Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

OPINIONKaiJune 13, 2020

Food media’s diversity problem: What NZ can learn from the Bon Appétit saga 

Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller

As the American media giant comes under fire for its treatment of POC contributors, it’s time to talk about the whiteness of food media in Aotearoa, say Jean Teng and Charlotte Muru-Lanning.

A wave of consciousness around racism is sweeping the globe at the moment. Protests that started in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police have broadened to public outcry against the treatment of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) by fashion brands, social media companies, fitness companies, magazines and more. As awareness is raised about the tangible connection between the racism of the police toward BIPOC around the world and the seemingly innocuous racism by white decision-makers, various brands have taken a tumble.

Enter: American food magazine Bon Appétit. Editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport resigned from his position this week after several staff members and contributors publicly called for it, claiming that a racist culture permeated the company.

The outcry stemmed from food writer Tammie Tecelmariam’s unearthing of a 2013 Instagram photo that shows Rapoport and his wife in brownface, dressed in stereotypical Puerto Rican costumes.

The photograph was just the start for Rapoport, as it gave rise to allegations of pay inequity and tokenisation among BIPOC staff. Editor Sohla El-Waylly posted in her Instagram stories that she had been used in Bon Appétit’s popular Test Kitchen cooking videos “as a display of diversity”, but unlike her white co-workers, has never been compensated for these appearances. Since the story broke, many current and ex-staff have taken to social media to share similar stories of racism while working for the brand.

Accusations of racism are nothing new for Bon Appétit; in fact, you could say they have a pretty messy history of it. An article published in January this year criticised the representation of people of colour within Bon Appétit’s test kitchen videos, explaining that “staffers of colour are sidelined or relegated to cameos on their white colleagues’ shows”. In 2016, the magazine faced criticism after it published a video titled “PSA: This is How You Should Be Eating Pho”, in which a white chef demonstrates how to eat the Vietnamese dish. The criticism was not only around the use of a white chef as an authority on an Asian dish, but also with the rendering of pho, a staple for Vietnamese, as a food trend. 

Adam Rapoport at the Webby Awards in 2018 (Photo: Getty Images)

Outrage at this international food media company, based 15,000km away from New Zealand, flooded our local Twitter feeds. The thing is, though, we have our own ingrained race problem in a media that prioritises a certain kind of food culture – and it’s pretty white. 

Defining what mainstream food media is in New Zealand is not as simple as pointing towards our Bon Appétit or Eater equivalents. We don’t really have that. We have restaurant reviews and recipe columns in Viva and Canvas; coverage in online sites like The Urban List and Neat Places; top restaurant lists in Cuisine magazine and the now defunct Metro; recipes in publications like Dish and Eat Well; television shows like MasterChef and The Free Range Cook; industry groups like Restaurant Association NZ and Hospitality NZ. (This is not an exhaustive list, of course.) 

But the people making decisions about food in mainstream media, and the people who get to write about that food, are overwhelmingly white. We won’t bother you with going through each individual outlet, but the lack of diversity in the editorial and executive teams of the aforementioned brands is galling. It’s systematic. Food media is extremely fragmented, meaning that teams are often tiny and badly resourced, and, well, media in general is just very white.

The lack of diversity behind the scenes – people who shape how we view and talk about the New Zealand food story – has a massive flow-on effect to what kind of food and people get celebrated. Chef profiles are handed to those who know how to deal with the media, who are usually, but not always, white and speak perfect English. The restaurants that get covered have to fit into European ideals as to what makes a “good” restaurant (eg fancy fit-outs and curated wine lists) and those that don’t get shunted onto “cheap eats” lists, or forgotten altogether. Handling of fusion cuisines is often fumbled, with patronising usage of terms like “elevated” or “exotic”. “Ethnic” recipes tend to be scrubbed down into careful neutrality by white recipe writers – Asian salads (whatever that means) abound.

The lack of diversity on a restaurant reviewing team is reflected in what cuisines are determined to have a high level of value (Photo: Getty Images)

For example, top restaurant lists have always informed who is revered in the restaurant industry, but there is a lack of scrutiny around who exactly gets to decide what those restaurants are. At Metro, the 2018 judging panel had one non-white person on it (that’s me, Jean, by the way). The year after, Metro included two more east Asian women, but there was no Māori or Pasifika representation. According to 2018 stats, there are an estimated 744,800 Māori living in New Zealand. This lack of Māori representation also seems to fly in the face of the well-established Te Tiriti principle – partnership. It’s a similar situation over at Cuisine, which The Spinoff understands has almost exclusively white judges on its own restaurant judging panel. This is reflected in the kind of restaurants on each list and what cuisines are determined to have a high level of value; it’s just common sense that subjective evaluation of food is always informed by personal experiences and culture. 

Who gets coverage and who doesn’t in mainstream media is so immensely frustrating, and, to be honest, really fucking boring, that many of us have turned to Instagram to hear from voices that actually reflect the society we live and eat in. The problem with that is this doesn’t materially change who has power in the food industry, as a lot of this work is unpaid and reliant on volunteerism – their review might reach a few thousand followers, but they will never receive the same legitimation as Kim Knight or Jesse Mulligan (both of NZ Herald), whose reviews can, apparently, make or break a restaurant. We saw this issue in the Bon Appétit implosion, where BIPOC were not compensated for their work, but instead shoved on camera to create an illusion of diversity. They want our names to appear woke, but not to be inconvenient to them in speaking up to influence the status quo.

Neither of us want representation for the sake of representation. Diversity means more than just chucking a non-white writer into the mix, or a non-white recipe or restaurant and calling it a tokenistic day. It’s about cultivating a workplace culture that will empower staff to contribute alternative cultural perspectives – essentially, giving up some of your own power.

Photo: Getty Images

Having restaurant reviewers who have different life experiences is important to the way we talk about them: otherwise you end up with reviews like this, of now-closed restaurant Kai Pasifika, where Peter Calder refers to food you associate with the Pacific as “hideous, salt-laden nosh” and mentions the waitress has a “beautiful smile”, or this one, where Jesse Mulligan refers to Chinese cuisine as one “based on sugar, fat, and animal cruelty”. Mulligan has since apologised and amended the review, after the Chinese community called him out for it on social media two years after the review was originally published. If you’re relying on the labour of non-white communities to constantly call you out, only for you to quietly apologise and look the other way until we call you out again, then there’s no other way to put it: it’s racist.

There is so much non-white talent in New Zealand creating content about under-celebrated cuisines behind the scenes, not to mention the amount of non-white, immigrant chefs that work in restaurant kitchens helmed by white men. On Facebook, pages like Pacific Island Food/Recipes, Pinoy Foodies and Kai Māori, Pasifika, Filipinos and Māori share scores of delicious looking home-cooked recipes – recipes that often challenge the ideals around food that dominate our food media landscape. Even more so, they’re case in point that there’s a whole lot of undervalued talent in our local, non-white communities.

Class plays a huge role in the way that people, particularly from marginalised ethnic groups, are excluded from having a voice within our food media. If you’re poor, it’s a lot less likely you’ll be able to afford eating out regularly, abundant ingredients to create recipes with or to do unpaid or low-paid writing work. Not to mention the fact you’re probably less likely to have connections within the food media industry.

At the same time, the conditions of exploited food industry workers, many of whom are immigrants and POC, whether in hospitality or in food production, go largely unacknowledged by our local food media. The lack of diversity within food media is perhaps a factor in the predicament of these workers not being considered when food is talked about, even though the food media industry essentially survives off the back of these low-waged workers.

As the saying goes, even according to the disgraced Rapoport, food is political. But that statement is empty if you’re not going to do the mahi to highlight marginalised communities, beyond just Asian food. Even if you don’t give a shit about restaurant reviews, it’s unavoidable that our coverage of food reflects our issues with race and the media in New Zealand. 

Karena (left) and Kasey Bird (Photo: Faanati Mamea)

It isn’t all bad, though, and it’s getting better. Through Māori Television, there have been food shows like Hāngī Pit Masters, hosted by Rewi Spraggon, Marae Kai Masters, and Native Kitchen, hosted by Peter Gordon (who, apparently is returning to The Sugar Club in Auckland). Karena and Kasey Bird won MasterChef and had their own food show on TVOne, Karena and Kasey’s Kitchen Diplomacy. Monique Fiso is, of course, killing it at Hiakai and has received deserved recognition. Non-white food writers are doing their thing, releasing cookbooks, and contributing to these publications, if not as staff writers. We have ‘grammers, like Albert Cho of Eat Lit Food, doing disruptive work on the ground. Some independent publications, like Stone Soup Syndicate, aim to include diverse voices, though it’s not POC-run and, again, the work is unpaid. But looking at the decision-makers in every area of this industry – writers, editors, restaurateurs, associations, festival programmers, television producers, photographers – it’s hard to ignore the mounting problem.

That it’s not enough to be passively “not-racist”’ has been a persistent message over the last few weeks. Instead, we need to be actively anti-racist. So, while many editors and other decision makers may mean well – good intentions and Instagram posts aren’t really enough – a basic starting point would be hiring (and paying fairly!) people of colour in these spaces.

It’s easy to imagine that a shift to a more diverse food media landscape would in turn mean a richer approach to the conversations we have around food in New Zealand. Though we might not see it, food media has a definite impact on the way we eat, and therefore the way we engage with all the politics that get served up alongside whatever happens to be on our plate. Food is an effective tool in humanising people, in forging identity and in creating understanding between people. Because of this, and because hopefully we’ve learnt some things over the last few weeks, it’s vital that it’s not just white people who get to have a voice in this space.

Keep going!