Welcome to Chapter Two of our series, The Test Kitchen. If you haven’t heard the first episode, you should do that.
I said at the beginning that the reason I find Bon Appetit worth talking about is not because it’s unusual, but because I think so much of what went wrong there is very typical. And that is especially true of Chapter Two, which begins in 2018. Bon Appetit will make its first baby steps towards diversity. Anna Wintour, who at the time was Condé Nast’s Artistic Director—she has started telling top managers to hire people of color for open positions.
And the story of what happens when those people show up --- none of it is unique. This is the story of how things so often go in media. If you work in media, and frankly in a lot of other industries, you’ve either seen this story or been a part of it.
If you haven’t seen it, you were definitely a part of it.
So, let’s get started.
Chapter 2: Glass Office
It’s been five years since the events of our first chapter. Five years since an earlier generation of people of color were drawn to Bon Appetit because they’d seen in its pages something new and fresh. Since then, the shininess and allure of Bon Appetit had only gotten brighter.
Conde Nast had left behind its offices in Times Square and had taken over several floors of the new One World Trade Center building, the Freedom Tower, this imposing MUSIC crystal spire in downtown Manhattan, with superfast elevators called “skypods.” The deal was reported to cost 2 billion dollars.
And according to an article before they moved, quote, “Condé Nast executives drilled down to the finest details ... to understand the building and the site … pondering what would happen if, for instance, a Ralph Lauren wanted to pull up to the building in a limousine.”
Bon Appetit was situated in two floors in that building—again, test kitchen on one floor, editorial in another. And in the eight years since Adam Rapoport had taken over the magazine, its stature in the food world had grown and grown.
This was a place where the magazine’s personalities were now stars in their own right. They had changed the whole idea of what a food magazine was...
ELYSE: It, it almost, like, from the outside perspective, it’s like they didn’t feel like they needed to follow the rules.
That is Elyse Inamine, who was joining from a different food magazine. She said that everybody considered the Bon App staff the cool kids.
ELYSE: Bon App was elusive, just as somebody working in food media, like, um, you know, you go to, like, press events, you go to, like, restaurants, you typically meet, like, other people at other food publications. But until I worked at BA, I'd never met anyone else from BA.
JESSE: I knew kind of coming into it that it was very much going to be a space where like, people were friendly, but not everybody was going to be friends.
That’s Jesse Sparks, another new hire. Like Elyse, he walked in knowing that being considered cool at Bon App would be just as important as his actual resume.
JESSE: I knew that when I had my interview with Adam, I would have to dress up. I knew that he’d be having an eye out for like, the way that I dressed, what I was wearing, whether it was stylish or cool or not.
ELYSE: I think one of the weirdest things that I realized is, like, I was like, oh, my, my Instagram feed isn't very good. Like, I need to take, like, better photos of my food.
This was the face of the next wave of people of color who were going to try to storm the beaches of Bon Appetit. Elyse is Japanese American. Jesse’s Black and queer. They’re not immigrants; they’re American millennials who’d grown up on the internet. And they weren’t coming from the restaurant world. They’d both studied media.
Take Jesse. He’d gone to a top journalism school. At 23, he had worked at more newspapers than most 30-year-olds. And underneath his very hip style, green-dyed hair and perfect glasses, Jesse was a genuine news geek.
JESSE: I was the kid in high school who, when The New York Times dropped the Snow Fall interactive, I lost my mind. I was like, that's the pinnacle. I want to do that one day. Yeah. No, I was that kid. Um. [laughs]
I had to look this up, but the Snow Fall interactive was like, apparently a very innovative multimedia project the Times published nine years ago. Like I said, real news geek shit.
But Jesse wasn’t just a geek about newspapers. He was also a geek about the actual news industry. Which meant, even as a teenager in Texas, he’d read stories about Condé’s bad workplace reputation.
JESSE: When I was in high school was when Condé was making headlines for treating their interns poorly. And, like, I literally remember the case of the two roommates who were interns at Condé and were, like, sharing a bed in a, in a cheap apartment just because they couldn't afford to, like, have their own rooms, just because they were making so little and working so much. So—but that's just me, as someone who did a lot of industry research and was like—tried to be as intentional as possible.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to Jesse was to understand why people like him took jobs at places like Condé Nast, jobs that they accepted with the knowledge that those jobs might be very painful. And the reasons, for Jesse, at least, are complicated.
What Jesse will tell you is that money was tight in his family, and his mom had sacrificed a lot to support her son’s journalism dream. She had driven their high school MUSIC newspaper team to journalism conventions all summer.
And so, knowing the opportunity that even a short stint at Condé represented, it would be hard to turn down. Editorial assistant at Bon Appetit. Besides, when Jesse went in for his interview, the senior editor he talked to really made him believe that Bon Appetit knew that it had a problem with whiteness and was ready to change.
SRUTHI: I’m curious, like, what gave you that impression? Was it, like, explicitly said?
JESSE: It was explicitly said. So, like, people were able to actually point to different ways that they had actually made some strides in bringing about certain changes, one of which was, like, Healthyish and the way that it was kind of working to center more people of color or communities of color and queer folks. But like, there was a lot of hope, and it seemed like there was a lot of structural change happening.
Maybe that sounds like a pretty standard moment from a job interview —a white manager selling the place to a young Black candidate. But in that moment, the seed of much confusion and pain is being planted.
Because when Jesse heard the phrase “structural change”, he heard a promise that Bon Appetit was about to undergo a serious renovation. It had been a home thus far built to make its rich white editors comfortable, and now that they’ve invited people like Jesse, people from different backgrounds, they were gonna modify the place to make it comfortable for people like him.
That kind of renovation is not what Bon Appetit would actually deliver. And even though Jesse walked in the door armed with skepticism, the gap between promise and reality would end up being hard on him.
He first started to see the scope of the problem at the monthly ideas meeting, which is where people would pitch stories for Bon Appetit.
SRUTHI: Like, give me a sense of the room, actually. What—where did you guys do your pitches?
JESSE: So, we would pitch in this conference room that was kind of in the corner of the World Trade Center, right? You were just in this towering building, all glass exteriors. So you were looking out immediately into the Hudson, you're looking out over all the buildings. So you feel this … pressure, MUSIC
right? Where it's just you and a room full of white people.
It was a room with a very similar energy to the 2 PM kitchen tastings downstairs—a bunch of mostly white people competing to impress other, more senior, mostly white people.
And Adam Rapoport was in those meetings. The whole editorial staff, they would sit around at a big table, and one by one, people would pitch their ideas.
Like, there's a new restaurant on the side of a cliff, but you can only get there via rope, or a new spicy Moroccan donut. (I’m making these up).
Each person had a time limit. They had to make their pitch in just 90 seconds, and the top editors would analyze these ideas in front of them. Like, is this going to be exciting for our readers? Adam could be heard often saying, “I don’t want just an idea, I want a strong point of view".
MUSIC gestural change
ELYSE: And I remember being, like, so scared going into them.
Sometimes I would, like, go in and, like, have, like, a script almost for myself, because I realized, like, the pitch meeting wasn't just like an exchange of an idea. It's like a performance. Like, you're here to sell your story.
MUSIC OUT BY HERE
I’ve been at a million of these pitch meetings for radio, and what they’re really about when you are a junior person is studying the room. Learning what the hive mind of this place thinks is boring or brilliant. What was the back issue that everyone agrees was a solid-gold, totally-out-of-the-box idea?
And this is where Jesse started to see that something was up.
JESSE: People kept referencing, like, past stories that they'd done. So they kept on referencing, like, the—the sandwich issue, which I was just like, okay, cool. And, like, just for context, the cover of the sandwich issue is, like, a multi-layer peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is just, like, not everybody cares about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like that.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Whatever. Jesse was gonna pitch something that the people that he knew would be really excited to see at Bon Appetit.
JESSE: Like, I wanted to do a digital recipes story about beef patties, right?
SRUTHI: Mmm. Like Jamaican beef patties?
So Jesse does it. He makes the pitch. MUSIC
JESSE: And it was just like, audibly tense, audibly quiet.
Like, with other people's pitches, it was, like, very conversational. It was very chill. It was just like, oh, we'll just keep on thinking about it. And then, like, onto the next person.
Elyse, from her corner, was having similar issues.
ELYSE: Like, I remember pitching a story about hot pots, and feeling I had to, like, just explain so much more for, like, why to do it. And what was interesting is Adam really liked it, but it just, like, never ran because—and like, this is where part of it is, is like, I don't know why.
For the white people in this room—I have talked to them—these were not big moments. Junior employees were pitching their beginner pitches. Of course they weren’t gonna light the room on fire. They’d learn and get better.
But to these junior employees, people of color, these moments felt huge. Nobody in this room understood what it was like to be them, in this space. It felt like being an alien.
JESSE: I was kind of looking around the pitch room and just being like, okay, it's a lot of white people who are all smiling and seem nice but, like, it all feels very, like—like, I'm from the South. I'm very used to nice white people, capital N, capital W, capital P. Um, so it's just, like, a lot of people who are very comfortable just, like, giving you the pleasantries but not always prioritizing the follow-up.
The problem was that while Jesse had spent years studying how he might fit into a place like Conde, Conde had not spent years wondering how they might accommodate Jesse. And so now his discomfort was his problem.
Remember Adam’s original sin? Putting white people at the top of the place, who saw the world the way he did. This now meant that if Jesse felt weird or bad, there was no one with power he could go to, who he knew that would understand what was going on.
The only people with power to fix the problem were the white people on top, who were not experiencing this problem. So they had no plan, no urgency. And the fixing would fall instead to people like Jesse.
This dynamic exists at so many companies, it has certainly happened where I work. And this chapter is about what happens when the people with the least amount of power try to fix a place, and the toll it takes on them .
SMALL POST OF MUSIC, CHANGING, HINT OF MOVEMENT
At Bon Appetit, the first person to take on this DIY renovation was a woman named Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, Adam’s executive assistant.
She’d started at the company about six months before Jesse and Elyse, and for a while, she was the only Black person in editorial. And one day, early on, the same senior editor who had hired Jesse asked Ryan if she was doing okay.
RYAN: She made a comment about, like, my demeanor or something. I don't know, if I wasn't happy enough or dadada. And I was like, “Well, I'm not depressed, actually. I just have a hard time walking around the World Trade Center and seeing people who look like me underrepresented in your offices but overrepresented as your building staff. Like, cleaning, cooking for you, like, all of these things.” And it's like—those are my friends. Those are a lot of my friends at the World Trade Center. And that was really getting to me. And that was only 2018, and I had just started there. I was like, the Freedom Tower, my ass. This place is oppressive as fuck. MUSIC OUT
A couple things about Ryan. This was her first office job. She’d just graduated the previous year out of Stanford.
And in her job interview with Adam Rapoport, it had been Ryan asking Adam questions … stuff like, how does social justice fit into Bon Appetit’s editorial agenda? She wasn’t here just for her CV. She cared about stuff.
All that to say, completely in character for Ryan to be that honest with the senior editor. And the senior editor actually responded pretty well. She said diversity was something they were working on. And a few days later, she reached out to Ryan.
RYAN: But I remember that she Slacked me to ask me to come into her office to help her with something, and I got really excited because I was like, [gasps] we just had lunch, we just talked about this diversity stuff. Like, is this for real? Like, I get to—maybe she’s gonna let me do something, or wow, great. And I was like, “Sure, I’ll be there. Like, one second.” I go over there, and she asks me to clean out the small conference room for her meeting and, like, organize some stuff. And I was like, “Okay.”. Yeah, I mean, that was it.
For Ryan, the message was, you’re here to be an assistant. Your job is not diversity.
But, not long after that, Jesse arrived.
And now, there were two Black people. They could work together on this.
JESSE: And it really worked because Ryan had the administrative insights. So she—because she was managing Adam’s calendar, she knew what was going on in ways that, like, I might not, because I was filing expenses, or I was in, working on editorial stuff, and then I would be able to provide Ryan editorial context for what was happening, like, with the magazine. Those were the ways that we were kind of informing each other and then kind of brainstorming from there.
With a little bit of intel, Jesse and Ryan were able to start picking and choosing battles to take on.
Like, remember how, in the last chapter, Yewande’s hands never appeared in food photos in the test kitchen? Ryan and Jesse didn’t know about Yewande, but they noticed the same issue, that the hands in the magazine were almost always white. So, they started to push to change that.
They figured, you gotta start somewhere. Why not start with something small and easy? But at a place as white as Bon Appetit, there’s no such thing as small and easy.
RYAN: It’s a white industry, so what the fuck do you expect, right? So, you have, like, your white food stylist, your white dadada. You have all of the staff at Bon Appetit, which is white.
And, you know, we don’t have a budget to pay models, which is bullshit, or hand models, and it’s all last minute. So they’re like, “We just don’t have any time to, like, think it out and then it just all happens, and it keeps happening.”
And I’m like, “Okay, why don’t we create some sort of, like, system on Slack where we can create a group with folks that, you know, might want to be featured in the magazine for whatever reason, or like—
SRUTHI: Oh! Like, other Black and Brown people who can come and use their hands, yeah, yeah.
RYAN: Yes, yes. So, that’s how the—that started.
SRUTHI: That’s so—can I just say, it’s like, I didn’t think about how much work it actually takes just to do something simple, even like that. Which, again, is, like, a superficial change, but it’s, like, a start…but even that is, like, coordination. [laughs]
RYAN: No, the Blacks were coordinating, let the record be known. [laughs]
Ryan and Jesse are pulling off these small coordination coups, like ad hoc fixes. But pushing for them, rather than making them feel powerful, it was constantly reminding them how powerless they actually were.
Ryan was Adam’s assistant. And in 2018, Jesse wasn’t even a salaried employee. He was getting paid 20 bucks an hour, no healthcare. And the two of them were going to Adam, the person in charge of their livelihoods, and trying to hold him accountable for making the place less racist.
And often, the experience would end up being demeaning.
Like, Jesse told me about this argument that they had towards the end. Ryan had written an article for the magazine about Black-owned restaurants in DC, and Elyse, the Japanese-American editor, had edited it, and now the two found themselves haggling with Adam over this one choice: Ryan wanted to capitalize the B in Black.
JESSE: While it was going through the editing process, Ryan and Elyse kept on capitalizing the B in Black, um, but Adam kept on QUESTIONING it and just being like,"I don't think that's the right call. I'm not sure. I'm just hesitant. I just want to know what other people are doing. Like, what is David Remnick doing?" And it's just like, this isn't—this has nothing to do with David. This has nothing to do with the New Yorker. And I was just like, "Okay. Well, like, why don't we just set up a meeting?"
Their tiny diversity crew put together a whole presentation arguing for this change. Like, they went to the heads of copy and research at Condé to talk about updating the Bon Appetit style guide.
JESSE: Like, I had printed out multiple articles and examples to cite of other people that have made this change. And then the entire time I was talking, I looked over and I saw that Adam was on his phone. [laughs]
RYAN: The cherry on top is Anna Wintour’s right-hand woman, Christiane Mack, is sitting in there with us all.
SRUTHI: Wow. Damn. Okay.
RYAN: So this is serious. And everyone is actively listening. Adam Rapoport got on his phone and started scrolling the entire time that Jesse was speaking. It was the most disrespectful thing I have ever seen or experienced. I, I was almost about to, like, cut Jesse off and have him start over.
JESSE: And it was just like, sorry, this is a meeting with other corporate people. This is a meeting with, like, heads of departments. Like, I, Elyse, and Ry were all in that meeting, and, like, each of us were talking and making great points, and it was just, like, you're not paying attention or engaging at all. So then I was just like well, why am I even wasting my time right now?
A lot of people (white, not-white, junior, senior) described scenes like this, about how at meetings, Adam would often just be staring at Instagram on his phone, or he’d get up and start pacing around the room or putting around with his golf balls. He had ADD, and he was pretty open about it.
But still, the white editor-in-chief Instagramming through the staff diversity meetings.
Not great. And there was this other thing that multiple people have pointed out to me, which is that it really seemed like Adam just did not love being told what to do by junior employees, even if he understood that that work clearly needed to be done.
In March of 2019, however, an opportunity would present itself in the form of a different, more senior person of color.
An Indian-American writer named Priya Krishna, MUSIC a rising star in the food world.
Before coming to Bon Appetit, Priya had worked at the OTHER hipster food magazine, Lucky Peach, which had had its own bad work culture. And Priya left that place badly affected by what she’d experienced there.
In fact, when Bon Appetit offered her a job, she turned it down, and said she would want to come work in the office, but only on contract.
PRIYA: I remember distinctly thinking, don't get too involved with this workplace, because remember what happened last time—thinking to—at Lucky Peach.
SRUTHI: Lucky Peach. Mm-hmm.
PRIYA: I remember thinking, this is a gig. Um, come in, do your work, leave.
These people don't have to be your best friends. I never imagined myself getting as involved as I did, and—
SRUTHI: I have to say, from talking many, many hours to you, Priya, I feel like, of course you can't do that. [laughs] Like, that's not who you are at all.
PRIYA: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Exactly, exactly. Like, that was the sort of fundamental flaw in my plan. Like, I can't not get involved. I am a meddler. Like. [laughs]
That laugh? That is the Priya laugh. It’s always the same one. She punctuates every about-to-be-painful Bon Appetit story with that dark laugh.
Because of course Priya would end up meddling.
And the thing that would make the problems of this place clear to her is her work on video—as an on-screen talent on the very popular Bon Appetit YouTube channel. We’re going to spend the entire next chapter on video and what it did to Bon Appetit.
But for now, just know that Priya ended up seeing what was wrong with Bon Appetit. And she went to talk to her boss, the deputy editor.
PRIYA: I basically said, ”I don't think this is a very good place for a person of color to work, and our content feels really white.” It was like she knew that what I was saying was correct, and she was—she had just been, like, waiting for someone to say the words. [laughs]
And I was like, "What do you think about making this part of my job, like, diversity and inclusion?" Like, keep in mind, I'm not trained in anti-racism or implicit bias. I was just like, I have to do something. So I was like, what about if I started an initiative and met with every single department, and had them set goals?
And they were super into this idea off the bat.
I want to take this moment to zoom out, past this white editor that Priya is talking to, past Adam Rapaport, even. We’re in mid-2019 now, almost two years after Condé Nast had first indicated that diversity was a priority. The things that companies actually want to prioritize, they tend to put money behind. Condé had not done that with Bon Appetit. There was no real money here for equity training, no effort to provide Adam with a coach, or a consultant, or workshops to educate him. Top executives were not holding people like Adam accountable for inclusivity. They were rewarding them for traffic and ad dollars.
In 2019, the big concern at Bon Appetit was just budget. They’d been told to cut about a million dollars in costs.
So, pressed between bosses who say they wanted diversity but didn't want to pay for it, and junior staffers who Adam didn’t seem to be able to pay attention to, Priya raising her hand was very convenient.
Bon Appetit added “diversity consultant” to Priya’s title, and scraped together from somewhere else in the budget $500 a month to pay for her work.
It was extremely ad hoc, and it was communicated in a very ad hoc way. Like, there was no announcement, not even an email about Priya’s new responsibilities. She wasn’t told that she was picking up work that Ryan and Jesse had already started, and they were not told about her.
JESSE: It was weird because it was just like, oh, well, like, so what does that say about the work that we've been doing? But it was also like, so, so—we were just so happy to have her too. Because it was just like, Priya's lovely, and we were happy to have more people invested who were—actively had the authority and the responsibility, um, to change things.
So it was, it was, it was that split thing, where, like, you’re just so happy to have another person there who gets it. But also, your, your heart breaks for them because you know that they're kind of being set up to fail.
This easily could’ve been a fight. But to everybody’s credit, it was not. Priya and Jesse MUSIC and Ryan would end up working together. Priya would even fight to have Ryan paid for some of the diversity work that she was doing.
Jesse says, though, even back then, in that moment, the main thing that he could see was just that Priya was essentially walking into a trap. It looked like power but wasn’t.
And even someone like Priya—who Adam seemed to take really seriously—in a role like this, best case scenario, she’d end up being ignored.
That’s what Jesse thought. But something happened soon after that gave Priya what looked like a sudden infusion of real power. The deputy editor went on maternity leave.
And Priya was chosen to cover for her.
She wouldn’t just be diversity consultant. She’d be filling in for Adam’s deputy editor, number three on the masthead.
After the break -- a new era at Bon Appetit.
Welcome back to the show
So, a lot of this story is about Bon Appetit and all the ways it doesn’t change. But here’s a moment to notice something. We’re in late 2019 now, and this position that Priya will be covering, deputy editor, not long ago, it had been held by Andrew Knowlton, the guy with the drink in his hand, telling people their food smelled funny.
And now, it’s going to Priya, a person who is so impatient and anxious to make things better for the people of color, she loses sleep at night over it. And this for her was the first time in a while she was starting to feel optimistic.
PRIYA: I was like, this is really exciting. This is, like, an opportunity for me to, like, make some real change. Like, I get a big glass office, you know? Like, it was very—I was really excited going into this.
Priya had some ambitious plans. Like, she wanted to make space for more diverse stories. One of her goals was for Jesse to write a feature. And there was this other thing.
Condé Nast, as a company, had been increasingly obviously out of touch with a world that was changing its ideas about what was actually cool and what was actually appropriate. Like, you might remember, in 2017, Vogue featured a giant spread of white supermodel Karlie Kloss dressed as a geisha. That was for their diversity issue.
Bon Appetit had its own versions of that gaffe. Like … in my head, if you pick a year, I can usually tell you what embarrassed apology Bon Appetit had had to issue. Like, I think of 2016 as the pho year. That’s when they put out an apology titled “About That Pho Video”.
The video in question was a PSA from a white chef explaining how people were eating their pho wrong.
WHITE CHEF: My approach is to start by putting a few slices of jalapeno in the bowl. Next thing I’m gonna do is squeeze as much lime as they give me in the soup, because they never give you enough lime. Grab some thai basil and...
The internet lost its mind. Part of it was that he was white. Part of it was that the chef kept comparing pho to ramen. Part of it was that his advice contradicted what actual Vietnamese people were saying about pho.
WHITE CHEF: If you’re going to put hoisin and sriracha in your soup, please taste your broth first. And please don’t do it in front of the chef.
Even talking to people at Bon Appetit today, they still refer to this as Pho-gate. But screwups like that kept happening, where Bon App would think it was a good idea to filter non-white foods MUSIC or non-white neighborhoods through some white writer, always with this sassy know-it-all attitude.
PRIYA: And it’s very interesting to me because I was like, oftentimes the voiceiest articles were, like, told from a very white, condescending, somewhat ignorant point of view. But Adam just prized voice above all, so much.
It felt out of touch, and people online were getting sick of it. And so, Priya wanted to lend a finer touch to the magazine. She was going to help lead a Bon Appetit that was actually sensitive to other cultures.
Right off the bat, though, one of the first stories she got handed as deputy editor was something she thought was gonna be a problem.
PRIYA: The first essay that landed on my desk to edit was a story in which we had sent a white writer who doesn't speak French to, like, a party for vintners in France. The story made no sense. The writer somehow managed to, like, also, like, offend French people
When Priya told me about this, it didn’t sound that bad. Of all the sins of Bon Appetit, offending French people seemed minor.
But then I read the article.
It starts with the line, QUOTE “Let's get one thing straight: I know very little about wine.” END QUOTE.
The writer then spends multiple paragraphs explaining the actual Bon Appetit pitch process for the story that you’re reading, how he knew it was a half-baked idea, and he expected the editors to reject it, but then they told him, “No, we will pay to fly you to France so you may drink a lot of wine.” And he does. And he gets drunk.
It was the kind of article that a decade ago maybe might have read as charming. The bumbling American drinking his way through wine country. But Priya thought it felt outdated, the kind of thing that would annoy people online, an American gawking at a foreign culture.
PRIYA: I don’t know. I, like, very much felt it, like, felt, like, the ignorance towards French culture. And I like, I literally was just like, how can we run this piece? And I was, like, made to feel like I was insane for saying this.
Elyse, the Japanese American editor who pitched that hot pot idea, she told me that the wine story ended up on her desk too.
ELYSE: My gosh, this story also drove me insane. Yes, cause I remember...There was a day where Priya couldn’t work on it or something. I remember I had the file, MUSIC OUT HERE I had it for literally just the day. And I was like, okay. So then I just, like, read it, and I remember reading it, and I was like this story is crazy, I can’t believe this got assigned.
The resources that that one wine story got made them all think about all their pitches that had been politely ignored to death. And that was just the first issue Priya edited. The beginning of many battles to come. She had walked into this position with lofty ideas about making space for new kinds of stories, but she was being handed piece after piece of just, like, Bon Appetit standards.
PRIYA: I remember I had to edit a story about apres ski in Montreal.
PRIYA: I had to edit a story about, um, a seafood place in Martha's Vineyard that one editor really loved. And I made such a big stink of it to, like, the main editor that she, like, went to Adam, and Adam just, like, completely shut it down and was just like, "No, we've already shot the story. It has to go in."
Jesse would be sitting at his editorial desk, just quietly watching these back and forths.
JESSE: So many of the doors are all glass, so you can always see who is in different meetings. You can—even if you’re just walking by, you can see who’s at the table. Like, it’s no secret that, like, Adam was loud. In a lot of ways, you could hear people being shot down, or people being politely redirected.
So I saw her raising the flags, raising the concerns and, like, constantly going to Adam's office being like, what is this and why?
MUSIC For the people on the diversity crew, what it felt like was Bon Appetit was this place that had promised a bunch of people of color it was ready to renovate, and now was running around saying, “But wait, wait—don’t move that, that’s my grandmother’s couch.”
Like, this magazine at its start had been made to fit Adam’s idea of cool, and now it was hard to criticize that magazine without seeming like you were criticizing Adam himself.
PRIYA: Like, he would very often get, like, defensive in these meetings when I would try to say things critical of Bon Appetit. I remember we had a meeting in the editorial side about what is—what “on brand” means. And a bunch of us brought up that, like, on brand for Bon Appetit usually means, like, a skinny, beautiful, like, white chef that serves, like, natural wine at their restaurant. And—
SRUTHI: [laughs] Natural wine is such a good diss somehow.
PRIYA: Yeah. [laughs] Adam, like, really pushed back on that instead of like, taking a step back and, like, questioning, like, “Oh, if my staff feels this way, maybe there’s,
there’s a big issue.
Of course it wasn’t the whole staff that felt that way. The most senior editorial people were white and had been there awhile. They didn’t want to really stir things up with their boss.
In a way, all of this was just another expression of Adam’s original sin. Sure, the white social club had invited in some new members, but the coin of the realm there was still about being liked by Adam.
PRIYA: Adam, like I remember said in an interview like, "I hire people who I'd want to hang out with." Like, that was very much his operating mentality. I always felt like he didn't know what to make of me because like for that very reason, I feel like Adam was just like constantly deciding whether or not he actually wanted to hang out with me (laugh).
I mentioned in the last episode that even though you won’t hear Adam in this story, I’ve talked to him. Pretty extensively. And when it comes to the events of this chapter,
there is not a lot that he disputes. He WAS on his phone too much. He didn’t always listen to Priya. But he did suggest one edit. He thinks that Priya and Jesse and the others, they changed the magazine more than they saw.
Of course, it is in Adam’s best interest to say that, but I didn’t have to take his word for it, MUSIC because I sort of my lost my mind last year and started buying these back issues of Bon Appetit off eBay. The floor of my apartment is currently a giant grid of 10 years of Bon Appetit covers. I can see the invention of Adam’s magazine. The Gwyneth Paltrow cover. I can see the era where all the Asian recipes were written by white writers. I can see the arrival of Alison Roman, her gorgeous red-stained berry pies on the cover. The Jesse, Ryan, Priya era, that one snakes around the leg of my couch.
I have to say, the later issues of that era, like, from the beginning of 2020, they are very different. You see it as soon as you open the magazine. Like, you can even take the issue with the Martha’s Vineyard story. In that same magazine, there was also a piece on a Hmong restaurant in Minneapolis, there recipes from a Black chef who explored the connections between African and Appalachian food. In Ryan’s story, the B in Black did get capitalized, and Jesse got his feature story—a few, actually. MUSIC OUT
I think the reason that Priya and her crew don’t easily remember these victories is because the cost of winning them felt so humiliating. That is the flavor that overpowers these memories. MUSIC
What they remember is all the haggling, the feeling of a long negotiation with a brick wall. Whatever stories they were able to add, the core of what the magazine was stayed the same - a magazine for white people, told from an almost completely white perspective.
Here’s Ryan, talking about how exhausting it all was for Priya.
RYAN: You know, when the people at the top are undermining everything she says, when she’s leaving Adam’s office in tears with her shoulders hunched and just, like, exhausted, and we go meet in the prop closet, and she’s like, “I can’t do this anymore.” Like… and then on top of that, you have people on staff also undermining her because they’re taking after the actions of the people up top. Um, and then you have a lot of people talking shit about the work that she’s doing.
PRIYA: Filling in for Julia, that job brought me to, like, such a dark place. Like, doing Julia's job made me want to, like, quit Bon Appetit, period, and just, like, walk away from it all, because it was just—the amount of time I would, like, cry in my office [laughs]
Because I was filling in for Julia, I, like, got to use her office which, like, at first was very exciting. Like, I have this shiny glass office at Condé Nast. You feel like you've made it. It also has a clear door.
So, to cry in that office, you have to, like, really, like, crouch down into a corner and, like, just accept the fact that people are just gonna see you cry as they walk by. [laughs]
SRUTHI: And that was normal.
PRIYA: Uh, that was, like, a pretty regular part of my existence. It was just, like, this idea that I think a lot of people in the office thought that I had power or thought that I had influence.
PRIYA: But I didn't. I didn't have any of that.
Jesse’s deep suspicion in the end turned out to be right. It was a trap.
But there are so many of these traps. Talking to different people of color at Bon Appetit, it felt like -- whatever strategy anybody used to try to leverage power, these different strategies would mean that those people just got burned in a different way.
I want to tell you one last story about one more of these people. Christina Chaey. Christina is Korean American, and she started off at Bon Appetit as an assistant web editor. She'd started much earlier than Priya, Jesse, or any of them. She sort of belongs to the previous generation actually, the people of the first chapter.
And Christina too, had her own moments of frustration and discomforts and she’d tried to address them in her own way. Like one of the big ones for her was actually Pho-gate, in 2016.
That video had horrified her. She’d had taken it upon herself to write this long piece, a manifesto about how Bon Appetit had deeply screwed up, and she asked to have that manifesto published on the website. The deputy editor ignored her email, and when she tried to escalate it to Adam, he told her manifestos were not a Bon Appetit format.
She showed me that draft from 2016.
CHRISTINA: And it’s just so funny. It’s so funny looking back and reading this.
SRUTHI: It’s like seeing baby Christina and her dreams. [laughs]
CHRISTINA: I know. I know. But you know, what’s so funny is that, like, I had buried away that chapter of my life, to the point where I had actually, even after the events of June and beyond really started to kick in, I had forgotten that I had written this thing. Um.
SRUTHI: And why is that, you think?
CHRISTINA: I think part of the reason is that, um, there’s just something really biting about the low blow of a no response, you know? [laughs]
That was in 2016.
And since then, things had changed for Christina. She’d left the magazine, she’d come back, taken on a higher ranking job -- associate editor. She was closer to Adam, the one real currency of power at Bon Appetit. And Christina had developed a whole menu of strategies for getting his attention, for gently guiding him away from saying some dumb thing.
CHRISTINA: With Adam I think that the priority was always, make sure it comes off more like a Joke than serious. Make sure it comes off more like a haha moment with af friend like oh Adam you can’t say that --
SRUTHI: Oh..like if you're criticizing him it's more jokey than serious
CHRISTINA: Yeah because that was the humor … is a way in, right. It’s not the way you want to be in but it is a way more in than you’d be able to get without it.
These kinds of moments could be tricky, they could be uncomfortable. But they were working, Christina was getting stories in the magazine, she was getting covers. She no longer felt like an outsider, she was a part of Bon Appetit. And so -- when this new generation showed up, talking about everything that was wrong with the place … it felt surprisingly personal to her.
CHRISTINA: When someone like Priya came in there was very much a feeling of being very territorial and being sort of like … who are you to say these things about my team and my work. And ultimately, me.
Christina usually, would just sit silently through these diversity meetings, she didn’t get involved.
But after everything blew up in the summer of 2020, after the scandal at Bon Appetit , after the summer’s protests … Christina had this shock of revelation -- like .. wait why had she been on the other side of the table from Priya? It felt like waking up from a bad drug trip, left with the feeling you’d done something very wrong. She felt like the blame for everything that had happened at Bon Appetit belonged to her.
CHRISTINA: The way that I experienced that and internalized that in those months after the summer, it felt really hard to.. Truly.. There was truly a not insignificant amount of time when I felt as equally responsible for everything that happened.
CHRISTINA: As someone like adam.
SRUTHI: Even though obviously you had truly no power .. truly compared to Adam
CHRISTINA: But that’s where I think it gets really complicated because I think that um… I don’t know if you’ve had any conversations around this idea of soft power.
SRUTHI: No, I haven’t
CHRISTINA: It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot that has come up in conversations that I’ve had with people since …but, y'know I think that the Adam currency, the power of being liked by Adam, that’s a soft power
SRUTHI: I think the problem with soft power, the way you’re describing it, is that if you use it for something important like challenging Adam or forcing change, it goes away.
CHRISTINA: Yeah I mean … because it’s not real … laughs
SRUTHI: So I make my point, I don’t know if you actually had power...
Even now, Christina’s left with real anger with herself. For that complicity, for not being on the right side or making the right choices. But I have to say, of all the people in this chapter, I identify with her the most.
The company where I work, Gimlet, had its own version of these problems. The white people who ran the place hired people of color, and promised them change that never quite seemed to materialize. A group of employees tried to fix the place themselves and eventually things ended as these things often do--in a union drive. Plenty of people joined that fight, I did not. To the extent I talked about it, I talked about the way that their fight was stepping on my toes.
It took eight months of reporting on Bon Appetit for me to see how wrong I was about all that, and if I’m honest, I’m still processing the anger that I feel toward myself.
I wish I’d made different choices.
But I also think that ideally, employees shouldn’t have to make those kinds of choices at all. Choices like that end up defining our jobs … when the people in charge haven’t done theirs. Because, after all, they’re the ones with the real power.
At Bon Appetit, after all that the diversity crew went through there was this moment where you could see the power at the top with perfect clarity.
The moment happened last May.
After police killed George Floyd, one big advertiser, Procter & Gamble, would threaten to pull their ad dollars from one Condé Nast brand, Vogue, if their magazine remained as white as it was. Within a week, as if by magic, the company had put together a solid diversity strategy with real teeth and real money behind it. That’s all it took—a horrific killing, and a stern email from the maker of Crest toothpaste.
Before I leave you this week, let’s just celebrate one person’s victory. Remember Jesse, who we opened the chapter with? He’s an editor at Eater now. He’s doing well. I asked him what marks, if any Bon Appetit had left, and he said there’s really one thing he notices.
JESSE: Like, any time I might have to do things that don't always feel like they're within the scope of my job, that might be really irksome. And, like, nine times out of ten, that's a response to, like, stuff that happened at BA, of just being like, okay, is this actually, um, like, an issue or is this just, like, a small annoying thing?
SRUTHI: [Sighs] It's really—it's so really just like a toxic relationship, like a romantic relationship, where you're like, wait, is that me? Or is that like—
JESSE: No, it really is. Yeah. And it’s just like—
SRUTHI: … a thing that that person did to me.
JESSE: And it’s just like, because you were really intentional after the breakup of just, like, processing and really talking it through, like, both with yourself and with, um, a qualified and acceptable, like, mental health professional, and friends and everything, um, you're just like, okay, no. I, I know who I am. I know where I'm at. And I know that I don't have to carry that package anymore, because it was never mine to carry in the first place. It was nice of me to offer, but that was not something that they were owed. It was not something that, that should have been required of me, and I know that now. So, yeah.
SRUTHI: Good on you, Jesse. Good on you. I'm, I’m so— [laughs]
JESSE: It's just like, at the end of the day, I got a job where I make twice as much as I did before. You know, I have health care. I have, like, my own apartment. Like, I have my dream job. Like, all of this was—like, if you want the hallmark of it, like, yeah, sure, it looks like this is the, the romantic's happy end. But, like, my life is still going. My story is still going.
So, in the next installment of The Test Kitchen:
RICK: all of a sudden we have this beautiful new kitchen. We were the envy of everybody. You walk in and you're like, "Yeah, I'm a bad ass." Right? Like we're on the 35th floor and I'm in this really amazing kitchen and fuck you everybody else.
Video arrives at Bon Appetit.
RYAN: I felt like one night I went to sleep and then I woke up and everyone was famous. [laughs] There it was. The video monster.
What happens to a workplace like this when you film it and put it on the internet?
BRAD KOMBUCHA TAPE: Laughs, today’s on live it’s getting weird...
NIKITA: It just worked a lot because well it’s like Cheers for like cooking videos.
PRIYA: Like it got to the point I just...I didn’t trust the video team anymore.
This episode was reported by me, Sruthi Pinnamaneni. It was edited by PJ Vogt, with additional editing by Stephanie Foo and Ashley C. Ford.
Reply All is hosted by Emmanuel Dzotsi, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman.
Our show’s produced by Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, and Lisa Wang. Our creative director is Tim Howard. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Kate Bilinski. Our intern is Navani Otero. Our show is fact checked by Ben Phelan.
Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
with additional music by Marianna Romano, Luke Williams, Breakmaster Cylinder, and Tim Howard.
Huge thanks this week to our guest editors: Brendan Klinkenberg, Gabby Bulgarelli, Hrishikesh Hirway, Samin Nosrat.
Thanks also to Lydia Polgreen, Rachel Strom, Emily Nguyen.
And thank you to the current management of Bon Appetit who was so supportive of the employees of color who wanted to talk to us, and Amiel Stanek who kindly let us roast his wine story for a full radio minute.
You can listen to our show on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.