THE successful YouTube cooking channel Bon Appetit, based in New York, is an offshoot of the Condé Nast magazine of the same name. Since its launch in 2016, six million subscribers have learned to love its combination of excellence and technical know-how with fun.
Until recently it had a number of presenters of extremely mixed backgrounds and culinary traditions. In the middle of June, at the start of the Black Lives Matter protests which spread at dizzying speed across the States and elsewhere, magazine editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport quit after an ‘offensive’ photograph of him at a party in 2004 – yes, 16 years ago – was unearthed. It purported to show him in the guise of a Latino sporting a heavy tan and a chunky neck chain. He grovelled, apologised and resigned.
Aside from the usual accusations of cultural appropriation, worse was to come. Some of the ethnic presenters on the YouTube channel complained that they had not received the same financial benefits as their white counterparts and that Bon Appetit under Rapoport’s leadership supported a tradition of racism and micro-aggressions. The details of those accusations have never been made clear, but needless to say there has been a mini-revolution going on within the magazine and its entertainment offshoot which produces the videos. As a result several members of the presenting team have withdrawn from the YouTube shows, but interestingly have mostly reverted to more traditional roles of recipe development and food writing within the magazine itself rather than resigning. It appears that the highest remunerated presenters were the ones whose shows garnered the most views, so it would seem that market forces were at play. That the three most popular presenters, Claire Saffitz, Brad Leone and Chris Morocco, were all white, seems to me incidental. They were the strongest personalities, talented and popular with the BA audience.
Sohla El-Waylly, a food editor and Bon Appetit YouTube presenter, whose family originated from Bengal, was the first to go public with accusations of anti-BAME prejudice at Bon Appetit, singling out Rapoport and insisting that he resign. She also blamed the failure after only eleven months of a diner she set up with her husband in 2016 on the expectations of white customers based on ‘exotic’ ingredients, and who could not cope with someone from a minority background making ‘white’ food. Maybe, but it probably had more to do with the business being underfunded to start with than racism on the part of the clientele.
Priya Krishna, another of Bon Appetit’s YouTube presenters, with a mixed Indian-American background, wrote a piece with Nigerian fellow chef Yewande Komolafe which appears on the magazine’s webpage, bewailing the ‘whitewashing’ of recipe writing. They complain that as food writers in the USA they have to conform to commonly accepted standards in food writing, where quantities are specified by weight or volume and hard-to-locate ingredients have to be substituted or alternatives suggested for the benefit of white readers. Considering that the readers of Bon Appetit are probably mostly of European descent, what do they expect? If they are not happy with how they are expected to write, why not find work with an organisation more suited to the way in which they feel they should be allowed to present their ideas? The answer, of course, is that Bon Appetit has a huge readership and provides them with a ready-made audience to which they would possibly otherwise have far less or no access.
It is a sad state of affairs when even the food we eat has become subject to politicisation of the most egregious kind. Food and sharing a meal have always been a means of making strangers feel welcome, of communion, of celebration across all cultures. Now with the tragedy that the divisiveness of Black Lives Matter has wreaked, the most basic of life’s necessities has become another means of berating Western civilisation and all that it stands for. However, I refuse to feel guilty when I make my Anglo-Indian kedgeree, eat my Jewish fish and chips or bake my Irish soda bread, and I will be thrilled if I ever hear of a cook in Somalia or Japan who can make a decent Welshcake or knows what to do with laver bread.