Last week, the podcast Reply All began a series of episodes that tell the story of racism at Bon Appetit magazine over the past decade. The publication made news last fall when its editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, resigned after a photo of him in an offensive Halloween costume circulated on the Internet. Subsequent reporting revealed Bon Appetit’s toxic culture, particularly around its video operations, where people of color were paid less than their white colleagues.
As host Sruthi Pinnamaneni begins to unravel what happened at Bon Appetit, the story becomes more complicated and raises fascinating questions about the role that decision makers play in helping to craft public taste. Pinnamaneni interviews two women of color, Yewande Komolafe and Sue Li, who had cooked at celebrated restaurants in New York City and took temporary positions in the Bon Appetit test kitchen. While Komolafe and Li struggled to be recognized for their contributions and weren’t offered permanent roles, other temps like Alison Roman, a white chef and now a best-selling cookbook author, got additional assignments and rose in the Bon Appetit ranks.
While the institutional racism at Bon Appetit is well documented, what makes the story more complex is that it’s impossible to untangle whether Roman’s success is solely a result of her talent, or also stems from the opportunities that Bon Appetit editors gave to her instead of colleagues like Komolafe and Li. Pinnamaneni says that it wasn’t the temp employees’ job to point out the disparity, but she also notes that at the time, it wasn’t Roman’s job either. “If I’m being honest with myself, and I think back to how I felt just 10 years ago, I didn’t expect my white colleagues to question what part of their success was earned, and what part was their white privilege. That felt like an impossible math problem.”
And that equation is only slightly easier to solve today. While the experiences recounted by a small number of people don’t by themselves prove that Bon Appetit had a toxic culture, the magazine’s hiring practices and editorial choices, viewed as a whole, does show that the magazine was far from being a place that was inclusive of people of color.
Later in the podcast, Li recounts how she pitched the idea in 2014 that Bon Appetit should write a column about soup dumplings, which were popular in Taiwan but hadn’t yet spread into mainstream American dining. Her editor, a white woman, rejected the idea, but a year later, assigned a soup dumpling column to one of Li’s friends, who was herself white. Reflecting on the situation, Li wonders if the world might not have been ready for soup dumplings in 2014. But when an editor decided that it was a year later, Li theorizes that a recipe that came from an Asian chef might at the time have been deemed “too ethnic.”
What this story points out is the outsize role that a small number of editors have in helping shape what appears in cooking magazines or other food media. At Bon Appetit in the 2010s, the ranks of top editors were almost exclusively white, and they brought a white perspective to their editorial choices. If they deemed a dish as being too ethnic, or too far out of the mainstream, it wouldn’t have made the magazine. And while they may have felt at the time that their decisions were right for a Conde Nast publication with a majority-white readership, they failed to anticipate the ways in which that audience could expand if more communities were included in the foods they covered.
Of course, Bon Appetit isn’t the only example of a publication that has been dominated by a white perspective. It’s only in recent months that the ”white aesthetic” of food media that Navneet Alang wrote about in 2020 in Eater has begun to change, with the rise of editors and TV personalities who are offering voices that may once have reached only a niche audience.
At Bon Appetit, the new editor in chief is Dawn Davis, a Black woman who was formerly a book publishing executive. The new editor of Cook’s Country, part of the America’s Test Kitchen franchise, is Toni Tipton-Martin, author of cookbooks including Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African-American Cooking. And Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo’s Top Chef, gained acclaim for her Hulu series on immigrant food, Taste the Nation.
These tastemakers are providing a welcome antidote to the racism that was deeply ingrained at Bon Appetit and other publications over the past decade, and that still exists in many forms today. But for food media to become truly inclusive, the transformation will have to continue at all levels. Conversations about which foods are worth covering shouldn’t just be based on which editor is in charge at the time. Readers of all backgrounds can benefit when a staff includes a variety of diverse perspectives, and when talent is the only factor in determining who gets to rise in the ranks.
What I Ate: Shrimp scampi with orzo