How Food Media Created Monsters in the Kitchen

Many kitchens in the restaurant industry are
toxic, but few deserve the description quite so literally as Los Angeles jam destination
Sqirl. Over the weekend, back-of-house workers at Sqirl took to social media to
recount
horror
stories
of their time in the kitchen, the most notorious involving the use
of a “mold bucket” to ready jams for commercial consumption. The moldy jam
grabbed all the headlines, but the real story was in the
allegations from
kitchen employees that Sqirl owner Jessica Koslow had used their work without
proper credit or compensation and had created a hostile environment for Black
workers and people of color.

This aspect of the story received far less
attention. Meanwhile, other stories in recent days detailing similar abuses in
other critically lauded restaurants across the country have also passed largely
unnoticed. Last week, Angela Dimayuga, former executive chef at Mission Chinese
Food in New York City, posted a
statement on
Instagram detailing the abusive, misogynistic workplace fostered by chef-owner
Danny Bowien during her six years at the restaurant. On Monday, Trigg Brown,
chef and co-founder of Brooklyn hipster restaurant Win Son,
told Eater that he was stepping back from
day-to-day operations after several former employees of the restaurant, also on
Instagram, claimed that Brown “ran a kitchen rife with verbal abuse and
intimidation.”
 

Reading the testimonies of these brave
employees on social media, it was impossible for me not to wonder: Why didn’t
food journalists already know about these abuses? Or if they did know, why
hadn’t they reported on them?    

In May 2017 I was hired by Dimayuga as a line
cook in the kitchen at Mission Chinese Food. I stayed for almost three years,
eventually becoming the head chef of Mission Chinese’s Brooklyn location, where
I remained until Covid-19 forced the restaurant to close in March. I have no reason to doubt Dimayuga when she claims
that Bowien was a “verbally abusive, deeply manipulative,” and “tyrannical”
boss. 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. The
most recent story about Mission Chinese Food published in the mainstream food
media was a piece a few weeks ago in which Eater gave Bowien free rein to issue
a long,
indulgent statement
about the evolution of his thinking on workplace
harassment (tl;dr it’s bad).

For years now, the New York food media has returned
to Bowien again and again, seeking his perspective, offering him a platform,
knowing that, whatever happens, at the very least it can expect good copy.
Like many chefs, he is a creation of the media, including even general-interest magazines
like this one
. But now that serious allegations have surfaced about
him, the response from the same journalists who’ve invested years in boosting
his profile? Nothing.

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.


Consider the recent case of chef Abe Conlon,
whose Chicago restaurant Fat Rice was garlanded with awards and critical
acclaim
, then forced to shut
down
after employees exposed Conlon on social media as a torrential asshole.
Where was the reporting on the restaurant’s toxic kitchen culture when Fat Rice
was being showered with accolades and praise? Mainstream food media perpetuates
the dysfunction rampant in the restaurant industry by refusing to report on the
“who” behind the “what.” Either the media glosses over its own role in creating
kitchen monsters, or it busies itself with a studied silence, steadfastly refusing
to address the sins of its imperiled darlings.

Take Momofuku founder David Chang. Chang is a
longtime friend and collaborator of food writer Peter Meehan, who recently resigned
from his post as food editor of the Los
Angeles Times
after several colleagues came forward to describe an abusive
newsroom culture that flourished under Meehan’s watch, both at the Times and, earlier, at Lucky Peach, the now-defunct food
magazine that Meehan co-founded in 2011 with Chang and Chris Ying. Meehan’s
resignation from the Times was the
biggest story in the food world for much of this summer. He and Chang are
close: They have worked on cookbooks together, and in 2018 Meehan featured
extensively in several episodes of the first season of Ugly Delicious, Chang’s popular Netflix series. 

Chang obviously felt some pressure to say
something about Meehan’s fall from grace.
The result: a thin, say-nothing statement on
his podcast, in which Chang shed some crocodile tears, affected a dash of
emotional rawness, claimed to have fallen out with Meehan soon after the first
edition of Lucky Peach came out in
2011 (how, then, is it possible they were so chummy on the 2018 season of Ugly Delicious?), then said he couldn’t
comment further because of a binding NDA with Meehan. The food media’s response
to this impossibly weak statement? Silence. The food writers one might have
expected to criticize Chang or delve into the long-standing whispers of abuse in
his own restaurants’ kitchens had nothing to say, which is perhaps not
surprising when you consider that many of them have themselves benefited from
Chang’s patronage, appearing on his podcast and in episodes of Ugly Delicious. 

Celebrity chefs and food writers need each
other—to build their brands and “do numbers,” whether online (for the
writers) or at the point of sale (for restaurants). The food media is complicit
in the creation of kitchen tyrants, building their profiles, massaging their
egos, exploiting their personalities for clicks—and chefs, in turn, help
elevate the careers of food writers with access and exposure. In this sense the
food world represents the marriage of two uniquely flawed industries:
restaurants and the media. Cooks and food writers are all brutalized to some
degree by the imperatives of competition and profit. The economics of
restaurants are notoriously inhospitable, which means that chefs need to
aggressively market themselves in order to stay afloat, while ad-dependent food
media outlets, as well as more traditional newspapers and magazines, naturally
gravitate to whatever’s going to bring in clicks and readers.  

What’s really at stake here is how the food
media approaches the task of covering the food industry. There are, of course,
important exceptions, but the restaurant media, not unlike technology media in
the breathless days of the big new iPhone reveal, is for the most part an
uncritical hype machine. It still views its function as handing out
recommendations and instructing people where and what to eat. But a restaurant
is more than just its food: It’s a workplace, a repository of labor practices,
a kitchen with its own particular culture and approach to the management of
people and creativity. When so much of food coverage is devoted to celebrating
and cultifying chefs as eccentric, demanding “creatives,” unbeholden to the
ordinary rules of the workplace, can we be surprised that this new moment, in
which many chefs and restaurant owners are being revealed as the abusive,
domineering bosses they really are, has left the food media flat-footed? A
pivot to a more critical, adversarial approach to covering restaurants seems
unlikely as long as the food media is built on the idea of the chef as a singular creative mind.

Despite the waves of revelations that have
rocked the restaurant industry in recent years—starting with the #MeToo-fueled
implosions of the careers of Mario Batali and Ken Friedman in 2017—the media’s
reckoning with its own role in elevating and enabling these kitchen abusers has
been scant to nonexistent. This seems grossly unfair. Does a restaurant
serving good food deserve to be celebrated if employees are regularly harassed
and demeaned, and the culture of the kitchen is built on manipulation and
abuse? Why should it be up to individual employees to put their necks on the
line and tell these stories of abuse, often at great risk to themselves and
their future employment prospects, when there’s a whole segment of the media
that’s nominally devoted to covering the food world?

Food journalists rarely, if ever, take the
time to get behind the scenes and talk to the “little people” in
restaurants—the line cooks, dishwashers, and servers—to understand what these
workplaces are really like. They engage only with owners and operators, which
means their reporting on restaurants is necessarily superficial, reflecting
their own impressions and the restaurant’s party line. Some outlets have
recognized their own role in hyping up places later revealed to be shitty
places to work (there’s a single, terse paragraph in the Eater
piece
on Win Son to that effect: “
Bon
Appetit
has heaped accolades on the restaurant, the New York Times loved it, and Eater has covered it extensively as
one of the city’s most exciting restaurants”). But there’s little discussion
of embracing a different model for
reporting on restaurants, of engaging with the industry in a deeper, more
expansive, more engaged way. The hype-to-backlash pipeline rolls on
undisturbed.


Food media needs to start thinking about the restaurant industry
in its entirety, rather than just the food and whatever hammily woke facade chefs
and owners want to present to the world. We need fewer food writers and more
food reporters—more journalists willing to approach the food beat with the
determination and skepticism of a good political or crime reporter. This isn’t
simply a question of covering abuse and manipulation in kitchens, or
mistreatment of employees. It’s about questioning the whole concept of kitchen
creativity—asking smart questions about originality, credit, and the act of
culinary creation, which is far more collaborative than readers might
understand. It’s about holding restaurants to their public commitments. Abuse,
hypocrisy, appropriation, manipulation—all are still, sadly, rife throughout
restaurants, and these stories are available for the taking. All it requires is a
few enterprising reporters to go hunt them down.

I am not suggesting that we find
“better” chefs to celebrate and cultify; the problem is not the chefs
themselves so much as the media’s extravagant and unmerited praise of any cook
who shows an ounce of creative talent. This is why recent attempts to
“fix” the food industry—both in kitchens and newsrooms—by simply
“finding a person of color” and turning them into the Chang or Conlon of tomorrow are so unsatisfying. These efforts
replace one system of domination, megalomania, and abuse with a new system
likely to replicate the same pathologies. An industry built on cults of
personality is still bad, no matter the personalities.

Building a better food industry starts with
recognizing the complicity that binds celebrity-hungry chefs and click-hungry
writers. It means encouraging a style of journalism that peeks into kitchens
rather than lounging in the dining room, waiting to be fed. It requires
treating restaurants not simply as vehicles for the delivery of food but as
social institutions—and moving from there to build a culture, in both kitchens
and newsrooms, premised on thoughtfulness, care, consideration, and quiet pride
in good cooking. It means blowing the whole thing up—the full catastrophe of
celebrity chefs, rapacious ownership structures, appalling worker conditions,
toxic kitchen cultures, and restaurants disengaged from their communities—and
starting over again.

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