Bon Appetit
BIPOC members of Bon Appetit came forward and talked about negative experiences with the magazine. (Illustration by Emmalia Godshall, Columbia University)

The Bon Appetit Scandal Shows the Need To Address Racism in the Workplace

Following a five-month hiatus prompted by revelations of systemic discrimination, the brand’s YouTube channel is back. Have they made meaningful changes, or are their new BIPOC creators just pure PR?

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Bon Appetit

Following a five-month hiatus prompted by revelations of systemic discrimination, the brand’s YouTube channel is back. Have they made meaningful changes, or are their new BIPOC creators just pure PR?

Food magazine Bon Appetit rose to internet fame with its welcoming cast of chefs that provided weekly culinary content. Much like the rest of the internet, I was absolutely hooked on the “Bon Appetit” YouTube channel. I loved watching the interpersonal dynamics and humor between the cast combined with the fascinating insight into the professional culinary world. Viewers couldn’t get enough of the Test Kitchen internet-darlings Claire Saffitz, Brad Leone and Chris Morocco. Through its lovable and personable cast of chefs, Bon Appetit quickly rose to YouTube stardom and in 2019 was reported to be the fastest-growing channel in the YouTube food genre. However, viewers found out that the lighthearted nature of the channel was a facade covering a dark underside of racial discrimination running rampant throughout the brand.

Racism at Bon Appetit

The brand’s wholesome reputation shattered this summer during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement that put a spotlight on systemic racism in America. Outrage from this movement further prompted a conversation about racism in the workplace and spring-boarded a whirlwind of stories from BIPOC telling of racial discrimination they endured throughout their careers. Bon Appetit was no exception, and some horrendous stories came forth from people who worked with the brand.

The reckoning of Bon Appetit commenced this past June when photos emerged of former editor in chief Adam Rapoport donning “brownface” in a disturbing mockery of Puerto Rican people. This prompted Illyanna Maisonet, a freelance Puerto Rican food columnist, to take to Twitter to tell her story of Rapoport rejecting her article pitch about Afro-Boricuas that make regional rice fritters, which was dismissed as “something that could have been told five years ago.” Following the photo resurfacing and Maisonet’s account, multiple BIPOC creators from the platform came forward about Rapoport’s frequent invalidation of their respective cultures. Former Bon Appetit creator Alex Lau echoed Maisonet’s statement and tweeted, “yes, I left BA for multiple reasons, but one of the main reasons was that white leadership refused to make changes that my BIPOC coworkers and I constantly pushed for.”

Most notably, former assistant editor and heavily-experienced chef Sohla El-Waylly spoke up about the unexplainable pay discrepancies between white and BIPOC creators. In an Instagram story, El-Waylly called for BIPOC Bon Appetit staff to be “given fair titles, fair salaries, and compensation for video appearances.” After El-Waylly opened the dialogue about pay inequality in the Test Kitchen, staff members began comparing their pay per video appearance. The BIPOC staff began to realize they were paid next to nothing compared to their white colleagues.

This discrepancy was especially difficult in El-Waylly’s case as she entered the company with an impressive repertoire of past culinary work. In hindsight, we now understand that Rapoport exploited the BIPOC creators and leveraged the hesitation many minorities feel when it comes to reporting workplace discrimination. After careful consideration, the BIPOC staff banded together to try and repair the systemic issues they experienced in the company.

Unfortunately, after months of failed negotiations and false promises, Bon Appetit ultimately did not plan on satisfying the demands listed by the BIPOC staff. In an interview with Camille Squires of Mother Jones, former editor Priya Krishna stated, “At that point, it wasn’t even just a question of the money; we were all just exhausted and didn’t want to be a part of a system that’s going to continue to marginalize us and to do so in such a painfully obvious way. It was frankly dehumanizing and demoralizing.”

Following a tumultuous backlash, Bon Appetit lost some of its most prominent creators. Over the course of months since the controversy, chefs Claire Saffitz, Sohla El-Waylly, Rick Martinez, Christina Chaey, Alex Delany, Gaby Melian, Molly Baz, Priya Krishna, Carla Lalli-Music and Amiel Stanek have all announced their separation from the brand. It is important to note that these departures involve BIPOC chefs, as well as white chefs who departed in solidarity with their former colleagues.

Problems at the Parent Company

Despite the intimate and personable energy of the channel, Bon Appetit is a food magazine turned YouTube sensation operating under a global mass media company, Condé Nast, which owns some of the most high-profile publications in the world — Vogue, Vanity Fair, Wired and GQ, to name a few.

The controversy at Bon Appetit isn’t the first of its kind for its parent company. While Bon Appetit was engulfed in this controversy, another Condé Nast company was also under fire for the exact same issue. Vogue fell under intense scrutiny when Black Vogue staff members began coming forward with similar stories of discrimination running rampant in the magazine. The turmoil grew so intense that it ultimately culminated in Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour herself issuing a statement addressed to Black staff members apologizing for years of failing to provide a platform that elevated their creations and stories — a situation reminiscent of the dismissal of BIPOC chef’s cooking that occurred under Rapoport’s direction at Bon Appetit.

The collapse of Bon Appetit and subsequent reemergence unfortunately isn’t the first of its kind, and it leads many to wonder if companies are genuinely making changes or simply using performative activism to regain public favor. In efforts to remedy their past mistakes, Bon Appetit employed eight new BIPOC cast members. This addition is a great step for emerging BIPOC chefs, but is it a sustainable move that corrects the company’s history? It’s not that simple. Employing eight BIPOC culinary creators is an undeniably positive move toward inclusivity and diversity in the workplace, but what matters most is correcting the systemic racism that exists at the foundation of Bon Appetit. To correct the past wrongs of the company, I hope that the new chefs are treated as valuable members of the team and not just tokens in a PR game.

This situation highlights an important conversation about ingrained systemic racism in the workplace that must be addressed. The plethora of examples of microaggressions and unfair treatment in the workplace are no stranger to large American corporations. When Krishna’s agents were negotiating with the heads of Condé Nast, they told Krishna, “I have never negotiated with people like this. It literally felt like we were negotiating with movie villains.” The nature of Bon Appetit is meant to be a collaborative space that encourages creativity and community, but this sentiment will ultimately prove hollow if they do not correct the exploitative treatment of minority creators.

It is clear that Condé Nast was long overdue for big systemic change in the way they treat BIPOC staff, and this wake-up call is one that will hopefully spark a celebration of diverse culture in the food world. Bon Appetit still has time to rebrand its damaged reputation by delivering on their promised changes, and could possibly end up being a positive example of systemic reform in a massive global corporation. This situation should serve to educate companies about the value of accountability, and ensure workplaces are creating a space that feels safe for minorities. BIPOC have spent an unfortunate amount of years striving for change and equality, and what better place to start than at work?

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