We spend days on end scavenging for books, reading Letterboxd reviews, and creating shopping carts that are never purchased, only to discover that the author is a TERF, the film’s director has been accused of sexual assault, and the clothing brand relies on unpaid labour—or in my case, that Bon Appétit magazine, creator of the binge-worthy YouTube series “Gourmet Makes,” has exploited its workers of colour.
Content warnings: references to racism, transphobia, sexual assault
It’s always a great day when we come across something new that piques our interest. Perhaps it’s an author, a film, a clothing brand. We spend days on end scavenging for books, reading Letterboxd reviews, and creating shopping carts that are never purchased, only to discover that the author is a TERF, the film’s director has been accused of sexual assault, and the clothing brand relies on unpaid labour—or in my case, that Bon Appétit magazine, creator of the bingeworthy YouTube series “Gourmet Makes,” has exploited its workers of colour.
Fairly late to the game—given the platform’s immense popularity in 2019 and 2020—I first stumbled across Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel at the start of this year, turning to my YouTube recommended to save me from COVID-isolation-induced boredom. There I found a fun little cooking video called from a series called “Back-to-Back Chef”. I clicked for the Hailee Steinfeld guest appearance, but stayed for Carla Lalli Music, a woman whose on-camera presence was so easy and refreshing that I immediately found myself searching for more.
In the natural progression of Bon Appétit viewers, I soon immersed myself in all things “Gourmet Makes” and Thanksgiving, wracking my brain over how two chefs called Brad and Claire could carry competition pies in their laps on an interstate flight, and wondering which method to cook a Thanksgiving turkey was best (I’m a vegan [it was oven-roasted]).
I devoured many episodes of “Gourmet Makes”, often staying up much later than I should have to fit in a quick 15-minute video of Claire Saffitz making gourmet Oreos, and even going so far as to brand myself as a Claire Saffitz enthusiast in my Instagram bio.
And yet, as those who have gone through a Bon Appétit phase as severe and time-consuming as mine will know, it’s not the individual hosts that make the videos so enjoyable, it’s the interaction of all the Test Kitchen chefs coming together to help one another or (if you’re Chris Morocco) intimately sniffing what their co-stars have made.
Although originally launched to supplement Bon Appétit’s written publication with short, educational recipe-making content, the Bon Appetit YouTube channel rose to fame in its own right through its Test Kitchen chefs. As their unique personalities were brought to the forefront, the channel’s videos increased from three to thirty minutes long (some of the later “Gourmet Makes” videos are even longer) and their educational focus took a backseat. The Bon Appétit channel cultivated a viewership based on a love for its chefs and their messy, hilarious, relatable dynamics—the food served merely a bonus.
So, imagine my surprise when, long after the scandals first surfaced, I discovered that the Test Kitchen of Bon Appetit’s 2020 heyday was not the idyllic environment it’s portrayed to be. According to employees and contributors, Bon Appétit had been underpaying chefs of colour, including the incomparable Sohla El-Waylly, Rick Martinez and Priya Krishna, while relying on them to boost the image of their white peers, carrying them through methods and techniques they really should know as contributors to the publication.
Sohla El-Waylly had addressed the controversy in her Instagram stories, saying "there is a big difference in terms of how they monetarily value the white employees versus the people of color [sic]”. Fellow Test Kitchen star Christina Chaey also spoke out on social media, saying “I have never received a single dollar for my video contributions”. In an interview for NPR’s It’s Been a Minute podcast in early 2021, El-Waylly had spoken of a sense of “betrayal” when she realised the Bon Appétit workplace was not as shown onscreen. “Like, ‘whoa, this is all a lie’. You know what I mean?” she said.
Suddenly, I was thinking my Instagram bio wasn’t so appropriate.
Reflecting on the videos I so enjoyed, I wonder if Bon Appétit’s toxic culture should have been obvious. Not once do I recall a Bon Appetit video centring a POC chef appearing in my YouTube recommended. And yet, in most of the videos I did watch, all of which were fronted by white chefs, other POC chefs frequently abandon their stations to clean up their colleagues’ messes: tempering chocolate, working with hard candy, refining flavour profiles and showing them how to reach results they likely would never have achieved otherwise. In hindsight, I reflect on how I and other Test Kitchen fans applauded white chefs for their wins without recognising the invaluable contributions and talent of the POC chefs who made them possible.
Admittedly, I continued watching (and still do watch) Bon Appétit’s videos, unable to move past my love for one pastry chef and her grey-streaked hair. I still want to know what the best type of Thanksgiving pie is, and I still want to see the chefs successfully temper chocolate (without Sohla’s underappreciated assistance, that is). But I’ve begun to question if that’s okay. Does the enjoyment I get from these videos justify my support of a company that has been accused of acting abominably towards its POC contributors? I think not.
This is a dilemma that extends far beyond Bon Appétit. It feels as though I face this question every time I choose to watch a new critically-acclaimed film or TV series, dodging sexual assault allegations with every selection. I’ve strongly exerted self-control by not watching a single Woody Allen film, despite my curiosity to watch Midnight in Paris and Annie Hall—but is it actually okay for me to watch them despite their Woody Allen-ness? If I were to illegally stream these films, I wouldn’t be aiding the director’s success. (Here, of course, there’s the issue of piracy we love to ignore as we open 123movies or whatever website is yet to be shut down.) But what happens if something goes awry, and I end up loving them? Can I ever confess to something like that? Is that something a morally righteous person should do? Should I simply steer clear of all art and media affiliated with such wrongdoing?
It appears corruption and moral decay underpins so much of today’s mainstream media that it’s unavoidable. The ultimate question resurfaces: can we separate the art from the artist? Or in this case, can I separate my beloved cooking videos from former Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport and the magazine’s toxic culture of racial inequality?
I can convince myself that I’m not watching these videos with ill intentions and abstain from giving each video a “like” or interacting with them beyond adding to their view count, but my consumption still contributes to the advertising revenue and ongoing popularity of a company whose major successes have allegedly relied upon the exploitation of POC chefs and their expertise.
So, what should I do, or rather, what shouldn’t I do?
Can I justify watching these videos, or perhaps even Harvey Weinstein films, by publicly acknowledging their background corruption and resolving to watch critically? It’s impossible to see past the hypocrisy here. If the chefs who made the content so magical have expressed their disapproval of Bon Appétit and support for their POC colleagues by leaving the company, shouldn’t I (figuratively) do the same? Perhaps a symbolic resignation is in order: a way for me to say “thank you” to Bon Appétit for the good times and late-night binge-watching fests, but to ultimately move on.
I think that’s the only thing I can do. As much as it pains me to say goodbye to “Gourmet Makes,” it’s time.
But that’s not to say my love for these chefs and the content they produce should stop. Many of Bon Appétit’s alumni have gone on to do their own thing, free from the systemic racism of their former workplace. I can subscribe to Claire’s “Dessert Person” YouTube series and follow along on Sohla’s many escapades, including her series on the Babish Culinary Universe, the History channel and Food52 (here’s to her finally getting the recognition she deserves), and tune in to the new Borderline Salty podcast, hosted by Carla and Rick.
With the plethora of independent content available to enjoy, it seems there’s no excuse for me to continue watching Bon Appétit’s content—nor should I turn to the works of Woody Allen or Harvey Weinstein for a Friday night watch. And while Bon Appetit’s recent managerial restructuring is a promising start for equality within the publication, with new editor-in-chief Dawn Davis revamping the Test Kitchen with a diverse new cast of chefs, the wounds of my breakup are still too fresh for me to begin repairing them with the rebound of new Test Kitchen episodes. So, starting now, I’m ignoring the “Gourmet Makes” videos that appear in my recommended, and I’m turning to “Dessert Person” instead. Who knows, I might learn to cook something that doesn’t require Brad Leone-engineered potato plugs, mini fans, and metal skewers, or a National Geographic rock tumbler.