Bon Appétit and Beyond
On food, media, and the difference between the two
My first job in food was in the summer of 2015 when I was seventeen years old. I worked at an ice cream shop and grill on the coast of Maine, scooping ice cream from big cardboard tubs and carrying pancakes and tuna melts in red paper baskets to sunburnt French-Canadian tourists. It was a glamorous job by absolutely no accounts, but it was a job. I was making $7 an hour and had very few expenses, surviving off pasta with jarred tomato sauce and leftovers from work.
The job was fun, and it was also frustrating. It turns out this is the case for just about any job, and especially any job in the food or service industry. Customers can be annoying, tips are inconsistent, and power dynamics run rampant. And still, I enjoyed it. I craved the 9 p.m. line out the door made up of friends and neighbors who would gather for their nightly ice cream cone. I loved waking up with the early summer sun to walk sleepily through the one-square-mile town, and brewing a fresh pot of coffee for the handful of regulars who would arrive promptly when we opened.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized there was more to the food industry than those frozen hamburgers and chicken patties cooked on a flat top. I spent some time on a farm in Western Massachusetts, where I learned the value of freshly laid eggs and hand-picked raspberries. I read the book Delicious by Ruth Reichl and found myself captivated by the fictional tales of a young girl running through the halls of a food magazine. She sifted through recipes and stories, hunting for answers in the pages of old cookbooks. To me, it sounded like a dream.
I went on to read the rest of Reichl’s books, which at the time included Tender at The Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and Garlic and Sapphire. In addition to sparking a previously dormant passion, these books introduced me to the world of food media. By this time, I had worked my way through a few New York City cafés, as well as a handful of editorial and social media internships, all of which had something vaguely to do with food. I knew there was more, but I didn’t know what it was. Ruth showed me.
Her collection still remains on the top of my bookcase (next to books by Edna Lewis, Samin Nosrat, and Gabrielle Hamilton) as both an aspirational shrine and a reminder of why I do what I do. After all, here was a woman willing to test social boundaries, challenging restaurants (in one of the most influential American publications, no less) to be better and do more than just present fine French food for the upper classes. While at the helm of Gourmet magazine, she had a hand in publishing stories that threatened to fundamentally alter food media as it existed, such as the famed David Foster Wallace piece “Consider the Lobster.”
For a brief moment, these late 20th century efforts seemed to trickle outward. Other food magazines began to push the limits, testing what food and food media could be. Recipes for the humble housewife began to fade from the pages, replaced by catchy headlines and faces of popular celebrities eating bowls of pasta. The later 2010s brought an onslaught of Instagram “foodies,” influencers (or just regular people) who would post decadent photos of every meal. Say what you will about the extravagance and superficiality of this era, but with the rise of online amateur food photography came the popularity of food itself. Suddenly, eating was trendy.
I spent a brief stint working with one of these food bloggers, holding noodles and melty cheese up in the air while she snapped photographs. I worked for a food PR company that represented brands around the city and wrote for a student food publication at NYU. I also took opportunities to work with urban farmers and agriculturally oriented non-profits, trying to create deeper culinary connections and a more comprehensive vision of food and all that it encompasses. All the while, I logged more hours in kitchens and behind counters, finding myself confusingly caught between many distinctly different worlds that were being presented as one.
For a while, when people asked what I really wanted to do with my life, the answer was simply and quickly, “I want to work for Bon Appétit.” In my mind, this was the best of the best. It was the place where food and journalism and culture intersected; where recipes and restaurants collided with “approachable” food discourse and flashy photographs; it was the place where food was finally important, and where the binary of food and media became more of a greyscale.
For many people, this is what Bon Appétit did. It presented a perception of food that was inclusive and diverse and hip. Much like the rest of modern food media, what Bon Appétit gave us was a performative and surface-level version of a very complex industry. I speak about it now in the past tense because for me that’s where it is—my subscription has been cancelled; my faith mostly shattered.
But their wildly popular YouTube channel broke food media out of the insular world in which it had historically existed, expanding the conversation beyond simply food critics and restaurant reviews. It provided a mainstream vision of the food industry that caught attention from all sides of the aisle. I recall one episode in particular of “It’s Alive” where Brad Leone visited an organic farm in Hawaii. While he spoke with a farmer about the importance of regenerative agriculture and soil health, my friend, whose diet consisted primarily of Hamburger Helper and instant potatoes, turned to me in shock—“Why don’t we grow all of our food this way?” she asked. I could see in her eyes that this was the first time she had thought about where her food was coming from. It was the first time that food meant something.
Soon after getting my first salaried (and therefore societally valued) job as a restaurant manager, I took a shot at pitching a story to Bon Appétit. This was in January of 2020, and the story was about harassment and sexism in the food industry. It was inspired by both personal experience and years of observation. It was poignant—and accurate. It centered on the lives of myself and other peers in the industry, people who I knew and cared for, and who could be transparent with me. There was an unspoken trust between us all, a clear divergence from the historic narrative within food media that restaurant workers and their stories are impenetrable and therefore unpublishable.
In many ways, this story was the culmination of years of work “in and around food” as I called it. I had seen what life was like on both sides of the pass, and it became glaringly obvious that one group felt itself to be far superior to the other.
The pitch was centered around not only historic gender issues in restaurants but also the failure of food media to speak accurately for these businesses and the people inside of them. It was turned down gradually through a series of emails that were considered but ultimately unanswered or rejected (the details of which I will not explain now, but which can be found in an open letter format that I published in September).
At some point during all of this, a line was drawn in the sand for me. It became abundantly clear that the food media industry was—and is—a distinctly different world from the food or restaurant industry. Later in the year, it became even clearer that food media had its own very separate challenges to overcome. Racism, sexism, and gatekeeping were finally revealed to be just as much of an internal issue as an external one.
Of course, the story doesn’t stop with Bon Appétit, or Condé Nast. Instead it is a tale as old as time—one of exploitation and disrespect, of marginalization and tokenism. It is a story of historic power dynamics in food, media, and their many intersections. At times, it feels as if food media has taken the worst elements of each industry—both food and media—and turned them into something far more toxic than previously imaginable.
In many ways, mainstream food media operates in a world of its own, serving as an insulated outlet for an even more insulated community of food workers. It has always been this way—restaurants and their employees have never been valued by the general public, with kitchen labor and food service jobs being placed at the bottom of the societal totem pole. And food media has helped to keep them there.
As the COVID pandemic raged onward, I struggled to figure out what my role was among these multi-faceted reckonings. Restaurant jobs were few and far between, and those available tended to come with significant health and safety concerns. Like jumping between a fleet of sinking ships, I found myself caught, with no real plans or vision for the future. I had spent so long chasing this lofty goal (namely, a byline in a publication like Bon Appétit), and I was hesitant to let it go. At the same time, I was increasingly reluctant to associate my name or my work with any major publication. But if every large media corporation and restaurant group is inherently corrupt, where does one turn?
And so, our story arrives here, on Substack.
I started writing for myself. I did this because I could say what needed to be said, without contorting my opinions into pre-existing boxes or expectations. I could be entirely myself—unwaveringly queer and strong and independent—without the pressure of mainstream media outlets and the people who guard their gates. I could speak up for friends and coworkers who had been cast aside for years, unable to earn attention or respect from so many of those who claimed to speak for us.
But in confidently challenging these power dynamics in my life and through this newsletter, I have found myself frequently faced with apathetic sentiments. It has always been this way. It’s not our fault. What are we supposed to do about it?
As for the solution—the what are we supposed to do about it part—to me it’s about much more than how we are reporting during COVID, phrasing recipes, or writing restaurant reviews. It’s about more than writers reaching out to talk to restaurant workers or farmers about their real, lived experiences. Instead, it is about fundamentally altering the structures of power that have existed for longer than many of us can remember. It’s about recognizing our own positions in this industry and in the world and using whatever platform we have to change the way in which that system works.
There are people who believe that an alternative is impossible, or that a more ethical and equitable future is too idealistic. They consider these ideas too aspirational to be applied to an industry (and a world) that’s so deeply infected.
I hear this argument far more than I would like and, quite frankly, I am sick of it. It surfaces when an editor tells me that sexism in restaurants is too “endemic” of a problem for them to cover, or if a restaurant owner says that indoor dining is the only solution for the survival of this industry. I hear it when publications are unwilling to talk about no-tip models and more progressive businesses because they are simply not popular enough.
But when it comes to alternatives, there are plenty.
A friend of mine recently teased me about my never-ending supply of “indie food writing,” which I had unintentionally started bringing to every gathering. Most recently, it was a copy of MOLD, a magazine in which eclectic art collides with scientific analysis of food and human senses. I also forward newsletters from Alicia Kennedy that tackle the many issues of capitalism in food in ways that other writers are afraid to do. I look forward to bringing my friend a newly acquired copy of For The Culture, a magazine that centers Black women and femmes in food. It is a magnificent collection of work from people who have been historically marginalized, and is far more beautifully designed and constructed than any issue of Bon Appétit ever was.
And so to me, the issue is not that progress is impossible. It is that traditional food media (and the people whom it employs) needs to step aside. They need to not only reflect on the experience of workers in the COVID crisis but to truly challenge the ethical standards and elitist narratives that have made up this business—and this world—for far too long.
These days, when I am asked what I want to do, the answer is much more complex. Just like the many layers that make up the food industry, my work is more interdisciplinary. I am looking not just at restaurants, or farms, or media, but at everything that makes them what they are. I am looking at the patterns and parallels of food throughout history and society and politics and art.
I am not on Substack because I have controversial opinions, or because I have been “cancelled.” I am not here because I am unable to write for big publications that pay a lot of money. I am here because history and tradition do not like to be challenged, and because I do not shy away from those same challenges. I am here because my identity is still uncomfortable and unfamiliar to a lot of people, and because that’s a difficult thing to address. I am here because my opinions are blunt, and not quite mainstream enough.
Not yet, that is.