Sohla El-Waylly on Race, Food and 'Bon Appétit' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Sohla El-Waylly called out her previous employer, Bon Appétit, during the magazine's racial reckoning last summer and resigned. The chef and food star is now a columnist at Food52 and star of the YouTube series Off-Script with Sohla. She and Sam talk about racism in the food media industry (and everywhere else), The Cheesecake Factory, and certain kinds of mushrooms.

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Sohla El-Waylly on Race, Food and 'Bon Appétit'

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Sohla El-Waylly on Race, Food and 'Bon Appétit'

Sohla El-Waylly on Race, Food and 'Bon Appétit'

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

So I have so many questions to ask you about so many things. But I'm going to start out by asking if we can talk about The Cheesecake Factory.

SOHLA EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I love The Cheesecake Factory. A few of my happiest moments in life have occurred at that place. The last birthday I was able to celebrate in-person with people, I was at The Cheesecake Factory. I understand that you used to work there when you were a college student.

EL-WAYLLY: Briefly, I was a hostess.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: This is chef and food star and Internet personality Sohla El-Waylly.

EL-WAYLLY: And being a hostess there is tough. It is a difficult, difficult job.

SANDERS: Explain.

EL-WAYLLY: Oh, it's just - it's so busy. The dining room is so big. I don't know if I've worked at a busier restaurant, (laughter) honestly, than The Cheesecake Factory.

SANDERS: So you may not know Sohla from her brief career at the Cheesecake Factory, but a lot of you probably do recognize Sohla from a different kind of kitchen.

And even, like, the design aesthetic - it is not at all pretty, but it's soothing. It's like this bloated, decaying Italian Renaissance vibe. I don't know. All of it, I just think, is this cultural study in excessive Americana. And it soothes me (laughter). It soothes me every time.

EL-WAYLLY: It's like our Colosseum when you walk into a Cheesecake Factory.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

EL-WAYLLY: You know, the decor - the gold, the fake marble. I feel like there was always, like, different shades of taupe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and my guest today is Sohla El-Waylly. And that kitchen that I was alluding to earlier - I was talking about Bon Appetit's popular "Test Kitchen" video series. That is where Sohla first got a lot of attention and love.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

EL-WAYLLY: Hi. I'm Sohla. I'm usually back there. Today, I'm here.

SANDERS: And then Sohla got a lot more attention last summer when Bon Appetit had this so-called racial reckoning. Sohla openly called out Bon Appetit's diversity problems, internally in company meetings and externally on some widely shared Instagram stories. This was all the culmination of a lot of things - unequal pay, racial discrimination and this one photo that surfaced of then-Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport. In the photo, he was in brownface. Sohla quit, and this Bon Appetit drama - it really led to a lot of the food industry having some really frank conversations about food and race. Since all that, Sohla has been busy. She's writing a cookbook and a food column for Food52. She's also hosting her own YouTube series called "Stump Sohla."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's time to stump Sohla.

EL-WAYLLY: So I have to make lasagna into ice cream.

SANDERS: But Sohla is still struggling with what happened at Bon Appetit and grappling with questions over fairness and worth that keep playing out all over the media industry - at The New York Times, at Gimlet, at Slate, at NPR. Anyway, in this chat, we're going to discuss all of those things. But first, to begin, I had to ask Sohla about how last summer affected her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You know, since last summer, when George Floyd happened and the summer of protests happened and all these racial reckonings happened, I have been constantly grappling with the way that race plays out in my industry and the ways in which I, as a journalist, might be complicit in some of these structures that are oppressive. And whenever I talk to people of color about their work now, across any sector, they're having these same conversations internally and with other folks, as well. I am wondering, has this last year or last few months of all of us just thinking about race really critically and publicly - has it changed the way you think about food and race?

EL-WAYLLY: Yes. Yes.

SANDERS: OK.

EL-WAYLLY: I mean, it's such a complicated thing. I've been thinking about it a lot. And, like, I'm learning a lot, too. I think one big thing with food and race that is a hot topic is cultural appropriation.

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: And that's something that I've been thinking a lot about, as well as representation. And it's really challenging figuring out how to deal with these things because we need both. We need representation of different chefs, as well as different foods. But - like, I want to see more food from different parts of the world, but who is the one presenting it? Like, that's, like, where it gets a little confusing, where it gets complicated. I mean, I personally think, like, what I want to see is more people of color doing everything the way that white chefs have been able to do everything this whole time, you know? A white chef can be an expert in French food and then turn around and go to Thailand for a week and come back and be an expert in Thai cuisine, which I don't think is the right way to do it. But I hope that, like, we ultimately get to a place where anyone can do anything. We're definitely not even close.

SANDERS: I hear you kind of indicating that when a chef of color does food that's, quote-unquote, "white," it's not accepted. Have you felt that?

EL-WAYLLY: Well, I feel like there's, like, different waves of diversity, right? Like, so the early, early wave in food was you have white chefs introducing the world to food from people of color. And then the second step was, OK, we're going to let some brown people into this world but only if they focus on the food that looks like the color of their skin, you know what I mean?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: And now I think we're entering this third place where it's like, hey, maybe people of color can make other stuff too, you know what I mean?

SANDERS: Maybe. Maybe.

EL-WAYLLY: You know what I - like, that's, like, something that's frustrated me. When people see me, they think, oh, you must be an expert in Bangladeshi food and, like, no, I'm actually not. That's actually the food I know the least about. And I've always been kind of upset by that assumption, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah, I get it. People used to get mad at me when I would tell them in high school and college that I did not play basketball.

EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: They'd get mad.

EL-WAYLLY: What?

SANDERS: They'd be like, well, but look at you. And I'm like, I know. Sorry, dude. Sorry.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah, I don't know. It'd be great if we could get to a place where we didn't make assumptions about people based on the way they looked. But we are years, decades, generations away from that.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Well - and like, I'm hearing you talk about it, and it's a problem within the industry itself, this assumption and this casual racism of food. But there is also, hearing you talk about that, a racism within the consumers of all this food ourselves. I mean, I can think of things that I used to do - like, jokingly, but also kind of seriously. Like, I remember years ago counting the number of South Asian staff in an Indian restaurant to try to figure out if it was really authentic or not. And I would do the same kind of thing at all kinds of restaurants with international cuisine. And I thought I was being savvy, making sure they're real. But I never did that at a French restaurant, and I realized I was being casually racist in my food consumption.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: And it's like, the next step is how do food consumers start to see that and act accordingly and fix that?

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah, well, and also things like what we perceive to be worth spending money on - like, people are pretty OK with spending $25 on a fancy pasta dish.

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: But if you go to Chinatown, you want your dumplings to be, you know, $4 for a full basket, and why? They're both very difficult things to make. And why is one worth - it's basically, it comes down to one person's labor is worth more than another's, and that person happens to be white. Yeah. I mean, we've got a long way to go. I'm glad we're talking about it, but it is too complicated of a conversation, unfortunately, for Instagram and Twitter.

(LAUGHTER)

EL-WAYLLY: We need to start having these conversations off of the Internet and with each other 'cause that's why we just start fighting with each other 'cause I think a lot of people want the same thing. I see a lot of these fights over the cultural appropriation. Like, if a - I got yelled at because I made a Persian dish. It was, like, an old recipe of mine that got reposted. And they were like, why didn't you find a Persian person to make this dish? But if they linked into the article, you could see, like, I hit all the sources. All the research was there, but all they did was look at the Instagram post. So, you know, I think we need more people from everywhere producing content 100%. But that doesn't mean just Persian chefs make Persian food. That's boring. Food is for sharing, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Stay with us. We talk more about Bon Appetit and a very interesting way that Sohla has found to open up her mind. Here's a hint - you can eat it, and it's illegal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: You know, it's interesting hearing you say that so many of these conversations around food and race and culture need to happen offline when one of the more pivotal moments of your career came in posting about food and race and culture on Instagram.

(LAUGHTER)

EL-WAYLLY: Whoops. You caught me (laughter).

SANDERS: I mean, it's not a whoops. It was a moment heard round the food world. I'm not going to make you rehash that story. We all know it by now. But what's been your biggest takeaway, looking back on all that now with that moment in your rearview? I'm talking about the Bon Appetit moment.

EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter). You know, I was really surprised 'cause I've been talking about this stuff my whole life, and I've always been ignored, so I'm just pretty used to being ignored and just screaming into the wind. So I can't believe people actually listened to me. I think that was just luck and timing, but my goal is to keep this momentum going however I can.

SANDERS: OK.

EL-WAYLLY: You know, this is just a start. We have a lot of work to do.

SANDERS: Hearing Sohla say this is just a start is making a lot of white editors quake.

EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter) I know just 'cause you hired one Black food stylist doesn't mean everything's OK now, guys, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah. I mean, it's not just a problem with BA. It's not just a problem with food media. It's every industry everywhere. And like, we really need to do something about it. And it's not just white people against everybody else. We're all racist. Brown people are racist, you know? Black people are - there's a lot of intercommunity, like, [expletive], too, that...

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: ...You know, it's a lot.

SANDERS: We're all fish swimming in racist water. The water itself is racist, and we're all wet.

EL-WAYLLY: Wow. That's exactly right. (Laughter) Yeah.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah, I just want to figure out how to, like, keep this momentum going and keep moving forward. And, like, I want to try and - you know, I feel like I got really lucky that people are listening to me, and I want to try and use this to get some other people a platform to be heard, you know? And I mean, we just need more of us out here talking.

SANDERS: What do you think it was that made people listen when they did in that moment when they hadn't before to you?

EL-WAYLLY: I don't know. I feel like maybe a lot of things. Like, the BA "Test Kitchen" was kind of, like, doing very well. And I was putting out a lot of content myself, too, between Bon Appetit and my personal account, so there was just, like, a lot of eyes watching already. And I think the bigger thing was - I think the thing that hit the viewers and fans was what hit me, too - like, this sense of, like, betrayal, you know, because I saw the BA "Test Kitchen" as a viewer before I was in it. So when I got in there, I felt betrayed, too. Like, whoa, this is all a lie. You know what I mean?

SANDERS: Wow.

EL-WAYLLY: So I think that really stuck with people, as well. People don't like to be lied to. I get it.

SANDERS: You don't have to name names, but, like, what was the most informative and maybe mind-shifting conversation you've had in the last few months about all of this stuff, about race and food, where you left the conversation and said, huh, I see this a different way. I learned something new about this stuff. Was there a moment in the last year or so?

EL-WAYLLY: Actually, yes. Can I tell you something? OK (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah (laughter). Yes.

EL-WAYLLY: OK. So, I decided to try mushrooms for the first time. Can we talk about this? (Laughter).

SANDERS: OK, not like Campbell's Cream of Mushroom.

EL-WAYLLY: Is this a family-friendly show?

SANDERS: I mean, we'll see. Go ahead, though. Tell me. You can't stop now.

EL-WAYLLY: You know, I decided to go for it. Give it a shot, you know?

SANDERS: OK, OK.

EL-WAYLLY: I've heard so many good things, and it really did...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

EL-WAYLLY: It really did open up my mind. I felt, like, this overwhelming sense of gratitude.

SANDERS: To who?

EL-WAYLLY: Like, the world, you know? You really - I think I need to do it, like, every two months.

(LAUGHTER)

EL-WAYLLY: I thought of - I feel like it was the first time I really started to think about things from, like - I think I'm one of these people that I sit around, and I think about other people's feelings a lot just in general. It's just kind of my personality, but I don't know. I guess I really started to think about every Black person I actually knew.

SANDERS: Wait. What? Really? OK, go on. Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: It's weird. Everyone should do shrooms. It really opens up your mind.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

EL-WAYLLY: And I was thinking about, like, my friend from fourth grade, who - we started out in the same place, and we ended up in really different places because we got different opportunities, not because we had different abilities. And I just really started thinking about these things, you know? And the way things are is just really unfair, and we have to figure out how to fix this. That's all. I don't know.

SANDERS: Yeah, you do know. You do know. What was the biggest change in Sohla's day-to-day after that shroom experience?

EL-WAYLLY: Oh, man. I've been waking up feeling, like, joy and gratitude...

SANDERS: OK.

EL-WAYLLY: ...In a way that I never have. It really did change my whole headspace.

SANDERS: How much did you have to take...

EL-WAYLLY: I feel like we went off a weird...

SANDERS: No, listen.

EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Let me tell you, I'm into this. How much did you take?

EL-WAYLLY: So it's this - it's like a chocolate bar and, like, kind of shaped like a Hershey's bar. And, like, one square is a microdose, and then three to four squares is, like, a chill, you know, kind of hang. And then 12 squares is, like, if you really want to go for it. So, like, we ate the whole bar.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.

EL-WAYLLY: I was just looking into my dog's eyes, and I was like, we are one. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

EL-WAYLLY: We're all alive.

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: We're all on this planet together. We have to take care of each other. Everyone should do it. I think that we would achieve world peace, like, immediately.

SANDERS: Coming up, why everything's changed and nothing has.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: When I think about what this last year has meant for you, it was making a very public stance in a very public way and seeing things change after that. And there will be people hearing this chat, thinking about what you've gone through and your experiences and what you've talked about and seeing the casual racism and sexism and classism in their workplaces. And a lot of folks hearing this will relate, and they'll fume, and they'll seethe, but they might not be able to make the Instagram post where they call it out. They might not be able to tweet about it or, you know, speak truth to power in the Zoom all-staff. They might not be able to quit their job. For whatever reasons, probably financial, they won't be able to do what you did. What advice do you have for them, the folks that feel stuck in their own personal Bon Appetits and maybe can't as easily get out?

EL-WAYLLY: Well, I mean, I think, first of all, I think I didn't make any change. Like, I don't think any change happened. I think we just maybe are talking about stuff, but even within Bon Appetit, I don't think any real change is happening. Maybe to start, maybe we should just acknowledge that it's - like, we have a long way to go - everybody.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: So it doesn't need to be, like, a big - like, I had a big statement, and I had a big moment, but it didn't make a big change, to be totally honest. So don't put a lot of pressure on yourself to try and change something that's been a problem for hundreds of years, you know what I mean? I think that everyone should just do whatever they can. And that might just mean reaching out to, like, one coworker who you think is struggling or working - dealing - like, trying to fight for one story at a time. Like, if you work in food media, pushing for one project, one story - like, I don't think it's going to happen in one big thing. Like, the only thing that I accomplished was people started to talk about it, but genuinely, nothing has changed. They just got a couple of - they get a couple of freelancers in once in a while to make it look a little colorful. But on the inside, it's still the same. So we all just have to keep doing these little things every day.

SANDERS: Yeah. Do you feel any pressure now to be, like, the race and food ambassador for the industry?

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah, I really do (laughter).

SANDERS: OK.

EL-WAYLLY: I didn't want this to happen. I just - I do, though. I don't know if I'm saying the right things, but I'm just saying what's honest to me, so I guess that can't be wrong.

SANDERS: Yeah. How do you cope with the pressure you feel?

EL-WAYLLY: I have panic attacks multiple times a week (laughter).

SANDERS: Sohla. Oh, Sohla.

EL-WAYLLY: And you know, I look forward to my quarterly mushrooms.

SANDERS: (Laughter). I'ma need you to - OK, Sohla. Hear me out. Hear me out. I'ma need you to make a recipe book of shroom recipes.

EL-WAYLLY: Oh, my God, I cannot - as soon as this stuff's legal, we're doing - we're cooking with weed. We're cooking with shrooms.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

EL-WAYLLY: That's book two. It's happening.

SANDERS: Oh, you are my culinary hero.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: You know, in thinking about these issues of race and food and the weird, nebulous ways that you can be made to feel undervalued in a white space and how hard that is, I notice that there is - besides the unfairness of it that you feel sometimes - there's almost a crazy-making that comes with it because so many questions about how race plays out in a workplace - they might not ever have definitive answers. So you end up, sometimes, with this stuff not knowing what's up and down, not knowing if you're being undervalued just because you're a person of color or if you're being tokenized, emphasized and prioritized and given more just because you're a person of color.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah.

SANDERS: And there's this crazy-making way in which, over time, if you think about it too much, you can't tell whether the color of your skin is responsible for everything bad or everything good in your career or some combination of the two, if that makes sense. Like, how do you deal with the nebulous nature of race and work? - because there are very few clear-cut, definitive, whole-number answers on this stuff.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah. I mean, when you were talking about, you know, how do you know if you're getting something good or something bad because of your race, that's something - I literally ask myself this question about everything that happens to me. Like, every...

SANDERS: Wow.

EL-WAYLLY: ...Opportunity I get or I don't get, I get in, like, a little head spin. And I'm - like, it happened a lot at the BA because I moved up very quickly.

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: And I just kept thinking, is it because they're just happy they got a brown one? Is it because I'm the darkest person here? Like, I couldn't help but...

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: ...Ask myself those questions. I think the only thing that keeps me grounded is, like, honestly, just talking to my husband, because he's like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: ...The one - you know, he's, like, my foundation. Like, he'll be the one that tells me, like, no, you did do a good job. And you did deserve this. And I need, like - or the opposite. He'll totally tell me the opposite if the opposite is true.

(LAUGHTER)

EL-WAYLLY: So I guess having a voice outside my own head really helps. Within the workplace itself, I think - I know that I'm pretty direct with my supervisors. I've never been, like, scared or intimidated by my bosses. But I struggle with that literally every day, every project. Everything I've ever done in my entire life, I fight with that in my head.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, there's this, like - I think, for a lot of people of color or folks from marginalized backgrounds, there's always a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. And the angel is saying, look at you, you empowered, beautiful being doing great work that's changing the world. And the devil is on the other shoulder saying, you don't deserve any of this. And it's like, who wins the fight today, which...

EL-WAYLLY: Wait. Do white people not have that (laughter)?

SANDERS: Maybe they do. But it feels like it's organized around something other than race.

EL-WAYLLY: Oh, yes, yes. Everyone's got their demons, but they're different.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, because, I think, for the world, race is so much top of mind, when anyone sees a person who is not white, race becomes the lens through which people of color often have to judge and quantify their success. And that's frustrating because it feels like sometimes we don't have the freedom to just be people doing jobs that we love.

EL-WAYLLY: Yes.

SANDERS: There is an added weight and a significance of everything that we do because it's racialized.

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah.

SANDERS: And our bodies mean more because of how they look. And everything has a weighted meaning. Do you feel that?

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Man, you're hitting deep notes here, Sam.

SANDERS: Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

EL-WAYLLY: Yeah. I don't know. I'm, like, struggling with a lot of things in my own head about these things, figuring out your worth and - I don't know. These are, like, deep questions.

SANDERS: This is real deep questions. I love it. I'm going to end by asking you a less deep question. What is the first meal you make for a big dinner party once we can all do that kind of thing again?

EL-WAYLLY: Oh, I think, probably - so the last meal I made before all this happened was a big fried chicken picnic.

SANDERS: OK. Yeah.

EL-WAYLLY: So probably that again. It's, like, the best thing to make for a bunch of people because it's good at room temperature. And I've never met anyone who is not happy with fried chicken.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yes.

EL-WAYLLY: Or fried tofu for my vegetarian friends.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I love it. I mean, when I think of my first big dinner party in the after times, it's just going to be taking a grip of my people to the Cheesecake Factory.

EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: It's going to be great.

EL-WAYLLY: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Sohla, I look forward to meeting you at a Cheesecake Factory near you in the after times. I thank you for this conversation and for the good work that you do. Thank you so much.

EL-WAYLLY: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Next time - next interview at The Cheesecake Factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Sohla El-Waylly. You can catch her "Stump Sohla" series on YouTube and her column, "Off-Script With Sohla," on Food52.

All right, listeners, don't forget - this Friday, we are back with another episode per usual. And for that one, we want to hear the best things that have happened to you all week. Record yourself on your phone. And then just email that file to me. The email address is samsanders@npr.org, samsanders@npr.org. All right, 'til Friday, thank you for listening. Try to eat some good food. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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