I spent almost the entirety of my pandemic year in my apartment in Ann Arbor, which is to say that I spent it on my couch in front of my TV. The early days of quarantine have mostly turned to mush in my memory, but one thing I can remember distinctly is watching Claire Saffitz make gourmet Girl Scout Cookies.
From March 2020 through May 2020, content from the Bon Appétit YouTube channel was more or less the only thing I cared to put on TV. I was a fan before the pandemic, but something in my anxiety-addled brain latched onto Bon Appetit in a new way during that time. Maybe it was that the Test Kitchen chefs were easy to develop parasocial relationships with (I still think that Gaby Melian and I would really get along in real life), or that the process of cooking, especially in the hands of these experts, was just soothing to watch. Maybe there was a little bit of schadenfreude (an uber-German concept describing the sort of perverse pleasure you can get from other people’s misfortune) involved as well. Part of the fun of watching “Gourmet Makes” was wondering if, after days of intense frustration, Saffitz would ever crack the recipe for gourmet Starburst.
I don’t tend to think of food as an escape, but Bon Appétit made it feel like one. There was something warm and welcoming about watching these smiling, personable chefs make beautiful dishes in a bright kitchen. They talked to the camera as if everyone on the other side was a friend. Especially when I was sad, ordering in on most nights and isolated from most of my real-life friends, each video was like a shot of serotonin to my brain.
However, everything came crashing down in early June. A picture of Bon Appétit’s then-Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport in brownface surfaced on Twitter, which opened an enormous can of worms not only about his conduct at Bon Appétit but about the way people of color were being treated on the channel. Sohla El-Waylly was the first of the Test Kitchen chefs to reveal an incredible pay disparity between white employees and employees of color. Although she was quickly becoming one of the most popular chefs on the channel, she had not been compensated for any of her video appearances and was making significantly less than white contributors.
Things spiraled from there. Rapoport resigned, most white Test Kitchen chefs publicly vowed not to appear in Bon Appétit videos until chefs of color were fairly compensated and some, including El-Waylly, left the company outright. Others still were called out for their own problematic behavior, and previous contributors disclosed their own experiences with racial discrimination at Bon Appétit.
I watched this happen over the course of a few weeks as if I was crawling past an accident on the highway, craning my neck to get a glimpse of it all. I read all the hot takes, all the articles and checked most of the Test Kitchen chefs’ Instagram accounts on a daily basis, waiting for them to weigh in and renounce the company for its sins. When all was said and done, Bon Appétit’s wholesome exterior was shattered in less than a month, and many fans, including myself, sadly drifted away from the channel.
The entire ordeal reverberated throughout the food world. Outside of the obvious pay inequality, the scandal revealed — or, rather, called attention to — the overwhelming whiteness of the food industry and greater questions of inequality as it pertained to the most basic of human necessities. Food gentrification and food justice, terms I’d never heard before, were suddenly everywhere, demanding to be paid the attention they were due. The things that were happening at Bon Appétit were just the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Evidently, the YouTube algorithm never forgot my Bon Appétit fixation, because I consistently get the channel’s most recent content recommended to me in my “Up Next” sidebar, even now. A venture onto Bon Appétit’s channel will reveal significant changes — a new Editor-in-Chief in Dawn Davis and a large, diverse new cast of chefs to make up for the previous lack thereof — and a few familiar faces, no doubt in an attempt to encourage old fans to come back to the company’s content. The formats of their videos are more or less the same, but there’s a drastic difference in each video’s number of views and an overwhelming downward trend in new subscribers since June 2020.
I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes revisit episodes of “Gourmet Makes” or the three takes on carbonara video that made me realize that Sohla El-Waylly is actually a genius. They’re still fun and pass the time, and my wonderment at the talent of the people on screen hasn’t changed. But there is, of course, always the knowledge of what was happening behind the scenes, which makes them impossible to enjoy in the same way.
I still follow a few of the chefs on Instagram and YouTube, or wherever their post-Bon Appétit ventures have taken them, but it’s not the same as the weird magic the channel managed to conjure up in early 2020. Outside of the fact that I lost something that was such a comfort to me during a difficult time, it feels like such an incredible pity that the Test Kitchen would still be a beloved and thriving enterprise if they had just done the very basic work of treating their employees equally from the start.
However, the fallout at Bon Appétit was necessary. It opened up avenues into conversations that need to be had and, hopefully, those conversations will go on to create new, better magic in a place that makes equity and justice a goal from the very beginning.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.