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Sohla El-Waylly Says There's Still Work To Be Done A Year After Leaving 'Bon Appétit'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For a while, Bon Appetit seemed to be on top of the food world. Then last summer, there was a racial reckoning at the magazine, and the company's popularity seemed to evaporate almost overnight. NPR's Sam Sanders recently interviewed Sohla El-Waylly, one of the chefs who first publicly accused Bon Appetit of racism. She says almost a year later, there is still work to be done.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Before last summer, Sohla was one of the stars of a very popular Bon Appetit video series called the "Test Kitchen."

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

SOHLA EL-WAYLLY: These are the zucchini lentil fritters with a little sprinkle of inspiration from my mom's. Is that good? Was that enough?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It was until you asked, is that good?

EL-WAYLLY: (Laughter).

SANDERS: She was knowledgeable and experienced but also kind of shy and self-deprecating. But last summer, everything changed for Sohla. After the death of George Floyd and the protests his death sparked, several industries began to have some frank conversations about race. And Sohla started that conversation in the food world and at Bon Appetit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EL-WAYLLY: 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.

SANDERS: In June of 2020, a photo surfaced of then-Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport. In the photo, he was at a party in brownface. Sohla called on him to resign in an all-staff meeting over Zoom. And in this series of widely shared Instagram posts, Sohla describes this culture of unequal treatment and pay for people of color at the company. Eventually, other people of color at Bon Appetit began talking about a general climate there. It just felt like white people and white food culture was valued more than anything else. Adam Rapoport stepped down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 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: Sohla has been busy since she left Bon Appetit. She still freelances for the magazine, but she's also writing a cookbook and a food column for Food52. And she's doing a food history series with the History Channel. Sohla also has her own YouTube video series called Stump Sohla.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's time to stump Sohla.

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

SANDERS: But Sohla's still thinking a lot about diversity in the food industry. And for her, it's about more than just headcounts and salaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

SANDERS: For all the conversations she's started, Sohla isn't convinced that she's had as big an impact as some might think.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EL-WAYLLY: I had a big statement, and I had a big moment. But it didn't make a big change to be totally honest.

SANDERS: It did take a big toll on her. Sohla told me she has panic attacks now at least once a week, but she does not regret what she did. And she has some advice for others trying to make change in their industries. Sohla says understand that these problems around race and power - they've been around for a long time, and they'll take a long time to fix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EL-WAYLLY: 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?

SANDERS: Sohla says, do what you can where you are - talking to that one co-worker who's really going through it, fighting for one story or one project, small steps. But she says, no matter what, keep talking.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And you can hear more of Sam's interview with Sohla El-Waylly on his podcast It's Been A Minute from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE STATES' "YOUR GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.