wan, a flavor blog
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wan, a flavor blog

The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen Revolts

an opinion piece on culinary power and why it matters

If you’ve been paying any attention to the mainstream food world in the last two or so years — and even if you haven’t — you probably know of Bon Appétit. If you just have access to the internet, these chefs and food writers have likely made their way into your social feeds, youtube recs, and everyday conversation. Maybe you’ve even seen their memes floating around the web without even realizing it.

If you’ve been paying closer attention (like I have), you’re aware of the Test Kitchen’s antics and running gags, like Molly’s fondness for pasta water, or Andy’s “herb slayer” knife, or Brad’s cured egg yolks left fermenting on the wall for the past year(?). It’s really quite fantastic.

Eventually, you pick up on their idiosyncratic, albeit stubborn, taste predilections, like a shared love for Calabrian chilis and sumac. Maybe you even feel their conflicted relationship with tempering chocolate on a spiritual level.

And if you’ve been paying really close attention, maybe you’ve detected some of the more subtle nuances of the BA Cinematic Universe. Like what sort of ingredients are hailed, and which ones are hated on. What techniques are emphasized over and over, and what methods are never touched. Like how many recipes there are for pasta and steak, as opposed to how many there are for a wok stir fry.

I’ve sometimes wondered, Why has everyone gone to France, and what the hell do they have against bell peppers? I know none of them likes their eggs hard-boiled.. but have they ever tried a Taiwanese tea egg?

Last month, a scandal erupted within Bon Appétit, exposing a “culinary underbelly” in New York food journalism, and kitchens across the country. After Adam Rapoport resigned from the Editor-in-Chief chair due to a resurfacing of a picture of him in brownface, Sohla El-Wahlly spoke out on the magazine’s unchecked toxic work culture and its unjust treatment of BPOC staff. Sohla’s dauntless sharing on social media emboldened other colleagues of color to follow suit and call out Bon Appétit for its systemic racism.
(Read the full story here.)

It became glaringly clear that it wasn’t a mere question of which ingredients and techniques were/weren’t in the Test Kitchen, but rather, who was cooking and who was not. Who was given a show, who was not.

After Sohla went public, other Test Kitchen members stated they would refuse to make any video appearances until their BPOC coworkers were properly compensated and given equal pay. A stasis of deafening radio silence befell the 6-million subscriber food publication.

The Test Kitchen Revolts began.

culinary power

The country is in a state of reckoning. The uprising at BA is not unlike what’s happening in other businesses and industries across America. Employees are coming out in a manner reminiscent of the #MeToo movement, exposing the hypocrisy and racial discrimination that’s historically been baked into their company structures and modus operandi.

But what makes the BA Revolts unique is that the fires are in the kitchen, and that of a food magazine. And what this allows us to understand is the dynamic of power in food, how this power manifests, and how it’s abused.

When you realize that none of the currently-airing shows at Bon Appétit are hosted by people of color, you might wonder if their use of power is just. When you find out that BPOC staff aren’t paid for their video appearances (while their White counterparts are), maybe you think something is wrong.

Any respectable chef de cuisine would tell you that the greatest chefs are the greatest storytellers. And if cooking is storytelling, culinary power is deciding whose stories get told.

The person in power gets to cook. The chef in power gets to tell the story.
They ultimately create the narrative, shape the language of the narrative, and decides who gets the megaphone to share that narrative — even narratives that don’t belong to them.

This is not just an issue of pay inequity, but one of representation and storytelling. It’s cultural justice. And the BPOC staff at Bon Appétit are systemically barred from that justice.

Another form of power that the BA Universe wields is influence. It’s one thing to tell a riveting story, but it’s another thing entirely if this story reaches the masses. At its peak, Bon Appétit garnered over 3 million views a day, with new videos often surpassing 1 million views on its first day of release.

This is influence — telling stories that the world will read. Developing recipes that millions might cook. Influence means feeding and shaping the palate of a generation. Influence is deciding what tastes good because you think it tastes good. It’s forecasting — even creating — new taste trends.

Influence is quadrupling a small business’ sales the day after your YouTube video comes out. Or the late Anthony Bourdain putting Vietnam on the map, demanding attention and respect from the American appetite. Or the New York Times publishing an article posing the question, “Do the Chinese eat rats?”

To later millennials and the Internet Generation, Julia Child isn’t really a thing anymore. But the Test Kitchen has to recognize that they are the Julia Childs of our generation. Because to do so is to confront the scale of your influence and your privilege. You inspire us. You create new cravings, you tell us what to cook.

When you roast bell peppers (no pun intended), it affects us — it shapes our culinary imagination. When you cling to racially-misguided fears of MSG and Chinese restaurants, it molds our social consciousness.

We will remember Brad’s fermentation station, we will remember Chris Morocco’s spoons, and we will remember Claire on Day 3 of Gourmet Makes. But will we remember Sohla? Will we remember Christina and Hawa? How about Priya and Rick?

Power manifests in food as such — to write narratives and to influence the hungry. You create new cravings, you tell us what to cook.

When the 20th pasta recipe video comes out, I ask, “Why?”
When the BA kitchen hates on green bell pepper, I ask, “Why?” (Do they even know what Cajun food is? Or is that too… Black for them?)

Then, I take a look at who’s cooking, who’s making videos in the Test Kitchen and I sigh, “That’s why.”

the myth of culinary pinnacles

The more you pay attention to the culinary world, the more you realize how overwhelmingly French it is. Everything is emulsion this, vinaigrette that. (Bon appétit!) You learn that the “deglazing” thing that Babish tells you to do after searing is actually a technique that French chefs coined centuries ago. Even saute-ing is something the French (claims to) have invented.

Over and over again, you hear the same story of James-Bearded chef who started his journey washing dishes, fell in love with cooking, and inevitably traveled to France to study gastronomy and apprentice under a French chef.

It’s treated as a rite of passage — to have gone to France, to experience “culinary enlightenment”, to get yelled at by an old, tempered French chef. It’s a badge you wear on your apron. Everyone’s done it; all the Thomas Keller’s, David Chang’s, even some Test Kitchen staff.

Which seems fine, because I like coq au vin, and French food is delicious.

France has left an indelible mark on modern cuisine, and the effects of their influence are far-sweeping and pervasive. For hundreds of years, they have rooted themselves as the culinary pinnacle of the world, a true exhibition of food power.

But power does not exist in a vacuum; supremacy always comes at the expense and subjugation of others. Building a racist test kitchen — and food world — takes time.

While the French are credited as the ones who “invented the restaurant”, this cultural inception (and its preceding events) happened concurrently with the ascent of European Imperialism and their predatory encroachment on foreign lands. In fact, the two are inextricably linked. In the 17th century, Britain commissioned the East India Company to “wage war” to “enhance its trade” — a textbook example of the era’s colonial zeitgeist. While the EIC had competitors, it was the leading exemplar of nefarious mega-corp practices: corporate violence, manipulation of foreign governments, and brute military force.

And from the beginning, what drove Europe to such egregious lengths was their ravenous appetite for spices (on top of supremacy, but that’s another article). After all, it was for spices that Columbus set sail for India in the first place. They were looking for ingredients (or rather, money to be made from them). It was tea that spurred the EIC to force narcotics into China.

Food is power, and it has always been.

Historically, Europe — France in particular — has viewed food as an art form. They’ve enjoyed it as epicures and gastronomes, but it was the oppression and violence inflicted on “the other” that enabled them to do so. It is due to their crimes against humanity that they are able to reduce cooking into a bourgeoisie pastime, to plate food with tweezers, to name wines by their region.

Colonialism financed the cordon bleu.

Other cultures did not share in the luxury of dividing the kitchen via brigade de cuisine; we cooked to survive. We cooked to stave off famine, we shared food in poverty, we fed the revolution.

As the restaurant scene in France boomed, so did their opinions. Le Guide Michelin was first published in 1900, further cementing their role as a voice of authority in food. This only reinforced their position as the “culinary pinnacle”, giving them full license to assign worth to foods and to eventually serve as gatekeepers to the conversation.

It is critical to acknowledge this troubled, but formative history, as it largely shapes and informs the role of the white chef/food writer today, which is that of an author of narratives and an “opinion leader”. Their palate is trusted, their judgments are accepted as canon.

Bon Appétit is just one of many modern food publications that practices and benefits from this inherited role of privilege, as evidenced in their highly-opinionated critiques and Eurocentric food biases. White Test Kitchen staff can openly enjoy their right to free speech by developing recipes “from their culture” — praising tarragon but not star anise — without the same fear of losing pay or risking future video/career opportunities that BPOC staff feel.

Priya Krishna, a contributor to BA, expresses this frustration in an interview with Eater, “I have been told so many times that my Indian food isn’t clicky… and then I see white cooks and chefs making dishes that are rooted in Indian techniques and flavors, calling it something different, and getting a lot of attention.”

As exposed in its flagrant pay inequities, disparate treatment of BPOC staff, and gross misusage of culinary power, the Bon Appétit Universe — and the food world at large — suffers from a diseased and unsavory narrative of White Supremacy.

cultural colonialism

“There are white chefs that can pull from different cultures without explanation, but us making white food always needs a thesis behind it.” — Sohla El-Waylly

It is insufficient to simply demand the Test Kitchen to cook more “ethnic”/non-White foods because the ones developing the recipes will still be mostly white. Culinary power still falls in White hands, a dynamic we’ve seen to only exacerbate the harm (re: BA phở video). Having white people cook “ethnic” food is akin to rubbing salt on generational wounds.

Dysfunctional culinary power not only grants freedom to the White chef to exalt their own cuisine but also the entitlement to other culture’s cuisines.

Krishnendu Ray, the NYU professor of food studies who coined the term “cultural colonialism”, comments, “[White chefs] can be inspired by [a country], having gone there once or twice, maybe three times, learn its repertoire, and bring it back and be inspired.” (source: GQ) They become “experts” of cuisines that are not of their cultural heritage. Ed Schoenfeld of Red Farm (New York) enjoys this marque of white freedom, being lauded as the trusted authority of Chinese food. The problem is widespread — Rick Bayless with Mexican food, Andy Ricker with Thai food, Ivan Orkin with Japanese food. The list goes on.

https://twitter.com/clairewillett/status/1258961935036411906?s=20

While Bon Appetit showcases an “increasingly diverse cast”, they do not care so much to share BIPOC narratives than to profit off them. Staff-of-color are asked to be in the Test Kitchen as a “diversity prop” but are not compensated for video appearances or granted the same access to opportunities to advance their careers.

In a recent instance, Christina Chaey, a Korean-American on staff, was asked to be a part of a Galbijjim video, but only had a meager 3 minutes of screen time while her white coworker, Chris Morocco, enjoyed the spotlight of actually cooking and eating the dish. This video is problematic in that it frames Chris as the main character of the story, while Christina remains in the peripherals. This is unjust for both parties. But mostly for Christina because, oh yeah, she didn’t get paid.

This brand of storytelling is a symptom of a diseased narrative, one that always centers the white chef as the protagonist: the daring, but refined connoisseur, the brave discoverer of Oriental/exotic foods, the white man who is so cultured.

Having white chefs cook an “ethnic food” while the “ethnic chefs” make short cameos just won’t cut it. It settles for cheap diversity quotas and ultimately serves to preserve old supremacist paradigms. It allows them to freely insert themselves into narratives that never belonged to them. Even if white people sense a new food trend, they want to be the ones to cook it. They want to be recognized.

All of a sudden, kimchi is cool and you want to cook it, but you were never ostracized and bullied at school because your lunch smelled like “dead animals”. You were never shamed for your food. Maybe one day, okra will be as trendy as turmeric lattes and yoga, but your ancestors never had to smuggle it aboard slave ships when they were kidnapped from their homelands.

In rebuttal, the white chef contends that “anyone can cook whatever they want, it’s just food”. But this simply confirms and articulates their diluted relationship to food, which is starkly divorced from narrative. It is this white American phenomenon — a profound desensitization and/or denial of cultural narrative — that enables one to claim others’ foods as “just food”, perpetuating the broken, colonial relationship.

As Navneet Alang writes in near-prophetic fashion, “Real change only happens when the thing that white supremacists fear becomes true: that the mainstream increasingly becomes rather than simply appropriates the ‘ethnic.’”

the missing ingredient

”I have this theory that famine produces great cuisine.”

What’s happening in Bon Appétit is nothing novel, but a modern-day, Internet-age reiteration of food injustices that’s been occurring for centuries. There’s no shortage of things that need to change at BA. As a child of Taiwanese immigrants, I stand in support of Sohla and the Test Kitchen protest and I long for deep, systemic changes that forever alter the company ethos.

But on top of their long list of demands, I assert my own — confront your narrative. Do the difficult, reflective work of cultural introspection and learn the story of your culinary inheritance, even if it discomforts you. Even if you discover things you’d rather not know.

Yes, deconstruct the system. Give your BPOC chefs and writers proper compensation and competitive pay. Build a structure that grants staff-of-color access to career-advancement opportunities. But understand that modifying or removing a system without addressing the diseased narrative that conceived it will not lead to true justice.

Mark Charles, Native American activist and author, names this phenomenon the “mediating narrative”, which can replace old systems with new ones that still operate from the same underlying, harmful notions. In Unsettling Truths, he writes, “In the work of healing brokenness in the world, the failure to recognize the power of narratives could derail any progress.”

Knowing your narrative may be the most humbling, yet fulfilling work as a chef, as it will lead you to grapple with your communal legacy, the cuisine your ancestors bequeathed to you. It will disrupt your kitchen and your conscience. It will grant you this disquieting surrender — that you don’t belong in our stories, at least not in the way you once thought. You have no place in them, not as pioneers, not as experts, not as discoverers.

But as guests.

For the record, we don’t need your validation.

We already know our food is delicious. In fact, if it were about reviews or food ratings, we would have the edge because we have something you don’t know about. A missing ingredient, if you will.

David Chang has this theory that famine produces great cuisine. And I’m inclined to agree with him.

Our food has been stewing and churning, low and slow, for centuries of corporate suffering. Our recipes have been developing throughout generations of poverty and oppression, unifying us in hardship, nourishing us with hope and resilience. We cooked for joy when joy was an act of resistance; we cooked to survive, and we made survival beautiful.

We learned to join unlikely ingredients together, making use of what we had when our harvest was robbed from us. We came to this land impoverished and dispossessed, then we made dumplings with ah-ma anyways.

We have the missing ingredient.

We don’t need your validation, you can keep your Michelin stars.

We want to author our own narratives, we want to cook our own food. We want you to topple this culinary pinnacle because such fantasies do not, or should not, exist.

We fight and toil for our stories, for our memories, and we dare you to reckon with your own. Learn your ancestry. Take ownership of your heritage. And when you do, the food will take you places outside the kitchen, far beyond cooking, because it never really was “just food”.

To us, food is the way of life. It forges bonds between unlikely strangers, it dignifies us. It gives us language to process the pain and to make sense of the world. It is hope on a plate, comfort in a bowl.

It is our deepest, most personal form of nourishment, fulfilling the body and soul. Food is our language of love.

To us, food — much like justice — is a family matter.

”It was not a signature dish by the famed Auguste Gusteau that deeply affected — and gave ‘perspective’ to — the grim and cold Anton Ego. No, it was ratatouille — a peasant’s dish, and cooked by an unlikely chef from the countryside who spent most his life eating from the garbage. Oh, and he was a rat.”

furthermore…

For those in need of further guidance regarding the issues of food appropriation and ownership of cuisines, I provided excerpts from Navneet Alang’s article on Eater, which I feel better articulates the power dynamics of whiteness in food media. Please read his full article, link provided below.

“It doesn’t help to say that certain people own ingredients, or have dominion over certain types or presentations or techniques. But the way that excitement over particular trends and recipes circulates publicly, whether on Instagram or in Bon Appétit, can reinforce whiteness as a norm, just as divorcing history from food erases the contributions and lives of people of color from Western narratives. When whiteness is allowed to function as if it weren’t that, it hurts us all.

…the last thing anyone should argue is that people shouldn’t use an ingredient in their own home for some abstract fear of ‘theft.’ Instead, the question here is much less about what we do in private than what public representation does and means: if or why it matters when a white person popularizes ghee, or Nashville hot chicken becomes a big thing but the work of African-American cooks and chefs is still ignored. In the circuits of culture, there are routes to legitimacy and fame, and the problem we have in the food world is that the most reliable path seems to center whiteness again and again.”

Full article: https://www.eater.com/2020/5/20/21262304/global-pantry-alison-roman-bon-appetit

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justin lee

justin lee

i write stories about flavors. creator of wan-coffee.