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The Test Kitchen: Christina Chaey's Manifesto

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NOTE: Christina Chaey wrote the following piece in September of 2016 following Bon Appétit’s controversial pho video release. The story was not greenlit for publication with BA, but Christina has graciously allowed us to publish the piece as it was written back then. Here it is:

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being in Food Media Right Now (And What We Can Do to Change It)

Last week, we published a video and corresponding article both titled, “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho” (the video has since been removed and the title of the article changed). In the video, a white chef named Tyler Akin who co-owns a small Philadelphia restaurant called Stock explains his method for eating pho, the national dish of Vietnam. Among other things, Akin asserts that you shouldn't dump sriracha and hoisin sauce into your soup before tasting the complex broth on its own, and demonstrates how to use chopsticks to capture maximum noodles in every bite.

Within hours, the Internet community was losing its shit. Tyler was receiving dozens of “fuck-you” phone calls on his personal cell phone, and angry voices took to Stock’s Yelp page to post 1-star reviews, even though many had never eaten at the restaurant. In the hours after the video was published, I sat at my desk watching the comments explode across my screen, the anger and the noise and the clicks growing by the minute. It felt like my laptop itself was going to start emitting smoke tendrils any minute.

In the days since, the question of what we should have done differently has consumed most of my waking thoughts, dominating conversations I’ve had with both good friends and total strangers. When I walked into one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants this past weekend for lunch, the first thing I heard was the chef and a server criticizing the video for its lack of cultural sensitivity. I believe the backlash we've received is a direct result of several systemic issues our editorial team faces at this moment, and although I was not involved in the editorial process of making this video, I see it as the most urgent example of why we need to start working today to do better in the future. What, exactly, does this look like? Below I've outlined six concrete steps we can take (today!) to start moving in the right direction and set the standard for food media as a whole.

1. Diversify our editorial staff. Not soon. Not tomorrow. Now.

I truly believe the conversations happening while this video was being scripted, shot, and edited would have been radically different if just one person of color (POC) had been involved in the editorial process. The unfortunate reality is we, along with most mainstream food media outlets, consistently staff a shamefully low number of POCs. Bon Appétit currently has no black full-time editorial staffers, while those of us belonging to other minority racial groups make up just a small percentage of our staff. By not making diverse hiring a top priority, we’re losing out on the critical voices we need to tell better, more informed stories that might otherwise remain untold. Thankfully, there is a solution: Hire more POCs. Yes, it will take time; but it’s possible. This American Life producer Stephanie Foo has written a fantastic manifesto for diversifying overwhelmingly white workplaces; it should be mandatory reading for any employer who has never stopped to think, “Is my staff too white?” We’re currently hiring for four open editorial positions (including my old job!)—if you’re a POC reading this and you want to work here, apply! Do it today. We need you.

2. Provide cultural diversity training.

Although this video was our most publicly-lambasted example of cultural insensitivity, it’s far from the first instance that’s made me step back and think, “…the fuck?” A few months ago, we published a video about how to make crispy rice titled, "The Only Thing Better than Plain Rice Is Crispy Rice." Nowhere did we mention that the inspiration for this video was senior food editor Andy Baraghani’s amazing Persian tahdig, nor did we call out the many versions of this dish that have been part of various ethnic cuisines for centuries. (Predictably, many people called us out on social media for what they perceived as us stating crispy rice was a new idea.) I realize now that what I should have done instead of going home and ranting to my friends was to speak up at work, and speak up again, to make sure my opinions were heard where they could make a difference. Training staffers on cultural diversity makes it that much more likely that next time, I won’t be the only one to think, “WTF?” and say something about it. It will make it more likely that a staffer will notice that, in a two-minute video about pho, not once do we mention the dishes Vietnamese origins, and maybe that’s a little f’d. It will also remove the burden of calling out our collective unconscious biases from our POC staffers, who have a lifetime’s worth of experience with accidental racism every single day. I love that this is the kind of office where anyone on staff can openly critique our work—but to let those criticisms disappear into the void is to not do enough.

3. Do our homework before hitting “Publish.”

East Bay Express restaurant critic Luke Tsai recently wrote an incredibly relevant feature on several prominent white chefs in California’s East Bay who are cooking ethnic cuisines, a.k.a. other peoples’ food. In the story, Tsai talks about the responsibility we as food writers and editors have when reporting on hot new restaurants and trends, particularly as they pertain to ethnic cuisine or foods rooted in ethnic culinary traditions: “Those of us who write about food for a living should perhaps think a little bit harder before we declare some fine-dining chef’s passion project to be the best Mexican (or Japanese or Chinese) restaurant we’ve ever been to. And everyone should make sure that there is a certain amount of respect paid to those who have come before us — to the generations of cooks who made a cuisine what it is before today’s chefs started riffing on it.” Which is why when Bon Appétit covers other peoples’ food in the future, particularly in videos, we must start thinking more critically about the chefs and restaurants we choose to feature. Why, for instance, did we decide to feature a white male chef in a video about how to eat Vietnamese pho, when Philadelphia has a sizable community of Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese-Americans? It’s because we weren’t doing our homework and gathering the information we needed to tell the right story. Although I believe just because Akin is white should not automatically exclude him from cooking what he’s passionate about (in this case, Southeast Asian food), it’s no wonder he came off looking like a jerk. We inadvertently threw him under the bus by making it seem like a white dude was the only person qualified to explain Vietnamese pho, which felt like a bit of a “Fuck you” to Philly’s Vietnamese population. Let this be a reminder that we need to fight our instinctual urge to see what we want to see, and that providing the right context behind ethic foods and restaurants is key to telling a good story.

4. Don’t be reductive.

Over the last few days, I’ve been asked by multiple people, “Why didn’t you guys just do a profile of the restaurant? Why did you have to reduce the concept of the video to ‘Pho Is the New Ramen’?” The reality is that we were looking for sexy packaging that would make this video stand out and get clicks. But what we failed to realize, as the chef and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen points out, is that saying “Pho Is the New Ramen” reduced both pho and ramen (and their respective cultures) into two Asian noodle soups that we implied are interchangeable. What’s worse, we edited this video to look like Akin himself was the one declaring “Pho Is the New Ramen,” even though he was not involved in the editorial process behind it. When presenting a story on ethnic food, we need to think about the consequences of a message that reduces the value of that food to a single, simplistic aspect (e.g. look, pho is an Asian noodle soup and so is ramen!).

5. Create accountability for our actions.

This is probably going to disappoint the horde angry commenters out there who’ve cried “Columbusing!” during the backlash from this video, but it’s impossible to pinpoint the mistakes we made on one single editor, writer, or videographer (as much as y’all love telling us to “fire your interns”). Initially, it astounded me that no one on staff voluntarily stepped up after we hit publish and said, “Hey, you know what? This was completely my bad; I should have known better.” But the thing is, when you don’t even know how to know better as a direct result of your own privilege (see points #1 and #2), it’s impossible to recognize when you’ve made a mistake. We're currently looking to hire a head of video, which is a step in the right direction, but we also need to start incentivizing staffers to feel that they have skin in the game when it comes to the message we send out as a brand. I'm not yet sure what that looks like, but ideas are welcome.

6. Use our influence responsibly.

Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s our role as a brand to tell chefs which foods they are and are not allowed to cook; that’s 100% their prerogative. I do believe we owe it to our readers to consider what it means when we choose to cover ethnic and ethnic-inspired foods primarily because they're "cool and trendy" and "taste good." Although we may never radically change the scope of the restaurants we cover—Bon Appétit has always been, first and foremost, a magazine about what's new and trendy—every time we cover ethnic cuisines primarily through the lenses of taste and trendiness (as defined largely by white people), we are making a conscious decision to sweep cultural histories, traditions, and origin stories under the rug. When the origin stories of those ethnic cuisines are so often already buried, we have to start considering what our role is when we continue to be complicit in hiding those stories, whether intentional or not. I’m so proud that three of the restaurants on this year's Hot 10 list are run by POC chefs and honored they allowed Andrew Knowlton and Julia Kramer to share their visions with the world. Their stories are genuine and their food just happens to be incredibly delicious—it's proof that we can remain true to our mission of covering new restaurants and national trends while diversifying the scope of the stories we tell. We’re getting better—but we need to do more. My hope is that the work we put in now will only result in Bon Appétit becoming a more open, inclusive place for food lovers everywhere to share ideas about what we love most: cooking and eating good food.

Additional resources:

  • Is it fair for (white) chefs to cook other cultures’ foods? The writer and cookbook editor Francis Lam's 2012 New York Times feature, "Cuisines mastered As Acquired Tastes," and his resulting discussion with celebrity chef Eddie Huang remains a fresh perspective on what it means to co-opt other peoples' food for profit.
  • Not sure how cultural appropriation pertains to food? The East Bay Express’s restaurant critic Luke Tsai’s recent feature on culinary co-opting at restaurants in California’s East Bay is an excellent place to start.
  • Dan Pashman’s team at WNYC’s The Sporkful podcast produced a deeply insightful 5-part series on food, culture, and race called “Other Peoples’ Food.” You should listen to all of it.
  • This American Life producer Stephanie Foo’s excellent manifesto about how to diversify the workplace, “What To Do If Your Workplace Is Too White,” should be required reading for all hiring managers looking to lead progressive, diverse teams.
  • Washington Post op-ed writer Ruth Tam on what it’s like to grow up with shameful “immigrant” food only to witness that same food become “trendy” is as good as it sounds.

Special thanks to Drew Lazor, whose Facebook post was the inspiration for this story. You should follow him on the Internet.