It Might Be Time To Burn Food Media Down And Rebuild From Scratch

There's been a flood of stories lately about mean, mean celebrity chefs who present a kind and genial face to the public while doing dastardly things behind the scenes, like abusing their staff, taking credit for their work, and locking them in dark rooms and forcing them to scrape mold off of jam they will later serve to the public. None of these things are recent; they date back for years, even as journalists were writing glowing reviews and profiles of the restaurants and chefs in question.

Over at The New Republic, Kate Telfeyan, who was, until COVID-19, chef at Mission Chinese Food's Brooklyn location, examines the reasons for this disparity. Angela Dimayuga, a former executive chef at Mission Chinese (and the person who hired Telfeyan), recently put up a long post on Instagram that describes various abuses she endured in the restaurant industry, specifically at the hands of Danny Bowien, chef and founder of Mission Chinese. "For a lot of (mostly female) ex-coworkers," she wrote, "we all agree it was the most traumatizing, painful job we've ever had."

Telfeyan writes that she has no reason to doubt Dimayuga. She continues:

This should be a huge story, especially since Dimayuga has been credited as a principal creative force in the Mission Chinese Food franchise. Instead, the response from food media has been an uncomfortable silence.

It's all the more curious since Bowien is, after all, an authentic food-world celebrity. He has published a cookbook, hosted a season of the documentary series Mind of a Chef, and collaborated with many figures outside the food world, such as designer Alexander Wang. Surely the allegation from a high-ranking former employee that he ran an abusive and misogynistic workplace should be of interest to food writers.

But instead, both food and general-interest media continued to publish laudatory articles about Bowien. Telfeyan concludes:

In its consistent, uncritical celebration of chefs and owners later revealed to be bad bosses, and in its refusal to reckon with its own role in facilitating their rise to the top, the food media has failed us.

So why don't food reporters do their jobs? Telfeyan lays out a number of reasons: the symbiotic relationship between restaurants and media and the unspoken agreement that only positive coverage boosts everyone's numbers, the reluctance of lower-level employees to speak out because doing so would put their jobs at risk, the lack of food writers with the investigative reporting chops to dig beneath the surface of the restaurant business. Food, she argues, should be approached with the same skepticism as politics or crime or other more "serious" beats. But it's not.

Chris Crowley, a writer for New York magazine, confirmed on Twitter that restaurant employees are reluctant to speak out; some are so scared, they won't even give a reporter information to confirm their identity or that they do, in fact, work in a certain restaurant.

In her newsletter Smart Mouth, Katherine Spiers, the former food editor at L.A. Weekly, provided an explanation for poor food reporting from an editor's point of view. Most publications, she writes, are understaffed and rely heavily on freelancers to meet their publication quotas. The editors are often too overworked to have the time to impose rigorous fact-checking on these stories or advise their writers on how to proceed with more intricate and difficult reporting.

Very few publications reimburse food writers. So the freelancers, doing a little math on the $75-$300 they're going to get for a story, will likely take advantage of any free meals offered. (Food writer Keia Mastrianni wrote in depth about this phenomenon.) The chef, knowing that they're in the restaurant, will come out and talk to them, and at that point, what are you gonna do, write something horrible about the food made by someone you know now personally? That's just bad manners. Does that sound silly? Yes, I think so. But I also truly believe it to be the dynamic.

These freelancers also lack the resources—that is, time/money to assemble a critical mass of reliable sources and, crucially, lawyers—to pursue stories that may result in litigation. So they tend to stick to the quick, easy stories, the ones that don't look too closely at what happens behind the scenes at the Mission Chinese Foods of the world.

Ashok Selvam, a senior editor at Eater Chicago, points out yet another variable in the equation: "IMHO it's impossible to discuss this without discussing who gets to be a food writer/critic (mostly white guys!) and the marginalized voices left behind." These white critics not only take advantage of the opportunities for free food and being chummy with chefs, they also are unequipped to challenge those chefs about issues of cultural appropriation, mostly because they lack the cultural context to understand that it's even occurring.

What's to be done about this mess? Both Telfeyan and Spiers reach the same conclusion: burn it all down and start building better and more thoughtful food media from scratch. It might not be the worst solution.