PJ: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt. And we have something different for you this week. Actually over the next several weeks. It’s a story told in over a few chapters, by our reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni, she will be taking over the show for a bit.
PJ: It’s about Bon Appétit, a food magazine that I’m sure some of you saw explode in scandal last summer. This though is all the parts of that story that you didn’t hear. We’ve been working on it for months now, and we’re very glad to finally get to share it with you.
SRUTHI: So the first time someone in my life used the phrase “person of color” to describe me—that was about six years ago. I was at this small gathering, and a friend of mine, who’s Asian, referred to both of us as “women of color.” And I said to her no, we’re not. I’m Indian. You’re Asian.
But I say it all the time now, “person of color”, you’re gonna hear me saying it many, many times in today’s story. But know that every time I say it, I kind of wince. It feels wrong. Like I’m telling people that I, as a brown woman, have experienced a racism that is as constant, and as oppressive as, say, a Black person, which of course I have not.
Here’s the person of color that I am. I was born in India in Hyderabad, and I lived there until I came to the United States for college. So, I’m an immigrant. I studied math and so, I guess, I’m a woman of science. I’m also a straight woman, I’m also a mom.
And if you’d asked me before last summer, so before June of 2020.
If you’d asked like -- for you personally, Sruthi, what does it mean to be an Indian woman in the workplace. I would’ve said it’s mostly fine. Because back then, I didn’t really want to think of my race as a disadvantage. Like I preferred to focus on how it actually helped me. You know, I’ve definitely benefited from the ways that I fit into American stereotypes of Indian people. I do work hard, I am pretty good at math. And I’m very good at fitting in. I’m sure you can tell that from my excellent American accent.
If you had asked me MUSIC that same question though, AFTER June of last year, what does it mean to be an Indian woman in the workplace, I think my answer would have been a long pause. I found myself replaying moments from my career, moments that went back years, things that happened that hadn’t even qualified as stories in my brain at the time.
SRUTHI: This kind of negotiation with the past, it was happening inside the heads of a lot of people, all over the country. And this story is about a specific group of those people.
They were all people of color... Black, brown, Asian, Latino, and they’d all worked in New York at this one food magazine, Bon Appétit.
It was early June of 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd. Everyone was protesting, angry about racial injustice. And that week, this photo circulated online, a photo of the man in charge of Bon Appetit in a very offensive Halloween costume.
YouTube: And the first thing we're going to talk about today, easily one of the most requested stories today, and that is all this news surrounding Bon Appétit and its editor in chief, Adam Rapoport.
YouTube: Bon Appétit magazine's editor in chief has resigned following the reemergence of a photo of him dressed in a caricature-ish Puerto Rican way. People are calling it brown face. Here's the tweet breaking Bon Appetit...
SRUTHI: It was a story that we’ve grown used to hearing, the story of a bad workplace, told over the internet. After that first offensive photo, more details started pouring out.
Like there was a Business Insider article about how the culture there was toxic. The people of color who’d starred in Bon Appetit’s videos started coming forward and saying they were being paid less than their white colleagues.
People on the internet started digging through old tweets from the staff, and found all kinds of stuff -- sexist tweets, homophobic tweets, more disturbing photos.
A Bon Appetit editor has apologized after a photo of confederate flag cake …
SRUTHI: It was an ugly snapshot of an ugly place. Since I saw that snapshot, I’ve spent months talking to all the people of color who worked there, like almost all of them, going back ten years ago, to the moment when the modern version of Bon Appetit was first launched.
And I feel like now I’ve seen a whole movie of everything that led up to that one snapshot.
And once you hear that whole story, that snapshot itself feels quite different. It feels like the view of an office that is strangely familiar. Like a place you might have worked in. I have certainly recognized my own experiences in it.
So I’m going to tell you that story in four parts.
It’ll start a decade ago, when the man in charge would build this whole place with a fundamental flaw, a flaw whose magnitude wouldn’t be obvious to anyone, least of all, the excited employees of color coming to work there.
SUE: I would’ve done anything to just be there. So like even if she told me every day, like, hey, just a reminder you don't belong...I would have still taken the job.
SRUTHI: It’s a story of how waves of people of color will show up, and one by one, run through the gauntlet that is Bon Appetit.
YEWANDE: I was like, she doesn't believe my work is good enough. Maybe I'm not doing good work? Like I’m not brilliant in the way that people on staff are. And so this makes sense, is what I told myself.
SUE: It was so cutting. It was so—it made me feel so bad. And I was like, okay, understood. So I put in my notice and I left.
SRUTHI: It’s also a story about the power of appearances -- how Conde Nast and Bon Appetit held onto power, in the midst of a decline that should have been obvious to anyone paying attention.
YEWANDE: Like these people have no idea what they're doing. It's a mirage! C'est mirage!
NIKITA: I would tell anyone who would listen like, "It's not what it seems.”
NIKITA: It's like, what if your ex became incredibly famous and beloved right after they broke up with you? And like, everyone's like, "Oh, my God, he's such a nice guy." And you're like, "Yeah, to you."
SRUTHI: And it’s about how, in the course of just one decade, different generations of people of color will learn to fight back.
TAMMIE: I went to a protest on the 6th, which was a Saturday, and then I came home and just felt like, you know, maybe I could get Adam Rapoport fired. I mean, I think that's really it.
SRUTHI: For this story we talked to nearly 40 people from Bon Appétit & Conde Nast. I’ve talked to much of the white leadership, but over the next few episodes, you’ll only hear from the people of color. Because this is the story of they survived in this system, and how they finally took it apart.
RICK: We are not going to put up with the shit, accept the shit that we have, for years, put up with and accepted. All of those tradeoffs I am never going to do again. I am never ever going to do that again.
SRUTHI: So after the break, chapter 1 of that story, from the people who experienced it.
Chapter One, Original Sin.
The story begins with a man who I’ve spoken to, but who you are not actually going to hear from. Because the story—even though he’s very much central to it ... it is not a story about him. And that man is Adam Rapoport.
Who in 2010 was tasked with bringing Bon Appétit, this very sleepy, irrelevant magazine owned by Condé Nast, into a more glamorous future. Adam was in ways an unconventional pick for the job. Like, he was not a recipe expert. He was this mid-level GQ editor, which meant what he was an expert on was the things that a men’s magazine considered cool in the early aughts—so Japanese denim, skinny ties, The National. If he was going to tell you how to make food, it was the perfect omelette or a chicken salad. Like, the food made by a svelte, probably white man.
But the fact that he didn't come from a food magazine, that did not matter to Condé Nast. They were looking for someone exactly like him. Who could take Bon Appétit and make it hip and cool, the way that GQ was hip and cool. And Condé Nast would give him something, a rare opportunity for a new editor-in-chief: They told Adam, he would be able to hire an entirely new staff, top to bottom, which for Adam was perfect. Full control to reinvent Bon Appétit.
So the first issue of Adam’s new Bon Appétit came out in May of 2011. In less than five months, Adam had managed to pull together a whole team that had made what felt like a new Bon Appétit. Actually “Bon App,” that’s what the cool kids would call it.
And this Bon App was younger and snarkier and irreverent. Like an early cover—instead of a stack of cupcakes or whatever—it had a Gwyneth Paltrow in a tight blue dress, eating a bowl of spaghetti. A celebrity on a food magazine cover? Unheard of.
Adam Rapoport shrugged this off in his Editor’s note. He said, “I realize that putting a movie star on the cover of a food magazine isn't typical...But the thing is, food is never just about food. It's about catching up with your friends over a good bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges.”
His new Bon Appetit—sure, it would have recipes and cooking techniques, but you weren't really reading it for the articles. You were picking it up to gawk at the photos. The photos of the food. They had been shot in this sharp, high contrast, cool style—like an American Apparel ad, except instead of a half-naked woman, you'd be looking at this decadent poached egg.
And this new look, it seemed to be working—like there was buzz around the magazine, they were selling ads to luxury brands, like Hermes and Chanel.
And it’s not just that the mag was making money, it was being taken seriously by actual food people. Like the people who worked in restaurants.
SRUTHI: And I'm curious, like, when the first issues started coming out, what did you think of the writing and their approach to, like, food?
YEWANDE: I think I was like, ooh, how do they make it look so beautiful?
SRUTHI: Back in 2010, Yewande Komolafe was a pastry cook at this cool restaurant in New York City. And she said that in the kitchen of that cool restaurant, they would often just look at these food magazines.
YEWANDE: Like amongst ourselves, like, “Oh, my God, did you see how they plated the biscuits with, like, blueberry jam? Like that's really cool.”
SUE: At the time, they were making the most beautiful images and also like recipes that were very aspirational.
SRUTHI: That was Sue Li, who was another very impressive restaurant world person. She worked as a line cook at Eleven Madison Park, which is like the Harvard of Fancy Restaurants.
And both of those people, Yewande and Sue, are people of color, immigrants. Sue was born in Taiwan—she came here when she was six—and Yewande is Black, originally from Nigeria.
And both of these women were done working in restaurants. It was back-breaking work. And they figured, coming to a food magazine, they could still keep working with the thing that they actually loved, which was food.
And so they would both come to this new Bon Appetit, as temps—So below entry level, but that was fine. Because this was gonna be the start of a better life.
SUE: I was like, this is it. This is, like, my way in. This is going to be my career. Like I've already been established. I've worked many years. I've—
SUE:—like I’ve done a lot, but I was willing to be freelance.
SUE: I had to fill out a timesheet. I was willing to do all those things. Because I was just so happy to be there.
SRUTHI: MUSIC Even just the physical building of Condé Nast felt just full of promise. The place was just absurdly glamorous. A skyscraper in Times Square, with a Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria. Publisher Si Newhouse had his own table there, where he would lunch once a week with Anna Wintour.
YEWANDE: It was definitely exciting to, like, walk into the Times Square building and think of that as work, as opposed to walking into like the basement of a kitchen where you're working underground, literally not seeing the sunlight.
SRUTHI: That's so interesting. And so it's like, just walking into the Times Square office, you were like, oh, this is where I'm going to be put kind of like more in front of people.
YEWANDE: In front, yeah. Yeah, I think that aspect of it was exciting to me.
SUE: And to walk into the office of Condé Nast, you're just like, you know, these are all things that if you were just even conscious of what happens in New York City, you knew that they were important. And that you wanted to be a part of it if you have a chance to be a part of it. And I think that's why like interns will work for free at a place like Condé Nast, you know, because why not?
SRUTHI: All of the work that Sue and Yewande had been drawn to, like all of those little editorial choices that made Bon App Bon App—those decisions were happening upstairs on the 5th floor MUSIC —the editorial offices of Bon Appétit.
That floor is where Adam Rapoport and his top editors sat. And that’s where Yewande and Sue wanted to get to.
But something the both of them didn’t know yet, is that already, here in the beginning, Adam had made a huge choice that would make getting into that room almost impossible.
What he'd done is: When Conde Nast had given him a chance to hire whoever he wanted. He had filled the very top spots--like executive editor / creative director--with only white people. And not just any white people, white people who were kinda like him. Like they didn’t come from food magazines and they were people whose style he really liked. Like people he’d want to sit next to at a dinner party.
—which again makes sense at a place like Conde Nast. Their magazines, whatever topic they cover, they're really about selling this fantasy of stylish white wealth.
Adam’s choice though, it would be the original sin of Bon Appétit.
But at the time, it didn’t seem like a mistake, it seemed like a dream.
All of these top-tier editors would gather in this large, open space in the center of the office where the art department was. And they would look at photo lineups posted on the wall, debate the design of the magazine, like, do we shoot the pasta from the side or overhead? (Definitely overhead.) Do we blur the focus like they did in Gourmet? (No, fuck Gourmet.)
Upstairs is where they would close the magazine the weeks before sending it out to print, with open cans of Budweiser and Corona and Japanese whiskey (free swag).
It’s where the pitch meetings would happen, where editors would pitch stories like A.P.C. Designer Jean Touitou Cooks at His Not So Simple Chateau Near Paris.
That floor—Editorial—That is not where Yewande and Sue are headed. MUSIC OUT
They would start at the bottom. Literally one floor below editorial, in the magazine’s kitchen. It was called the Test Kitchen.
SRUTHI: What was the test kitchen like, how did it actually look when you walked in?
YEWANDE: It (laughs)— it was like a bunch of bays. So you walk in and go around the corner into this like, hallway looking thing, and on either side of the hallway there were kitchens. Like a kitchen that you would have in your home.
SRUTHI: It was drab space. No windows, no actual sunlight. Not the glamorous Test Kitchen that would become famous years later in the YouTube videos.
And this would be the place where the newbies would try out the recipes before they went into the magazine. It’s called cross-testing:
YEWANDE: The Test Kitchen editors would develop the recipes and make it. And then I would come in as like, a second set of testing assurance that it works. And my job was to catch any mistakes, MUSIC essentially, in the testing process.
SRUTHI: Yewande was cross testing things like chocolate cake with biscuits, or pancakes—simple stuff compared to what she’d been making at restaurants.
But, growing up Lagos, Yewande’s mother had run a test kitchen there, for Cadbury. It’s a chocolate company. And Yewande felt like she had developed this almost natural enjoyment of something as tedious as recipe testing. Like, she liked thinking about food in this scientific, methodical way.
So, she’d come in once a week, work alone in her siloed bay. And she could imagine the frenetic energy upstairs, people bringing forth an entire magazine. But she was just underneath it all. Except, most days—at 2 P.M. —there was this one big event, where it was almost like this portal would open up between the two worlds. The infamous 2 P.M. Tasting. MUSIC!
YEWANDE: So like, at two o'clock every day, there was a tasting of recipes that were being developed or that were going to end up in the magazine that had already been pitched.
SRUTHI: So what would happen is the mostly white junior editors would come from upstairs. They had to actually make the recipes that they’d pitched, so that their bosses, the senior editors, could taste and critique them.
Yewande and the other temps, their job would be to assist, or just stay out of the way, while the contestants were frantically trying to prepare.
YEWANDE: Everything else before 2 P.M. did not matter. It was just like, you're in the oven. I need the oven. Get out. Or like, I need this timer. I need an offset spatula. It was just like racing around. It felt very restaurant energy.
SRUTHI: And at 2 P.M., it was spatulas down, food plated and set on a long table. Here’s Eleanore Park, another temp at the test kitchen:
ELEANORE: It was just like, such a spectacle. Very formal where, like Brad put down like silverware and like different plates.
SRUTHI: So the senior editors would sit at that formally set table, and one by one, as if at a restaurant, the junior person who had made the dish would come and serve them, and give a little speech where they explained the dish—like how they’d come up with it, how bold the flavors are, what’s the twist was that made it BA.
ELEANORE: It did just feel like a very Devil Wears Prada moment when like Miranda Priestly in the movie is like being shown a different like, carousel of clothing. And she would like purse her lips for approval or not. It was like the equivalent of that for food.
SRUTHI: And some top editors had this kind of Simon Cowell schtick, where they would treat people’s ideas with disdain, almost a show of power. One editor, known for her refined palate, would periodically just spit out the food that offended her.
YEWANDE: And after 2 P.M., like, the kitchen would be a mess and they're cleaning up and it would—but it would feel like, oh, okay, we got through today.
YEWANDE: And then they would go upstairs to do their computer work.
SRUTHI: It sounds a little bit like white people competing with white people and being judged by white people (laughing).
YEWANDE: It...that's exactly what (laughing)— yeah, that’s exactly what it was.
SRUTHI: Yewande was left wondering how she could be one of those people. She also wanted to compete, have stories in the magazine. And the first part of the process was obviously to pitch an idea, but Yewande had no clue, like who should she even pitch to?
YEWANDE: Like, I—I understood that certain people had stories that would appear in the magazines. As far as how that process went, I had no idea.
SRUTHI: Yewande would find herself like leafing through the pages of the magazine— that she was working in the kitchen of—and it was almost like reading tea leaves. Like how had this particular story gotten there?
YEWANDE: I would say, “Oh cool, they did a story on Southern cuisine. That’s cool. That makes sense, ‘cause Hunter’s from the South.”
YEWANDE: And um, so, I would like, draw those lines in my own head. But like, I—it, it didn’t feel like a place where I could say, “So how do recipes get pitched? How can I pitch my own recipes?”
SRUTHI: Yewande had come here to Bon App to learn, but nobody here was seeing her as a person that they were trying to bring into the fold. Like, nobody was going to reach out and help her.
Adam Rappaport, editor in chief, style expert had created this culture at the office where people’s success there felt pegged to whether or not they were considered cool. And because cool is subjective and fleeting, it meant that most people were just spending all their energy just worrying about their own status. They weren't paying attention to the people at the bottom.
I’ve talked to dozens of people who’ve worked in that test kitchen—senior, junior, white, nonwhite—almost universally, the phrase that was used to describe that kitchen was “high school.”
It was cliquish, it was backbite-y, the kind of place where one person’s success was another person’s loss. Sue said that when she started there, the people who were there before her seemed to almost view her as the enemy.
SUE: In the beginning, they definitely treated me with condescension, with wariness. People were territorial there. And I understand because it's a competitive—it's a super competitive environment. The attention from the bosses is scarce. And bylines are scarce. Everyone's fighting for any type of recognition.
YEWANDE: You know, the editors will come down and like, hang out in the kitchen, but never really speak to you if you were a freelancer. It was the kind of environment where you just go and do your work, put your head down and leave, you know? And like, don’t make a mistake. Don’t fuck up.
SRUTHI: Yewande and Sue both struggled with their self-doubt in almost total isolation.
I need to tell you about a choice I’ve made in telling this story. While I’ve put the voices of these women of color together, the truth is, these women were rarely in the same room at the same time.
Music gestural changes
They were temps, they almost never overlapped.
The main thing they had in common was that they were almost always alone in a sea of white. Yewande, the only Black person. Sue, often the only Asian one.
They spent years stuck in the Test Kitchen, permanent freshmen at the Bon Appétit high school. They blamed themselves, they saw themselves as failing.
Thinking back on all this now, years later, they have a lot of questions. One hard one:
How are they supposed to feel now about their colleagues who did succeed? Those people, almost all white, who started alongside them in those bays, but who made it out.
And when they puzzle over this, there’s one name that comes up pretty consistently.
SRUTHI: Who did you see succeeding at the time, like on the days that you were there, who were you like that person is rising up in the ranks and like, could you tell why?
YEWANDE: For sure.
SRUTHI: Alison, as in Alison Roman. [MUSIC] Who, for a lot of people, needs no introduction. But if you don’t know who she is, she is an internet-famous recipe writer —and early in the pandemic, she was semi-canceled when she attacked two other celebrities out of nowhere, both Asian women,
Full disclosure, I actually know Alison, in real life. We met through some common friends who are all crazy about cooking and I would see her at dinners from time to time.
But, back to the test kitchen. It was 2011, and Alison Roman had just arrived. She started out, like the others, a lowly recipe tester. But it was as if the gravity that held everybody else down, it just didn’t apply to her.
Here’s Rick Martinez, another temp who got there after her:
RICK: Alison was the—the queen of—of the kitchen. She was the star of—of that show. Like she got all the good recipe assignments. If anyone had the ability to pitch a story and get it through, it would have been Alison.
YEWANDE: And like, I felt that she had a rapport with—with everybody that would come down and not talk to me. It was like almost immediate for her. So it wasn't about like being there longer. It was just like she- she—she looked like everybody else in the Test Kitchen and at the magazine.
RICK: You know, like Adam would come into the kitchen every morning and make breakfast for himself. He used, in the old building, he used her station. He used her cutting board, her knives. And when we got to the new place, he did the same thing. So it was very clear that he had a particular comfort with her that he didn't have with the rest of us.
SRUTHI: If this is starting to sound straightforward -- you should know the people I talked to, they are still a decade later puzzling out how to feel about Alison. Because yes, she was the boss’s favorite, but those same people say she also worked super hard, and her food was really good. Sue, who is her friend, says back then Alison’s success didn’t feel unfair.
SUE: You know, it's like, we were competing against each other, but also had full respect for each other. You know, Alison's a strong cook and I think I'm a very strong cook. And so that's when we became friends.
SRUTHI: The thing Sue sometimes struggles with now is that back then it seemed like Alison was getting all the opportunities, like the one plant in the Test Kitchen that was getting water. And Alison at the time did not question that. But for Sue, it's hard to blame her because Sue didn’t question it either.
The whole thing is even harder for Yewande because she and Alison were actually closer. They had had these eerily similar resumes. Like step for step, they’d worked at the same restaurants in New York. Yewande was always there first. And she had been freelancing at Bon Appetit a full year when Alison had arrived. And a year after that, Yewande was still a freelancer, and Alison was the one being offered a full time job
SRUTHI: I'm wondering what you were saying to yourself, like why some people like Alison were immediately comfortable with the bosses, and you seemed to be like the perennial outsider?
YEWANDE: I felt like_I felt like it was— it was ’cause I was shy. I felt like I wasn't really outgoing.
YEWANDE: So, like, I—I told myself that I had all these, like—like I'm not from here. So I don't really understand American cuisine or, you know, like it was all these things that I was telling myself.
SRUTHI: And did you ever, like, confide in Alison about it? Like if you guys were even sort of friends back then, did you ever say like, “Do you think I'm too shy?”
SRUTHI: Despite their proximity, there was a lot that Yewande couldn’t share. Like how years ago her visa had lapsed, and she’d become undocumented. She felt like as if her life was so far from anything that the people in this kitchen would ever understand.
Even someone like Alison who saw herself as a friend.
YEWANDE: Like I would share with her, but I could see that there was only a certain point to which I could share with her because I didn't want to explain. So I—so there and I—I feel so conflicted about her friendship, because even in that space of a friendship, like was it my job to point out like, hey, Alison, like I came here first, but like, dude, you're getting five days a week. And I'm just called in, like, once every two weeks, once every month, you know, like, was it my job to point that out?
SRUTHI: I think to a lot of people listening now in 2021, including me, the answer to this question is obvious -- no, it was not Yewande’s job to point it out. But if I’m being honest with myself, and I think back to how I felt, like just ten 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. But now, Alison’s old colleagues find themselves MUSIC trying to answer it. Not just with Alison, but with the other breakout white stars like Claire Saffitz or Brad Leone.
How much of what they got did they really deserve and how much were they responsible for helping the people around them. It’s hard to judge old behavior by new standards.
But if the people of color in the Test Kitchen feel ambivalent about how their peers behaved, there’s not much ambivalence about what they think about the behavior of their bosses. The top editors. Those were the people who decided -- who got hired and who didn’t, who got to make the recipes and who had to test them. The people upstairs.
We’re going to get them, right after this.
MUSIC POSTS and OUT
Boom boom choo
SRUTHI: Welcome back to the show.
The more I have talked to people at Bon Appétit about the top editors, and the choices that those editors were making, like what kind of assignments they gave out and to whom, the more bizarre I found it all.
And to help you see what I’m talking about, I want to start with the story of Sue Li, whose the Taiwanese American chef.
When Sue was in her twenties, she figured out she wanted a career in food. Because, it’s quite simple really, she loved eating.
SUE: The love of eating and also looking for foods with flavor. Like I moved to Queens, for example, ’cause I wanted to be closer to the 7 train because I knew that you can just get off at any stop and you can eat something delicious, so—
SRUTHI: Hey, that’s like commitment. I like that.
SRUTHI: If you don’t live in Queens, or off the 7 train, the foods with flavor that Sue is talking about, it’s Chinese food, Indian food. In her mind, foods with complex, bold flavors. That is the kind of food that Sue loves.
And when she started working at Eleven Madison Park—that Harvard of fancy restaurants—Sue was making like magical Willy Wonka-level food. Like tomato water clouds, or green apple snow or … a foie gras mille feuilles with bing cherries and pistachio.
But then Sue left all of that, to learn how to come up with her own ideas, to create her own recipes at Bon Appétit. And what she wanted more than anything was for some dish that she had dreamed up, accompanied by a decadent photo, and a byline: Sue Li.
So it was 2012, and back in her early months in the Test Kitchen, Sue, like Yewande, spent most of her time testing just other people’s recipes. Essentially, fact-checking their work. But eventually, her boss began, every now and then, to give her an assignment. Like Sue would be allowed to develop a recipe.
SRUTHI: And what kind of stuff were they having you develop?
SUE: Oh my gosh, it was the whitest food.
SUE: Um, I remember very clearly it was like fish sticks...
SUE: Um, no-cook pasta.
SUE: Salad or some kind of ham pies. I was willing to do anything (laughing) … so I was like, yeah, give it to me.
SRUTHI: Was there ever a point where they were like, okay, you're Asian, you can make the Asian food?
SUE: No, because at the time, the white people were making the Asian food.
SRUTHI: This is true. I’ve checked it. At Bon Appétit, but really across food journalism back then, almost all the bylines on recipes for Asian food were from white people, which was a surprise to Sue. Because before she’d starting working there, she had assumed that her Taiwanese background would be an asset. Like, a thing that would help her stand apart from her white colleagues. But it started to become clear that neither her boss nor the colleagues were really interested in where she came from, or what she had to say about it.
SUE: It's almost funny, it’s almost like they would be like telling me how to make a smashed cucumber salad when I'm like, “Yeah, like those are the things that I grew up eating.”
SRUTHI: And were they telling it to you like, you haven't heard of this, or this is the correct and authentic way to make it, or like in what context—?
SUE: Like—like, they would tell me like, well, this is how so-and-so at for example, Pok Pok, right?—which is also owned by a white man. They'd be like, “Oh, this is how so-and-so at Pok Pok would make it.” So obviously, this is—this person is the authority. So obviously, this is the way to make a smashed cucumber salad. And I'm like, “Okay, well, cool. Thanks.”
SRUTHI: Back in 2012, Sue thought that she could succeed just by knowing her place, like keeping her head down and not making a fuss. If the editors didn’t want to hear about what Asian people thought about Asian food. That was fine.
A few years later though, in 2015, a very different temp recipe tester would figure out a loophole. MUSIC He is a Mexican-American food writer who found a way to publish Mexican at Bon Appetit recipes without a ton of oversight. The key was just to put them on the Bon Appetit website, which the old guard of editors were not paying attention to.
RICK: They just did not give a shit. All they cared about was print. They also weren't willing to put up an effort to stop anyone. So we kind of had a blank check.
SRUTHI: Rick Martinez. He’d come to Bon App thinking that most of the Mexican recipes that they ran in the magazine were, in his words “idiotic.” They were almost all created by white people. And so he wanted to introduce a vision of Mexican food that didn’t just start with tacos and end with guacamole.
Like this recipe for pork tamales, his take on a dish that his mother used to make. It featured a red sauce with four different chilis in it. MUSIC And he managed to put it on the Bon Appetit website.
RICK: And I remember telling my dad how proud I was. Like, I was getting comments from, you know, uh, Colombians, El Salvadorians, Argentinians, Brazilians, that were all like, you did it. Like, you've got this—you got this thing in there, where, you know, where people of color didn't exist before.
SRUTHI: But sometimes a magazine editor would taste one of Rick's dishes, would love it, and tell him, he should try to get this in the magazine. And that would be where Rick’s troubles would start.
Because once the recipe was being considered for the magazine, it had to make it past the top editors.
And some of those editors would have some version of this same question: What would my mom, or my sister, or my friend from back home think of this recipe? Would they own these ingredients?
Like Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief, asked Rick, “Does your tamales recipe really need that many chilis?”
Which frustrated Rick. Remember, these recipes had already been proven popular. They’d found an audience online. All this proving he had to do, it made him feel like there was a double standard.
RICK: You teach people how to make things like a bolognese, which, probably to most Americans, is also foreign and is also complicated. And it takes a long time. And there's a very specific technique that is employed to create it. We're okay doing that. Right? Or Claire did a- a—a sourdough, which took, I don't know, fucking three days. And I was like, I don’t want to make this (laugh). You know? And I had to cross test it. It was delicious. And I'm glad I went through it. But like, it was very, very complicated. And that was a centerpiece of an issue in print. And that was okay. But, you know, we couldn't— we couldn’t possibly expect anyone to make a tamal that had three, God forbid, four chilis in it.
SRUTHI: But Rick did the extra work. He called a bunch of supermarkets to make sure those chilis were easily available. He made the watered down version of the tamal to prove that it was watered down. And this is actually, one battle, that he won. The pork tamales made it to print. And it seemed like, in general, Rick was winning the game that he was trying to play. The magazine even started assigning all kinds of Latin American recipes to him.
And then one day, Rick was sitting with his boss in her office. And the deputy editor, Adam’s right-hand person, his name is Andrew Knowlton. He came in.
RICK: He just walked in and basically he said to me, “You know, you're doing a lot of Mexican recipes. And, you know, it must be really easy for you because you're just taking your mom's recipes and you ate this food every day.” And I like—I was so flabbergasted.
SRUTHI: One of the big bosses was telling Rick, “You’re not really good at your job. You just know this stuff because you’re Mexican.”
RICK: Like, you know, it's also— it's one of those things where, you know that these— that this mindset exists, but you don't often encounter it in your face as blatantly as that, and as articulately as that. Right? And also, like in front of a witness who happened to be my boss. And Carla said to him, you need to leave my office. And—and he did. And then he later came up to me again. And, it wasn't necessarily an apology, it was more like an explanation as to why he said what he said. And he's like, “Look, I know you're capable of doing other things. I want to see you cooking Asian food. I want to see you cooking other types of cuisine.” And I was like, “Andrew, you're the one that makes the assignments. Like I have no power in this. So you or someone else is seeing this story and giving it to me, the Mexican-American. So that is on you.”
SRUTHI: Deputy editor Andrew Knowlton. MUSIC
He’s the kind of character that shows up in a lot of stories about bad workplaces. A talented visionary with a habit of saying things that are completely not okay.
People describe him moving smoothly from upstairs to downstairs, often with a drink in hand, casually telling one person their lunch smelled funny, or another person cooking in the kitchen, “I wouldn’t come to your house for dinner.”
Often people brushed him off, like that was just another Andrew thing.
But Andrew was important. Until 2018, he was Adam’s right-hand person at Bon Appétit.
He was in charge of this very important list that Bon Appétit put out every year, the list of Hot Ten Restaurants. And in his reign, there had always been a white chef in the top spot.
Eleanore Park, who’s Korean American, told me about this one year where that list, topped again by another white chef, this time from a sandwich joint— she said, number 3 on that same list was a Chinese restaurant, owned by a Chinese American chef whose work she’s very familiar with.
She said that Chinese American chef would made everything from scratch—the dumpling wrappers, the soy sauce.
ELEANORE: And I'm like, it is so crazy to me that this guy got beat by like a white baloney-making chef, but whatever. And again, it's that moment where you're like, whatever, Eleanore. This is like, just in your head. And then Andrew was talking to me and he told me that he had eaten at this Chinese American chef’s restaurant. And I was like, “How was it?” And he said, “Oh, it was really good. But I've got to tell you something.”
SRUTHI: Andrew goes on to say something Eleanore found extremely inappropriate, about the wife of the chef, how attractive she was and what she was wearing. And then he says this thing that completely shocks her.
ELEANORE: So just as a background, the chef’s wife is white and the chef is Chinese American. And he was like, “Don't get me wrong, he did really well for a Chinese guy.” And that just like blew—that floored me. That floored me and I was just like, you know, like, I know that maybe in people's minds, like there is no connection between like getting number three in the Top Best Restaurants list, but there is. There is. Because if you are saying in your mind subconsciously, things like, “He did good for a Chinese guy.” Then number three is just fine for you. That's a thing. Because you're not really seeing him as a chef. You're seeing him as a Chinese chef. And you've just completely demonstrated that in your conversation with me.
SRUTHI: I talked to Andrew Knowlton who remembered both incidents with Rick and Eleanore. And he said in both instances QUOTE “What I said was deplorable and it was equally disgraceful that I didn’t have the strength of character to immediately take responsibility.” He says he’s sorry.
SRUTHI: How do we all find a word we agree on?
A word that describes a place like the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen. A label for that kind of work environment. A bunch of listeners, I’m sure, have decided many minutes ago, the word is “racist.” And, even more racist than the usual racist workplace. Some listeners are still wondering, maybe there’s a good reason for all this? Like their audience is white, so maybe the editors are just catering to them? Maybe this is how a food magazine operates? So those listeners might use a word like "unhealthy" or “dysfunctional”?
The people who actually worked there, they also struggled to find the right word.
And something that surprised me was that many of the white people at the top at Bon Appétit did not actually think that things were okay. But the words that they used to describe how bad it was, it just described how it was bad for them.
So white men, they’d call the place “Condé Nasty”—a cutthroat, status-obsessed high school of a job. White women could call it “Bro Appétit,” the misogynist workplace where men held all the power.
Because the place made them all feel like victims, they rarely stopped to think about what they ought to do to protect the people with even less power than them, the people of color. The temps.
Those people, the way they describe Bon Appétit now, is that it was racist. But at the time, it was also hard for them to articulate this feeling that they were having. The people you’ve heard from in this story, they’re slightly older, or they’re immigrants, and listening to them negotiate out what happened, I heard some of the same biases I have. I don’t want to focus on the big institutional problems at my workplace, that would make me feel powerless. I would rather focus on my own work.
The problem with that strategy though, is that these people at Bon Appétit ended up accidentally absorbing the value systems of this place. Day in and day out, it became a part of them, part of how they saw themselves as lesser.
SRUTHI: Here’s Sue Li, talking about something that happened there seven years ago.
SUE: I remember around the time I left Bon Appétit the first time, there was a column called The Project.
SUE: And at the time, I said, you know, we're pitching ideas. I was like, “How about soup dumplings?”
SUE: So background, soup dumplings, very popular Chinese food, incredibly popular in Taiwan. That's definitely a project and I want to make it.
SRUTHI: Sue pitched the soup dumpling column idea to the editor in charge of that column. And the editor, a white woman, told her she was not interested.
SUE: And I was like, “Alright, cool. Like, whatever, I'll move on.” And she's like, “But you know what you can make as a project? Lasagna bolognese.” and I was like “Okay, sure. No problem.” And then I left Bon App. And then like, I see that some—someone else made the soup dumpling recipe.
SRUTHI: Hmm. And when you say someone else like a—like a white person?
SUE: Yeah. Who is, again, also a friend and it's not her fault. She was like—
SUE: —we talked about it recently.
SUE: And she was like, “You know, I always wonder how that got assigned to me.” [laughs] Again, I don't think it was her fault. I was like, “And also, didn't you have a good time exploring how to make it?” And she was like, “Yes. 100%.” And it’s still something that she enjoys making. And I was like, “So if you enjoyed making it, then that's all that matters. You enjoyed the journey.” To me, that's really important.
SRUTHI: But when you say that, Sue, like, I can hear a little bit of the pain in your voice, where it's not just like a thing that you had been excited about and wanted to do, and suggested it. It also feels like it would have been fun, even for you to explore it?
SUE: Hmm. Yes.
SRUTHI: Right? Like I don't know. I guess I hear that—that that’s not what you're saying.
SUE: Let’s pause.
SRUTHI: Okay. I'm sorry. Am I—?
SUE: No, it's fine. It makes me really sad. But I don't want—I don't want to get emotional.
SRUTHI: I don't think you should feel embarrassed about crying about soup dumplings.
SRUTHI: Like, they're worth crying about.
SUE: Yeah, I know. Right. I know. It's so silly. But I guess, I mean, I guess you're right. It's something that—the fact that I would even remember it and bring it up, obviously means that it has stayed with me. And it's something that I revisit. Um, yeah, it doesn't feel good. And it doesn't feel good to also have to think about it again. Like when all the stuff that was happening on the internet—
SRUTHI: Mhm. Like during the protests?
SUE: During the protests, I would just like read a lot, listen to audiobooks, anything that kept me from looking, reading the news, or looking at Instagram. I took everything off. Because it brought back the type of memories—it brought back so many bad memories. And it made me feel so bad inside that I couldn't really like, handle it. Um, so yes, you're right. Talking about this, it— it does matter more to me than I guess what I'm saying, that I’m being honest about. But it's also been several years.
SUE: And I've worked through it and I've worked hard. And I've— and like, quite honestly, I've moved on.
SRUTHI: Sue's moved on but she’s never got a real answer for why that happened. Like why she hadn’t been allowed to make those soup dumplings.
SRUTHI: And this column is in for 2015. If you pitched it earlier, was it like the world only wanted bolognese in 2014 and by 2015, they were craving soup dumplings. Is that like—?
SUE: I mean, perhaps? Who knows if the world wasn't ready for it? But that woman certainly wasn't ready for it (laugh). You know?
SUE: You know?
SUE: Um, because this is the other thing if it came from an Asian voice, then is it too ethnic? This is the question that I've been asking, like, if it was a white person doing it, then it is an approachable meal?
SUE: I don't know.
SRUTHI: But you suspect?
SRUTHI:MUSIC I spoke to the white editor who first rejected Sue’s soup dumplings. And she said she could not remember why she’d done that, but it wasn’t because Sue is Asian. And, that it was a different white editor who assigned the soup dumplings to Sue’s friend in 2015.
Sue is left though with this lingering suspicion, that in 2015, an Asian name on an Asian recipe was considered a bad thing. And if nothing else -- it’s just sort of a crazy marker for how quickly what we consider acceptable has changed. Because obviously, any food magazine today would be happy to have an Asian byline on an Asian recipe. They would even seek it out.
So how recently did that change? Well, at Bon Appetit, if I had to pick a time, it would be October of 2020. I say that because that’s when, five years after the magazine had originally published the soup dumpling recipe, they quietly went back to the website and retroactively added a byline to it. The name of a different Asian woman who had helped with the recipe, but never gotten a byline.
Of course this change in attitude came too late for Sue and Yewande. Back in their day, Bon Appétit seemed studiously uninterested in hiring any of the temps that would’ve made their staff less white. Even while those temps were hanging out, willing to keep running through the gauntlets that the magazine set up for them.
Like if they saw a full-time position open up, some entry level thing, Yewande, Sue, Eleanore, they would take a breath, rehearse what they wanted to say, and they’d go up to whoever was in charge of the Test Kitchen at the time.
SUE: And I was like, "Hi. I really would like to be considered for this position. I know you told me that this— the other woman you're bringing in would be the first in line and she already got her job. So may I be considered for the second job?"
SUE: And she was basically like, no. "No, you're not good enough," essentially.
YEWANDE: I was like, “I'm interested, like, I see you're interviewing people, I'm also interested in this position.” And she sort of looked at me and was like, mm, okay, and like that was it.
SRUTHI: Did she give you a reason why or—?
YEWANDE: No, she didn't give me a reason why. She didn't say, “We don't think you'd be a good fit.” She didn't say anything. She was just like, hm, okay.
ELEANORE: When I was let go, eventually, all I was told was, “You're not a good fit.” And the fact that that is so vague, it stuck to my ribs for years.
SUE: It- it—it was so cutting. It was so—it made me feel so bad. And I was like, okay, understood. So I put in my notice and I left.
ELEANORE: Because if—if you are being told by a white woman who's like second or third on the masthead, “You're not a good fit,”, what does that say to you as a woman of color?
YEWANDE: I was like she doesn't believe my work is good enough. Maybe I'm not doing good work?
YEWANDE: I'm not brilliant in the way that these people are.
YEWANDE: Like, I'm not brilliant in the way that the people on staff are. And so this makes sense, is—is what I told myself.
SRUTHI: Yewande would leave, though she would eventually get a call from Bon Appetit. It would come a few years later, in 2016, by which point Yewande had 13 years of experience in food. She’d been at culinary school, worked at top restaurants, worked at the test kitchens of Saveur, Bon Appétit, and had run an entire test kitchen at a food startup called Maple.
YEWANDE: When I was leaving Maple, I sent an email out to all my contacts in the— in like food media, I was like, “Hey, I’m leaving a full-time job. I’m going to be working on a cookbook, if you have any freelance gigs, if you have any styling that I can do, let me know.”
SRUTHI: The person who ran the Bon App test kitchen at that point, Carla Lalli Music, wrote back that she might have something for her. So Yewande calls her.
YEWANDE: And I explained to Carla what I had been doing. And she was like, so we need an assistant to work with the food editors in the Test Kitchen. And I was like, “Oh, what do you mean?” She’s like, well someone who can prep their recipes and measure out their ingredients.
YEWANDE: I was like Carla, I just finished like running a test kitchen.
SRUTHI: And you worked at Milk Bar and other restaurants and already at Bon Appétit.
YEWANDE: And the people that were already food editors there were people that got hired with less experience than I had. And so essentially my job would be to like, to prep all their recipes, and do the shopping for them or cleaning up after them.
SRUTHI: Yewande turned her down. I asked Carla about this and she said she couldn’t remember the exact position she had called Yewande about, but she was sure it would not have involved shopping or cleaning up. She said she’d called Yewande because QUOTE “Everyone in the kitchen loved working with her, including me, and I thought maybe—maybe!—there was a way we could make it work. I knew it was a longshot, and she was right to turn it down."
For Yewande though, turning Carla down was a big deal. A sign that something inside her was changing. She was starting to reject the ideas that she’d been absorbing from Bon Appétit, about what jobs a Black woman could or couldn’t have.
YEWANDE: I had to remind myself of this. I grew up in a country, all Black people. My mom worked for Cadbury’s Chocolates, and I grew up like, going to her test kitchen. I had to remind myself that like, oh wait, I have seen this before in another country, with all Black people. So I think that I, you know, I—
SRUTHI: And over there, was all- all—everybody in the kitchen was Black.
YEWANDE: Was Black. And all the—all the researchers, and all the, um, the food technologists, and food engineers and scientists, all Black, you know?
And so, I remember when I stopped going to the test kitchen, I stopped going because I was like, fuck this. Like, if I want to work on cookbooks, I can work on cookbooks. Like, people can hire me to work on cookbooks. And I can work in the comfort of my home, and not have to go through like, the intimidation and the negativity and nastiness that like, the test kitchens that I’d been in came with.
YEWANDE: Um, but I had to remind myself, oh my god, like, my hands can appear in magazine photos. Or like, when I take photos with my iPhone, I can put my hands in there, you know? Like, I’d been on set sometimes where they’re like, “All hands. We need hands.” But like, nobody asks, “Oh, Yewande, can you put your hand?” Because like, I’m the only Black person.
YEWANDE: You know? And it’s – like, I had to- I—I had to see myself again and see that I belonged here.
SRUTHI: Yewande had come to Bon Appétit to learn something—to learn to create recipes and make food look beautiful. But the real legacy of Bon App for her would be the things she had to unlearn from her time there.
And that unlearning took years -- both Yewande and Sue, after the experiences they had here, they would for years take jobs working behind the scenes, things like food styling. Things that didn't require fighting for bylines.
But today, you can find them doing the work that they'd first dreamed of doing. You can find them out front, developing their own recipes in the New York Times. And for anyone who still wonders at this point, are they good? Just try their food. Sue Li’s turmeric pasta or Yewande’s Sheet-Pan Gochujang Chicken. You can see for yourself.
SRUTHI: In the next episode, we’re going to meet a new generation of people of color at Bon Appetit. And part of what makes the next chapter of this story so fascinating to me, is that the people at the heart of it, they would be nothing like me, MUSIC or Yewande or Sue. And they will arrive at the Bon App of 2018, just as the brand is trying, in a very Bon App way, to become more diverse.
ELYSE: I was kind of like, oh, we're like the only people of color. Like oh we were selected for a reason.
SRUTHI: And how these new people who they’ve brought in, will try their damndest to hold the company to the promise that it’s half-making.
JESSE: Ok it’s a lot of white people who are smiling and seem nice...like, I'm from the South. I'm very used to nice white people.
RYAN: Everything was bullshit. We knew that.
RYAN: Because we're Black. Dead ass.
SRUTHI: But that is next week on Reply All.
This series was reported by me, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and it was edited by Damiano Marchetti, PJ Vogt, with additional editing by Tim Howard. It was produced by Jessica Yung and Lisa Wang.
The rest of the Reply All team that has worked so hard for so many months to give us the space to report out this series is….Phia Bennin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Anna Foley, and Alex Goldman.
We were mixed by Rick Kwan. 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, Bobby Lord, Breakmaster Cylinder, and Tim Howard.
Rachel Premack is the Business Insider reporter who originally broke the story about the employees of color at Bon Appetit. We have a link to her articles in our show notes. You should definitely read them.
Special thanks this week to: Amelia Rampe, Lily Chow, Alex Lau, Alyse Whitney, Luciana Lamboy, the many other people we can’t name, who took many hours of their life to talk to me about the early years at Bon Appetit
And thanks also to: Samin Nosrat, Serena Dai, Lydia Polgreen, Stephanie Foo, Kaiama Glover, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Bethel Habte, Nabeel Chollampat, Chris Crowley, and huge thank you to Emily Nguyen, and Mona Madgavkar who helped make this episode.
Matt Lieber is a dinner of salted butter on an english muffin. 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 a week.