Culinary critics accuse Bon Appétit of hypocrisy in undervaluing two South Asian Americans

“Cultural appropriation allows a pick-and-mix strategy whereby American culture can take what it wants to market. South Asian ingredients and practices are valued, but not the finished cuisine per se,” one expert said.
Image: Bon Appetit Test Kitchen
From left, Chris Morocco, Claire Saffitz, Priya Krishna, Carla Lalli Music, Brad Leone, Gaby Melian, Sohla El-Waylly, Adam Rapoport, Molly Baz, Andy Baraghani and Christina Chaey attend Behind-The-Scenes Conversation With The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen at 92nd Street on Feb. 27, 2020 in New York City.Roy Rochlin / Getty Images

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By Claire Wang

Experts have long pointed to certain truths in the food world: Dominant cultures have a tendency to cull elements from nondominant cultures — deciding turmeric is trendy, putting their "own spin" on biryani — but not valuing an ethnic dish as a whole.

Critics are pointing to this undervaluing of ethnic cuisine as analogous to how a culture’s people are treated in some respects, following the resignation Monday of Adam Rapoport as Bon Appétit's editor-in-chief. He and the company face allegations of racism, unequal pay and foisting employees of color into the spotlight when it suited the needs of the company.

Numerous writers and editors of color shared on social media a culture of exclusion at the magazine, in which they were underpaid and undervalued compared to their white counterparts. And the stories of two South Asian women, both of whom appear on Bon Appétit’s popular test kitchen videos, have opened a separate discussion about the whitewashing of ethnic cuisines.

Sohla El-Waylly, a Bengali American assistant editor, posted a series of Instagram stories Monday outlining the discriminatory practices she encountered in her 10 months on the job.

“I’ve been pushed in front of video as a display of diversity,” she wrote. “In reality, currently only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated.”

Despite having worked in the culinary industry for more than 15 years, she continued, she was hired “to assist mostly white editors with significantly less experience.”

It’s Bon Appétit’s treatment of its South Asian American chefs specifically that mirrors the attitude white Americans have toward the region’s cuisine — particularly Indian — said Tulasi Srinivas, a professor of anthropology at Emerson College, who co-edited "Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia."

“Cultural appropriation allows a pick-and-mix strategy whereby American culture can take what it wants to market,” Srinivas told NBC Asian America. “South Asian ingredients and practices are valued, but not the finished cuisine per se.”

After seeing her posts, El-Waylly told Business Insider that Conde Nast’s head of video — who has since resigned — offered to add $20,000 to her annual base pay of $60,000. El-Waylly said she was "insulted and appalled" by the raise as it was still significantly lower than what the test kitchen’s white stars made. (Conde Nast is the parent company of Bon Appétit and Epicurious, a website and blog.)

Priya Krishna, an Indian American contributing writer and test kitchen regular, confirmed the company’s racial pay gap to Business Insider and said top editors weren’t always receptive to foreign cuisines she wanted to introduce readers to.

"Especially early on, whenever I pitched a home-cooking recipe story featuring nonwhite food, I felt like I had to work twice as hard to prove that it deserved a place in the magazine," she told Business Insider.

On Wednesday, Bon Appétit and Epicurious released a joint statement apologizing for their failure to implement an inclusive workplace environment.

“We have been complicit with a culture we don’t agree with and are committed to change,” the statement read. “At times we have treated nonwhite stories as ‘not newsworthy’ or ‘trendy.’ Other times we have appropriated, co-opted, and Columbused them.”

It’s this idea of “Columbusing” — discovering something as if it were new — that has contributed to a perception of value for food, experts say.

Among New York’s Zagat-rated restaurants that serve foreign cuisines, Indian offerings are among the least expensive, according to a study by Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the Nutrition and Food Studies department at New York University.

In his 2016 book "The Ethnic Restaurateur," Ray ties the price of meals to the prestige of an immigrant group in what he calls a “global hierarchy of taste.” In other words, the wealthier an ethnic group is, the more white Americans respect it, and the more money they'll pay for its dishes.

He said he thinks the historical context factored into how the brand was undervaluing its South Asian America employees.

"I doubt if Bon Appétit would have tried to or could have gotten away with that kind of hyper-exploitative behavior with French, New American, Nordic or Japanese cuisine and cooks," he said.

Against this context, Srinivas said she’s not surprised that South Asians like El-Waylly and Krishna are given “elite status and visibility” but no real clout — until now.

“It's the knife edge of being a model minority, right?” she said.

There's an opportunity for South Asians, and other people of color, to push for pay parity and more safeguards against discrimination, says Anita Mannur, an associate professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies at Miami University in Ohio and author of "Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture."

“I think people of color feel empowered to call out companies that profit from the diversity they bring but don’t pay them,” she said.

The irony, experts say, is that publications like Bon Appétit are one of the few places that one might learn about the origins of food. The commodification of ingredients like turmeric and chai is so complete that the average American consumer might not even know their South Asian roots, Srinivas pointed out.

“We see the racism of colonialism writ large in our food histories as well as what we think is 'worthy' of paying a lot of money for,” Srinivas said.

To reach an elevated price point, Indian food often has to be repackaged and sanitized for the mainstream palate, Mannur said.

“That means reducing perceived excesses — the pungency, oiliness, spiciness and so on.” she said. “It’s reminiscent of the model minority discourse, like we have to combat our unruliness.”

In recent years, ancient Indian spices have been co-opted by white influencers and yoga instructors and turned into pricey wellness trends. Turmeric lattes and juices, in particular, have amassed a cult following among fitness obsessives willing to splurge $6 on a cup.

Since the police killing of George Floyd two weeks ago, several major publications have undergone a leadership change after employees of color alleged racism or decried harmful editorial decisions.

James Bennet resigned as the editorial page editor at The New York Times on Sunday after publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton R-Ark., that called for a military response to protests against police brutality — a move that black staffers at the newspaper said put them in danger. A day later, Christene Barberich, the co-founder of the lifestyle magazine Refinery29, stepped down after several nonwhite employees said they had faced discrimination at the company.

Bon Appétit also pledged to prioritize people of color in its search for both the next editor-in-chief and new freelancers.