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Bon Appétit: YouTube | Search Avatar image Claire Decorates Sugar Cookies 6 Ways, 7 December 2015 (screengrab)

The Dramaturgy of the Rise and Fall of the Bon Appétit YouTube Channel

If food has always been political, as Bon Appétit asserts—so, too, has performance style. It is overdue for food media creators to wake up and smell the coffee.

II: The Collapse of Bon Appétit

“Fire in the hole, babe! Ooh, oh god, oh no, stop!”

Brad Leone, “How to Make Sausage With Brad | It’s Alive | Bon Appétit” (7:18-21)

On 31 May 2020, the Bon Appetit Instagram account published a post in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping across the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “Food has always been political,” the post reads, in white text on a black background; the caption explicitly mentions standing in solidarity with Floyd and others killed at the hands of police, promising readers will “see us tackling more of the racial and political issues at the core of the food world.” The post concludes, “We don’t have all the answers, and we know we have work to do” (@bonappetitmag).

Shortly following this declaration of support for the cause of racial justice, several contributors to Bon Appetit’s written and video content began to expose the hypocrisy within the organization. On 8 June, contributing writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted a (since deleted) photo of Bon Appetit’s Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport depicting the white editor in a brownface costume, originally shared by Rapoport’s wife in 2013 with the hashtag #boricua, a slang term for Puerto Ricans (Baer). Teclemariam’s Tweet was met with outrage and demands, both internal and external, for Rapoport to resign from his leadership role at Bon Appetit (Kelly).

Following what she felt was an insufficient apology from Rapoport to his staff, assistant editor and popular video presence Sohla El-Waylly took to her own Instagram page to demand Rapoport’s resignation, while also condemning the magazine for compensating its white video talent while mistreating its contributors of color. She describes Rapoport’s brownface photo as “just a symptom of the systematic racism that runs rampant within the CondeNast [sic] as a whole. I’ve been at Bon Appetit [sic] for 10 months. …I was hired as an assistant editor at $50k to assist mostly white editors with significantly less experience than me. I’ve been pushed in front of video as a display of diversity. In reality, currently only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated.” (@sohlae)

El-Waylly’s Instagram story condemning the racist practices at Bon Appetit and calling for Rapoport’s resignation was echoed by fellow contributors of color, including photographer Alex Lau, Melian, Baraghani, and Chaey, as well as by white contributors, including Leone, Saffitz, Lalli Music, Morocco, and Baz. All of these contributors and more promised to refrain from posting new video content until the systemic racism was addressed by their employer; by end of day on 8 June 2020, Adam Rapoport resigned from his post (Hills). The Bon Appetit YouTube channel’s last video, “Pro Chefs Improve Boxed Brownies (8 Methods)”, posted on 5 June 2020, and the channel remained dark for the next several months (Bon Appétit). 

The exposé of the discrepancies in treatment between Bon Appétit’s white and BIPOC staffers shattered the delicate dramaturgy established by the magazine’s YouTube channel. Even following the departure of Rapoport as editor in chief, the conceit of an easygoing, friendly test kitchen populated by a diverse and collaborative team of chefs and writers was impossible to maintain in the face of El-Waylly’s accusations.

Indeed, even the invocation of compensation for their work in the test kitchen alone broke with the conventions of the channel’s dramaturgical framework; as soon as the audience was reminded that the chefs on their screens are paid (or underpaid) for their appearances, the mythology of casual conviviality, that the chefs are “just hanging out” and happen to be caught on camera, was broken. The audience was abruptly confronted with the knowledge that the characters in the BA Culinary Universe were just that: characters. 

In his video “The Collapse of Bon Appetit”, Jack Saint acknowledges that the staff culture of ease at Bon Appétit maintained by silence in the face of inequity is not only a betrayal of the company’s BIPOC staff but also a betrayal of this established contract between content creator and audience. “It’s a lie agreed upon,” he says, “but an interesting thing happens when that lie has been internalized well enough: it results in us ignoring the obvious truths in favor of a convenient narrative” (13:17-29).

Saint’s statement here suggests that the narrative that the talent represented in Bon Appetit’s videos are simply friends rather than compensated performers in a hierarchical workplace may have not only served an aesthetic purpose but a commercial one, maintaining a status quo that allowed the outlet’s corporation to underpay and overlook its BIPOC staffers. Once the audience has been made privy to the performative nature of the channel, that the apparent friends fermenting vegetables or tempering chocolate are in fact navigating conflicts that exist outside the bounds of the screen, the “lie” is no longer “agreed upon” and both the dramaturgical aesthetic and the commercial practices effectively fail. 

III: The Attempted Revival of the Bon Appétit YouTube Channel

“Back to the mixture (do the same thing and hope for a miracle)” Subtitle, “Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Mentos”

(23:42-47)

On 13 October 2020, the Bon Appétit YouTube channel published two new videos after months without sharing new content: “Why We Joined Bon Appétit”, a video featuring new senior BIPOC leadership discussing their intentions for the channel, and “Chris Makes Meatballs | From the Home Kitchen | Bon Appétit”, featuring Chris Morocco. Morocco, a white staffer who frequently contributed to BA videos and previously hosted his own show on the channel, “Reverse Engineering”, appears in the new video to have been tasked with addressing the racialized fallout on the channel from the previous June. The video begins with a few awkward laughs from Morocco and roughly edited jump cuts before giving his statement:

It means a lot to be here right now, because obviously we’ve taken a break from filming, and, you know, so much has been going on at Bon Appétit. And I’ve stayed really quiet about a lot of things, there haven’t really been any easy answers to a lot of the issues that we’ve had.

I’ve really invested the time in kinda working with the folks within BA to try to make things better, you know, to try to put better systems in place to support all of our staffers. And it also kinda reflects who we are now, you know, as a team, and it includes a lot of voices from people who I care about, and who are still a part of this brand in one way or another, and I think we took a good amount of time to really take a hard break and look at how we’re doing things and how we can be better. (0:58-1:46)

After this, Morocco proceeds to share the steps to making easy meatballs in a home kitchen and does not return to the subject of the company’s crisis. The speech feels awkward at best, notable for its inability to directly address the specificities that resulted in the departure of so many of Morocco’s colleagues from the video team. Since the audience has been made privy to the world outside the camera’s frame, Morocco’s failure to acknowledge the specificities of the fallout within the video reads to the audience as a breach of the dramaturgical contract, a carefully worded performance rather than a genuine, unrehearsed “self”.

A follow-up video from Jack Saint, which provides commentary on Morocco’s new video, echoes this sentiment: “The energy is just off because we know what’s happened…it’s a fundamentally different vibe” (“So Bon Appetit Started Uploading Again…” 11:06-11:30). Indeed, Saint takes his critique further, pointing out that even subtler aspects of the Bon Appétit channel’s former dramaturgy, like the lack of background music, no longer feel appropriate; where the “naturalistic vibe” once reinforced the channel’s dramaturgy of authenticity, its casual air and poor attempts to gloss over the conflict are at odds with the reality the audience now knows. 

Another newer upload, “Brad and Chrissy Make Vegan Cacio e Pepe | From the Home Kitchen | Bon Appétit”, also exemplifies the failure of the Bon Appétit dramaturgy to withstand the outlet’s public reckoning. In this video, Brad Leone cooks outdoors with Chrissy Tracey, a newly hired Black video host, as they attempt to reconstruct the friendly rapport that characterizes staff relationships within the Bon Appétit world. For myriad reasons—the concurrent pandemic forcing the filming to take place outside rather than in the test kitchen, the fact that as new colleagues Chrissy and Brad are unlikely to have spent much time together before this shoot, and, perhaps most significantly, their visible attempt to gloss over the working conditions that preceded Chrissy’s onboarding into the “BA Culinary Universe”—the tone of the video is stilted at best.

With the gentle dramaturgical structure of the channel disrupted, even tactics to portray a character that would have previously landed no longer succeed. “Garlic all day,” says Chrissy as she adds garlic to her pasta dish. “Yeah, you don’t have to tell me,” quips Brad, referencing his well-known affinity for the allium, “The Garlic Board, if there is one, should be paying me, ‘cuz I love it so much” (2:41-2:49). This blatant acknowledgment of his own character trope, the recognition that Brad knows that we know that “Brad loves garlic” is itself a demonstration that the dramaturgical contract – Kirby’s received acting – is no longer at play. 

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