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 except himself. At the time, he wasn’t sure where exactly that would lead him, but feeling lost in that moment led to him finding a completely new career.
“I felt very expendable after I lost my contract with Bellator,” Lee told 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 requires interaction beyond just fighting in a cage. He struggled at doing interviews, so Lee took it upon himself to use social media as way to get more comfortable in front of the camera.
“I originally started doing TikTok to get more comfortable with doing interviews for MMA,” Lee explained. “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. I usually speak this slow anyways but when I get excited or I get nervous, I talk real 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, when he first started producing videos for TikTok, he wasn’t even focusing on food reviews but rather content centered 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 an hour and a half to shoot a two-minute video when I first started,” Lee revealed. “Because I would get so nervous. My hands would get clammy, I would sweat, I would be staring at the video. I would be stuttering, repeating myself non-stop and it would just be me [on the video] but [in my head] it was a thousand people watching me, even though at the time I was just recording and I wasn’t posting it.
“It would just 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. That invitation made Lee contemplate how he wanted to capitalize on that appearance, which meant coming up with a format that would keep people coming back to his own account.
“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? I was like, food reviews. I would watch somebody do food reviews all day. 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.
The moment Lee realized that his food reviews were really starting to blow up came after he visited a food truck in Las Vegas that had reached out to him on social media.
“I did a review for a place called 303 Food Truck,” Lee said. “It’s a food truck out here in Las Vegas. I got tagged in an original video he did about a cheesecake sandwich with mascarpone cream in the middle. It looked crazy and I got tagged in it like a thousand 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 crews in Las Vegas got wind of the attraction, with a reporter interviewing people in line who came from all over the country to check out the food truck thanks to Lee’s review on TikTok.
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 the restaurant to try the same food that Lee just reviewed is usually when those business owners discover his incredible influence.
“They call me like, ‘What did you just do? What just happened?’” Lee said. “That’s how I like to 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 coming in from Iowa, people from California, Lake Havasu. I had people come down from Utah all because of this video,” Steele said. “It’s just 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 means the world to me,” Lee said. “I love being a vessel of God. It’s hard to put into words because again, I understand. My last fight, I got cut from Bellator in August of 2021 and I’ve fought once since then in September. That year gap was probably the hardest time of my 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 started seeing things like that, businesses being saved and people being grateful for things, it still hits me in a different spot. 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. I’m just a guy with a camera.”
Professional fighting, even in an established organization like Bellator, still rarely affords up and coming athletes any kind of real financial stability. 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 said. “I can’t say much but I can say my life has changed and I’m forever grateful. I’m in a different bracket that I ever was with fighting. 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. Figure out where I am in life before I promise myself to something like fighting, because I’m a true fighter at heart. 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. I don’t half-ass anything and fighting is something you can’t play with. 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.”