’s positive review, the store hasn’t seen a single day with fewer than a hundred customers. “The Keith Lee effect is 100 percent real,” she says. “It was a major blessing, and I’m just doing my best to make the most of it and to have gratitude for every day.”

GETTING SURROUNDED IN the middle of an L.A. burger joint is a far cry from where Keith Lee started 15 years ago. Lee grew up in Detroit with his parents and three siblings. He was expelled from at least four schools. He struggled with anxiety and depression, which manifested as intense communication problems and confrontations with classmates, teachers, and his parents. When he was 16, he was kicked out of the house after continual arguments with his father. “I was a liability. It’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. I just didn’t understand how to take advantage of those opportunities while still battling the mental-health issues that I was going through,” Lee says. “So by the time I [was] 16, I looked up and I was by myself.” 

As a wrestler in high school, Lee developed an eating disorder. “You think, ‘I’m only doing this because it’s a sport.’ But your body doesn’t know that,” he says. 

Courtesy of Keith Lee

While in school, Lee took after his brother Kevin, joining the wrestling team. Four years younger, Lee often felt like his identity was based solely on being Kevin’s little brother. Where Kevin was praised by teachers and peers, Keith got in trouble. Kevin went to college without a second thought, while Keith despaired about the future. Keith got kicked off the team multiple times, yet his success at wresting became the catalyst for an important realization: He could do something not just right, but well. 

“It let me know that I wasn’t as lost as I thought I was,” Lee says. But while wrestling helped his self-esteem, it also put him in the throes of an eating disorder. “Wrestling is riddled with eating disorders, because it stems from wanting to make weight,” Lee says. “You think, ‘I’m only doing this because it’s a sport.’ But your body doesn’t know that.” He can recall sitting at Thanksgiving with rice cakes, sneaking small bites of mac and cheese and turkey, feeling so guilty he would run for miles afterward. When Lee was suspended again during his senior year, he felt like he had lost his hard-fought upward trajectory. It was around then he attempted suicide. “I felt not only like a failure, but like I was on a roller coaster. As much as I was going up, I knew I had to come back down. And I was tired of the ride,” Lee says. His father found him before it was too late, and it changed their relationship forever. “The pain he was going through seeing one of his sons in that mental space, it just brought us closer.” 

When Kevin joined the UFC at 21 — the MMA equivalent of getting drafted by the NFL — the entire family moved from Detroit to Las Vegas. But about to turn 18, separated from friends, and with no plans to go to college, Lee quickly fell back into depression. His brother showed up at the apartment one day, took one look at Lee’s dark room and unshaven face, and dragged him to his gym. It was Lee’s fresh start: the world of mixed martial arts. While his brother paid his gym fees, Lee worked odd jobs to support himself, one at a shoe store that put him in the path of his wife, Ronni. On the same day in December 2019, Lee found out that Ronni was pregnant and his career had finally delivered his big break — a contract with the MMA organization Bellator, a competitor to the UFC. (MMA fighting is run by promotion companies that sign fighters under short-term contracts and then host tournaments and fights.) But professional fighting meant professional interviews, something Lee says his social anxiety made extremely difficult. “I was so nervous. I was sweaty. It would mess up my entire day just to hear that I had to do an interview,” Lee says. “You can’t be a super-successful professional fighter and not be good on the mic. So I took it upon myself to start doing TikTok. I just set up the camera, and I started recording myself and pretended that it was 1,000 people watching me and I would use that as an outlet to get better in front of the camera.” 

Lee during a 2021 MMA fight. 

Erin Bormett /”Argus Leader”/USA TODAY Network

He got better. He also got followers — easily reaching 1 million in a year of steady posting. But once his first daughter was born, Lee began to struggle in the ring. After a brutal loss in a fight, Bellator revoked his contract. He was already a Postmates driver to make extra cash, but felt lost in his career. “I’m sitting in the bed with my one-and-a-half-year-old. My wife is pregnant,” he says. “I don’t have a job. And I just got choked out on national TV.” 

Lee fell into another depression. “I’m in the bed in a fetal position, and my wife is standing over me and telling me everything’s gonna be OK,” he says. “Maybe like a week later, I pulled myself out. I sat in the car. And I just started recording, and I was like, ‘No matter what it is that is supposed to happen, it’s gonna happen. And I’m here for the ride. I’m not OK now, but I will be.’ ” By early 2023,  his 1 million followers had turned into 8 million — and set the foundation for a food empire. 

Lee with his wife, Ronni, and their two daughters in 2023.

Courtesy of Keith Lee

THERE IS NO WORLD where hanging out with Lee doesn’t also mean hanging out with his relatives. When he goes on food tours, visiting different cities, and conducting guerrilla hits at mom-and-pop eateries across the country, he rolls deep, piling everyone into a large van to drive around town. At any given moment, his entourage is made up of both his and Ronni’s moms, his sister Erma, his two daughters, and at least three cousins. There is no set dressing in this group — all of them have essential jobs and responsibilities. After less than a year of Lee doing online food reviews, restaurants became so savvy about keeping a lookout for him that he had to wear disguises, like hats, different clothes, and a full prosthetic nose (carefully applied by Erma). When those didn’t work, he sent in his sister. Now, it’s an unnamed “secret weapon” in the family who collects the food, an identity held so tightly that I had to agree to not mention their name, gender, or any identifying factors before I could even speak to them off the record. In fact, the entire afternoon I spend with Lee feels less like an interview and more like a great family vacation. There are jokes about kids who don’t listen and Ronni being “armed and dangerous” — she’s probably five feet even. You know it’s a good laugh when someone has to run away to cackle, and a camaraderie seems to envelop them even through waning energy. (At one point, I spot Lee play-boxing his cousin in the parking lot.) 

But what this tight-knit family affair can’t show is just how monumental Lee’s work has become. Such was the case during Lee’s food tour of Atlanta in November 2023. Lee visited the city to try several restaurants that had been suggested by fans. What he got was drama all the way down. 

At the upscale brunch restaurant the Real Milk and Honey, Lee tried and failed to order food several times, each time rebuffed by changing store hours and takeout counters that were closed. When staff realized it was him, they tried to reopen just for his family, which Lee dismissed. The chaos continued when they visited Old Lady Gang, a restaurant owned by Real Housewife of Atlanta Kandi Burruss. After finding out there was no takeout option, Lee’s family was given a wait time of an hour and a half, which was immediately changed to five minutes when Lee was spotted taking photos with fans outside. Lee declined to eat before the others waiting and left. At brunch spot Toast on Lenox, staff also offered Lee a table while others were waiting for up to an hour, and, once again, he said no. 

In his video reviews, Lee critiqued several of the city’s eateries, expressing small frustrations with how hard it was to get reservations or walk in to eat. Restaurants that he was able to visit, he showered them with praise and donations. But the viral incidents — ones where Lee wasn’t able to find a seat or wasn’t served — became the discourse around the food tour. Was Lee in his right to critique Atlanta’s fame-based food hierarchy, or was he a too-popular TikTok creator who was tearing down Black-owned businesses? The controversy reached such a fever pitch that Lee threatened to end his food tours altogether if the online community couldn’t get its act together. 

But while Lee constantly rejects fame or special treatment, he’s not too stubborn to consider what extra attention might mean for his family. On a trip to New Orleans, Lee made the mistake of rolling down his car window and asking for directions. “Before I could think, the car was surrounded,” Lee says. “People are stopping at green lights and jumping out of the car in the middle of traffic and running up to us to take pictures and crying and screaming.” Before that moment, Lee had refused to hire extra security to travel with him. Now, the family entourage includes a security guard (one of Ronni’s cousins). 

“I am not a person who likes conflict. I got the biggest security that you could possibly have. God is always watching over me,” he says, pausing thoughtfully before adding, “My hands are registered, too. I’ll beat the hell out of somebody if I have to.” 

It’s this same comical brevity that brought fans to Lee in the first place — and why he feels comfortable being brutally honest in his videos. One of the first truly personal things Lee shared online was about his eating disorder, and since then, he’s quick to post about topics ranging from personal frustrations to public gratitude. Just don’t think that because you know about it, you know him. “I genuinely enjoy eating food, and I enjoy it being about the food,” he says. “I don’t want it to be misconstrued that what I’m doing now is only because of the trauma I’ve been through. Don’t treat me nice because I have anxiety or because I tried to commit suicide when I was 18. Treat me the way you would treat anybody else because I’m-a treat you the way I’d treat anybody else.” 

While TikTok users began flocking to Lee’s page to watch him prepare meals for his pregnant wife, behind the scenes, Lee was actually using the cooking videos to help heal his relationship with food. “Seeing [food] as something that can be enjoyable, learning how to make my own dishes that I enjoy and cooking for my wife while she was pregnant, and building a community online where I was cooking every day and holding my newborn daughter in my arms, that allowed me to get a better relationship with food,” he says. “I didn’t know that at the time, but I was studying to be a professional foodie. And I feel like that’s what I am.” 

ON THEIR OWN, Lee’s videos are content, entertainment. But behind the scenes a philanthropic ecosystem has evolved, taking Lee from creator to a recognized force in lifting up families and communities across the nation. Humble as he may be, Lee knows this is his new norm. In fact, it’s probably the aspect of the job he likes the best. “I see the people behind these small restaurants. I don’t just see a business anymore. I see the mom and dad that are running this restaurant to feed their children and to take their kids to school and only eat one or two times a day. And they have no idea what they’re gonna do tomorrow or the next day,” he says. “Having a platform and being able to use that platform to possibly change their trajectory, that’s what I’m very satisfied with.” 

He’s such a believer in that mission that he has since announced he will be returning to Atlanta on a “redemption tour,” using the buzz from his last trip to highlight restaurants that need help. In the meantime, in April, he hosted a food-truck event, advertising a giveaway of 500 free meals and pairs of free shoes. According to local police, 1,000 people showed up before it even began. Lee moved the event to a larger location. When he arrived, dozens more food trucks began to drive in. They were there because they heard Lee was helping out their city. They wanted to help, too — and spent the day giving free food to anyone who showed up. 

Lee can — and does — balk at labels. Take him out of the equation and the enterprise falls apart. There is no Keith Lee effect without Keith Lee. But it’s when I ask him about his proudest moment, one that finally convinced him he was a person people would remember, he speaks without hesitation: 

“When I became a father. When somebody was able to look at me and see me as important. I’m her dad. Me and her mom are the two most important things to her. So having that responsibility and that tiny person staring at me. She don’t know me as Kevin Lee’s little brother. She knows me as Keith.”