The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen’s Race Problem

By Soleil Ho San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Chef, food writer and restaurant critic Soleil Ho, makes the case for why Bon Appetit's cooking videos on YouTube need more diversity.

San Francisco Chronicle

This week, I've been in Arizona helping my sister out with her freshly baked baby, and in my off hours I've been catching up on Bon Appetit's cooking videos on YouTube. It's an admittedly easy hole to fall into when you just want to put on something light and fun while you're changing diapers, and there are clearly many devotees who happily dwell at the bottom of that pit.

The channel is a true digital media success story, with more than 5 million subscribers and almost 1 billion views in total, and it will surely influence how food outlets approach video content for years to come.

That level of impact is why it feels important to talk about how Bon Appetit--a microcosm of the food media with a huge platform--could be much better when it comes to accurately and meaningfully representing the cuisines and cultures it purports to represent.

The central conceit of these videos is that the Bon Appetit test kitchen is a fun, wacky workplace full of interesting and diverse characters from all walks of life. It's like The Office, but tastier! But once you actually watch the videos, it's easy to see how often staffers of color are sidelined or relegated to cameos on their white colleagues' shows.

Black people in particular, like editorial assistant Jesse Sparks, make extremely brief and infrequent appearances on the channel (like, countable on one hand). Notably, in one episode of Gourmet Makes, host Claire Saffitz calls up Gary Hall, a mail clerk for their office building, to try a dish. Hall seems like a nice, normal person, but I don't think we can pretend that bringing in someone random to eat something now and then counts as meaningful representation. If anything, that deficit is a damning indication of Bon Appetit's hiring practices.

That said, model-turned-food entrepreneur Hawa Hassan is a recent and refreshing addition to the channel as a guest host, with two videos about Somali dishes so far. Her appearance is promising, but its limited scope makes me wonder if Bon Appetit's editorial tack is to push hosts of color to focus on their own ethnic home cooking (framed as "mom's" recipes rather than anything they've created on their own) instead of the broader repertoire that the white hosts, like Molly Baz and Christopher Morocco, get to dip into.

Another problem with leaning on people of color to be experts in their own cuisines lies in the shortcomings of limited representation. What one Korean host might say about their style of home cooking could easily become conflated with the conventions of Korean cuisine as a whole, and so on.

Case in point: Bon Appetit recently stepped in it with a now-unlisted video about Northern Indian cuisine that got several points wrong. In the video, contributing editor Priya Krishna, whose parents were raised Hindu in Uttar Pradesh, is careful to use "I" statements when talking about the cuisine, like "based on what I grew up with," but the video editors pair her statements with infographics that frame her personal observations as generalized and inaccurate claims. This incident shows how a false sense of "expertise" can be a burden foisted upon minorities in exchange for visibility.

At the same time, things get awkward if that expertise doesn't fit editors' expectations. The invisibility of editors and their decision-making can lend a false impression of omnipotence, especially in video. In a recent blindfolded tasting video, staffers were asked to try international snacks and guess what they were. One of the items was an Indian snack mix, which Krishna correctly called out as "namkeen." But when Sohla El-Waylly guessed it by its Bengali name, "chanachur," the video marked her answer as incorrect.

On the other hand, it's encouraging to see people of color get more space to step outside of those boxes. Rick Martinez, a host who seems to always be leaving or going to Fire Island for vacation, has recently taped demonstrations that step out of the Latin American culinary canon. It would be great to see more of him! And senior food editor Andy Baraghani has been a fixture on the channel; his mini-series has him going out into New York City and learning about different cuisines from expert chefs, which is generally excellent.

I hope that Bon Appetit's leadership continues to broaden its own definition of what is possible in food media--not only to avoid mistakes but to model better ways of including diverse perspectives. It's an exciting new landscape for all of us in the food world, and it would be a shame to be hampered by the same old problems.

__ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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