In its prime, Bon Appétit was ahead of the pack in food entertainment. When the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, a subsidiary of the publication, began editing and releasing brief YouTube videos of the Test Kitchen staff sharing their culinary prowess in 2016, they didn’t expect to produce a hit YouTube series that would rapidly take the internet by storm. But they did.
The series escaped the impersonal quality of the bird’s-eye “hands and pans” videos and the staged, polished air of Food Network programs, instead striving for relatability and authenticity. This approach was a massive success — its popularity spurred a six-fold increase in Bon Appétit subscriptions and the YouTube videos became a reliable source of revenue for the company.
That is, until the notorious racism scandal that effectively brought the glory days of Bon Appétit to a close. Now, the publication faces a daunting task: rebuilding its reputation.
Bon Appétit has produced podcast episodes since 2014, but in 2021, the publication began the process of revamping its podcast, now titled “Food People.” Can “Food People” help rectify Bon Appétit’s image as a respected food publication?
The first episode of “Food People” did not convince me that a mere podcast would sufficiently redeem Bon Appétit. “What’s the Best Way to Grill a Chicken?” fell short of my expectations. Despite Jessie YuChen’s valiant effort to verbally describe the process of spatchcocking a chicken in 30 minutes, I can’t help but think it would have been much more digestible as a recipe article or even a video.
But as the series continues, the podcast finds its footing by identifying the stories that are best served in audio format — personal narratives and matters of opinion that may differ from chef to chef. My two favorite episodes, “What Makes Us Food People (Not Foodies, Never Foodies)?” and “What Does it Mean to Be a Hawaiian Chef” follow this approach, providing chefs of color the space to share how their backgrounds and cultures have influenced their careers, an opportunity that the Test Kitchen’s videos rarely afforded its stars.
These episodes emulate the signature sense of intimacy and relatability that marked the Test Kitchen series. Just as watching the Test Kitchen videos feels more like participating in a cooking class than viewing a cooking show, listening to “Food People” feels more like eavesdropping on a conversation than listening to an interview.
“Food People” also captures the authenticity of the Test Kitchen videos, but with a newfound emphasis on uplifting the voices of people of color in food. In another standout episode, “How Do Recipes Hold Us Back? An Interview with Dr. Jessica B. Harris,” editor-in-chief Dawn Davis and culinary historian Jessica B. Harris dive into the history of Black foodways as well as her personal history with food. The episode is informative yet intimate — it seamlessly transitions between her experiences as a Black cook and historian (including that of cooking for James Baldwin) and topics that don’t involve race (learning to cook without a recipe is just like ballet, apparently).
Season 1 of “Food People” signals to Bon Appétit loyalists and new readers alike that the company is aware of their cultural footprint, more so now than ever before. Simultaneously, the podcast format brings Bon Appétit back to its roots– not just as a recipe test kitchen, but as a space to celebrate, share and discuss food.
Of course, a podcast does not have the ability to completely eradicate the racist environment of Bon Appétit. Major change still needs to take place. Food entertainment, including food writing, has the power to shape global narratives. It can both instill and dismantle cultural biases. Most importantly, perhaps, it has the ability to amplify the stories of underrepresented voices in food. “Food People” lays a promising foundation for Bon Appétit to reestablish its reputation as a force of good in the culinary industry.
Sadie Matz SC ’24 is a tentative Bon Appétit reader from Brooklyn, New York. She cannot afford a BA subscription but you could buy one for her.