The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen and its so-called "cinematic universe" has been described as follows: a "bright spot" in a "sea of garbage," the "internet's favorite cooking show," a form of "Sunday therapy," "an unstoppable force," "meme gods," and even "a Green New Deal fantasy," whatever that means.
Every night, "I check in with the chefs at Bon Appétit like I’m catching up with old friends," Louis Peitzman wrote for Buzzfeed in 2018. Another piece from earlier this year claimed the secret to Bon Appétit's YouTube success was that "everyone is just so damn likable." And having been graced with the crew's presence at the company's "Best Weekend Ever" late last year, writer and Who? Weekly host Bobby Finger recalled, "I felt not just starstruck but crazy. I mean actually deranged!"
Those are just the fawning articles. The Test Kitchen also has fan-run meme pages, an official merch store, two subreddits, and two more devoted specifically to personality Brad Leone and Gourmet Makes star Claire Saffitz. Saffitz, the kitchen's most beloved host, has been described as "the internet's collective crush," about whom people say things like "I would die for Claire" and imitate for Halloween or TikTok fame.
Man Repeller reported late last year that the channel was the fastest-growing in YouTube's food space, with more than 40 million views per month and over 5 billion total minutes watched. It currently has 6 million subscribers. As its hordes of doting fans propped the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen on the highest pedestal, the magazine's staff turned into micro-celebrities, their interpersonal dynamics became objects of obsession, and overall, the workplace was seen as a wholesome culinary ideal. What the Test Kitchen's cult of celebrity obfuscated, however, is that the Test Kitchen is just that: a workplace, like that of any other large—and therefore likely imperfect, if not problematic—institution. So honestly, what did any of us expect?
As the world found out in industry-shaking fashion this week, the reality of the Test Kitchen isn't the bastion of good that its stans have willed it to be. Last weekend, writer Illyanna Maisonet posted an exchange with Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport in which he effectively told her that Puerto Rican food wasn't trendy enough for the magazine to cover, and it read as another example of the brand's diversity problem. On Monday, after writer Tammie Teclemariam posted an old photo of Rapoport and his wife Simone Shubuck dressed in costumes centered on Puerto Rican stereotypes (in the photo, which Shubuck captioned "#TBT me and my papi #boricua," Rapoport wears a silver chain and durag), staffers blew open the door on the company's toxic culture, which has been emotionally and financially unsupportive of people of color. Rapoport—who, amid claims of brownface, maintains that he did not color his skin for the image—resigned the same day.
As assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly wrote on Instagram on Monday, not only was she hired for her role at the rate of $50,000 per year despite her 15 years of experience (and the high cost of living in New York, where the company is located), but she was "pushed in front of video as a display of diversity" and not even paid for those appearances. Per Buzzfeed, El-Waylly and other hosts of color weren't paid for their video work, which is arranged through contracts with Condé Nast Entertainment, while white video stars were compensated. As the floodgates burst open, Twitter users soon dug up drinks editor Alex Delany's old internet history, which included a 2013 Vine of him saying the F-slur, a Confederate flag cake he'd posted to Tumblr, and a series of sexist tweets.
A damning report from Business Insider on Wednesday showed how far the brand's problems extended. From conversations with 14 former and current staffers, writer Rachel Premack concluded that BA was a "locus for exclusion and toxicity." Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, Rapoport's assistant for close to three years and the only Black woman on staff, was repeatedly denied raises from her $35,300 base salary and treated by Rapoport like "the help," in her words. "There is a big difference in terms of how they monetarily value the white employees versus the people of color," El-Waylly told BI.
On YouTube, BA's channel landed at exactly the right time. Compared to other food channels, which increasingly felt over-produced, the Test Kitchen videos were less polished; they had more personality; and they made the filming and editing processes clear. BA's videos resonated philosophically as well. Saffitz's Gourmet Makes, in which she attempts to recreate popular processed foods, is visibly an arduous and frustrating multi-day process, and at Mashable, Morgan Sung described Saffitz's series as an example of "probably the healthiest, most productive way to approach issues," while Quartz called her the "ultimate life coach."
Though the Test Kitchen's transformation into a celebrity force has been good for business, it's also set things up for exactly the reckoning that's happening now.
As with the recent situation involving Alison Roman (who got her start at BA), Chrissy Teigen, and Marie Kondo, the Test Kitchen's growing popularity and prestige outside the insular food world has complicated our ability to talk about its issues with clarity. Just as the bigger conversation about Roman and who tends to profit from cooking global food (the answer: white cooks) was largely portrayed as just a celebrity "Twitter feud," the changes at BA have been framed as the oversimplified result of a "brown face photo sparking anger" or the resurfacing of a "racially insensitive photo." The celebrity culture of the Test Kitchen begets the treatment celebrities get at gossip rags: reductive, lacking in nuance, and sounding the alarm for critics of "cancel culture." It's more than that, though.
The Test Kitchen's gargantuan online presence overrode its offline truth, as it projected and leaned into what people wanted to see, which was an Office-esque sitcom in which a friendly band of coworkers snickers behind the bumbling boss's back. As writer James Factora suggested in a tweet preceding all of this, perhaps the Test Kitchen's popularity is related to the widespread obsession with The Office. While Factora's tweet reads tongue-in-cheek, it's not wrong, and the love for the show perpetuated the illusion that a toxic workplace can be laughed at and lived with.
The Office has funny moments, but in a way, it led society astray. It suggested that a bad boss who makes clumsy, insensitive comments and makes life hard for employees can be a point of humor, instead of a toxic presence that could be booted. Who does that benefit except bosses? As BA turned the Test Kitchen into essentially its own sitcom, with each cooking star becoming an Office-esque talking head, it furthered the false notion of the perfect workplace, and people online were quick to gobble it up. The interactions between co-workers, even when off-putting, became meme fodder and pushed stans to throw their support behind their chosen star.
The idea that everything gets bad once it gets big sounds like a line ripped from Portlandia, but it is a maxim that applies to everything from emo bands to hashtags to dog breeds to cooking hosts. The higher the platform we give something, the more it can fall, and the discourse around the Test Kitchen seemed unprecedented in its fawning, at least within the food sphere. (Though we might have learned from situations like the downfall of Mario Batali.)
When we laud any product or person to this extent and make it an object of cultural obsession, it becomes easier to ignore the flaws and the parts of the conversation that don't fit what we want to see. This is true for the Test Kitchen, which could never really have met the inflated expectations of goodness that stan culture built up around it; people saw the perfect workplace because they wanted a perfect workplace. The problems at BA are institutional, but stan culture allowed people to compartmentalize the Test Kitchen as something separate and authentic.
In response to all of this, BA's parent company Condé Nast—a 111-year-old company with 6,000 employees globally at the start of this year—has announced that it will be "accelerating" its first ever diversity and inclusion report. On Tuesday, Amanda Shapiro, the editor of BA's Healthyish spinoff, became the brand's acting deputy director, and on Wednesday, the editors of BA said in a statement, "We want to be transparent, accountable, and active as we begin to dismantle racism at our brands."
Still, former staffers have identified Shapiro and other remaining BA employees as complicit in "toxic" behaviors. Despite calls for Matt Duckor, Condé Nast's head of programming for lifestyle and style, to step down over the unfair pay system and his mocking tweets about the gay community, he remains employed, as does Alex Delany. Both of them have issued social media apologies. With this new context, though, the joking tweets and fawning memes about the Test Kitchen don't hold up as well. (Update 6/11/2020: Matt Duckor has resigned from Condé Nast.)
No surprise, Test Kitchen stans have responded to this all with even more memes and lionizing statements: "Update: we went to war for Sohla from the Bon Appétit test kitchen," reads one popular tweet. The height of the pedestal hasn't changed, though who's on the pedestal has. But as Bon Appétit changes, will its fan culture change also? To grapple with all of this new knowledge, it should.
Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.