Once one of the biggest food channels on YouTube, Aoife Rooney dissects the rise and fall of food and culture magazine Bon Appetit.
Mass media giant Condé Nast is home to publications such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, The New Yorker and Bon Appetit. Food and culture magazine Bon Appetit is run primarily from the organisation’s headquarters at 1 World Trade Centre in New York. This is the building that houses the infamous Bon Appetit Test Kitchen, which is the set for chefs and members of staff to develop and trial recipes. While the staff is large, there are a few chefs and Test Kitchen members who stand out in both their rise in popularity and the roles that they played in the eventual demise of what viewers knew to be Bon Appetit and the Test Kitchen specifically, which ultimately led to the resignation of the magazine’s highest-ranking employee.
The print magazine saw a major restructuring and received a contemporary facelift in 2010 to keep up with the fast-evolving nature of media and its need to be digitised. Headed by the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapport, part of this restructuring included the creation of a YouTube channel to document how-to recipes. It was not until early 2015 that the channel started to see real growth, and since then has amassed over six million subscribers. While the channel definitely found its voice and purpose as it grew, starting series which featured different chefs and many premises, there is one factor that acted as the adhesive holding the project together: the personalities. The very first video featured Claire Saffitz, a pastry chef who went on to have a wildly popular baking show, ‘Gourmet Makes’, where Saffitz is challenged to recreate classic snacks, such as KitKat and Starbursts. This is only one example of the many successful shows produced by Bon Appetit. There is ‘Reverse Engineering’ with Chris Morocco, ‘It’s Alive’ with Brad Leone, ‘Molly Tries’ with Molly Baz, ‘Back-to-Back Chef’ with Carla Lalli Music and ‘One of Everything’ with Alex Delany to name a few.
The shows gained their popularity from facets beyond the food that was being cooked - few viewers were interested in trying their own luck at creating an M&M from scratch - and stuck around for the personalities of the people on screen. The charming banter and collaboration between the chefs made for a chaotic workplace, but a very enjoyable video. The ensemble involvement proved so popular that the team did two seasons of ‘Making Perfect’ a series of seven or so episodes where the team take a deep dive in an attempt to create the perfect version of a dish. They did pizza one season and Thanksgiving dinner in the second. This saw the viewers get an even deeper look into the personalities and interactions of the chefs, not dissimilar to the structure that many other channels on the site are following. Buzzfeed, Vox, and Teens React also follow the same template, wherein the focus moves from the task at hand and actually creates an ensemble cast, not unlike a sitcom.
For a long time, Bon Appetit got on well following this model. All of the chefs including those aforementioned and also other team members such as Andy Baraghani, Rick Martinez, Sohla El-Waylly, Priya Krishna, Gaby Melian, and Christina Chaey saw screen time and increased following on social media. Unfortunately for many members, this was the extent of the perks of appearing on the channel. In the summer of 2020, chef with the magazine Sohla El-Waylly voiced concern over the fact that she, unlike many white co-workers, was not being paid at all for her appearances in videos, and that she thought it to be an issue of racial discrimination in the workplace. In the same month, in the height of the political and social unrest over the issue of racism and criminal discrimination within the United States, an image resurfaced of Bon Appetit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapport in a Halloween costume involving racist stereotyping and brownface. The image caused an uproar within the food media community and many BA staffers called for the resignation of Rapport. Though he later stepped down from his position, it sparked a clearly long-overdue conversation about unfair compensation of BIPOC chefs and staff, and the corresponding need for more ethnically diverse representation within the higher echelons of the magazine. Condé Nast Head of Lifestyle Video Programming, Matt Ducker also resigned under similar accusations of racist behaviour.
Sohla El-Waylly resigned, citing reasons such as not being paid for video appearances, along with other BIPOC colleagues, while white co-workers were, and that time and time again, she and her colleagues were ignored and dismissed in meetings and negotiations. Many members of the core Test Kitchen vowed to no longer appear in videos until the issue of fair compensation regarding their colleagues including Rick Martinez, Priya Krishna and Gaby Melian was resolved. After negotiations, all three resigned, not satisfied that what they were being offered was fair compensation. In solidarity, many of the white Test Kitchen workers also resigned, including Molly Baz, Carla Lalli Music, Claire Saffitz and Amiel Stanek.
Since then, Bon Appetit has seen another rebranding, vowing to make a conscious effort to be more diverse and ethnically inclusive, and have since hired many BIPOC chefs and a new editor in chief, Dawn Davis. Brad Leone, Andy Baraghani and Chris Morocco all stayed on with the magazine, and have since also appeared back on screen for the YouTube channel, sparking anger in many viewers. In a more positive spin, Sohla has started with NYT Cooking and is a presenter and producer for her own show on the Binging With Babish channel. Molly and Carla have started their own cooking shows with the monthly paying platform Patreon, and Claire and Gaby have started their own YouTube channels.
While there should have always been space within the Condé Nast organisation that allowed for fair compensation to all employees regardless of ethnicity, it seems that the individual former test kitchen members are the winners, with those marginalised seeing some form of redress in the small form of partnerships with new brands and continued support and solidarity from fans and colleagues. They came out of their time in Bon Appetit with followings that are now acting as a catalyst for new and exciting job opportunities, but it should not under any circumstance have been at the cost of the degradation, indignity and discrimination they faced while under the employment of one of the biggest media enterprises in the world.