During yet another era of racial reckonings in the United States, the world of culinary media has faced an upheaval of its own. Probably best exemplified by the downfall of Bon Appetit Magazine’s digital Test Kitchen stopping production. This process could’ve been destructive to the food industry altogether. However, it actually instigated a long-overdue conversation about representation. Which incidentally started with a very talented whistleblower: Sohla El Waylly.
Who is Sohla
Raised by an immigrant family in The San Fernando Valley, El-Waylly claims that cooking is her way to connect to the people around her. She then decided to enroll in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, where she met her husband Ham El Waylly. The two of them opened a diner in Brooklyn, serving high-quality American food. However, because of their mixed heritages (Sohla being Bengali-American and Ham Bolivian-Egyptian), their predominantly White customer base was disappointed by the lack of “foreign” or “exotic” ingredients in their food. Causing an insufficient amount of support from investors, and the restaurant to shut down after eleven months.
Soon after, Bon Appetit magazine hired Sohla as a junior editor, despite having over fifteen years of direct culinary experience. Almost decades more than her senior counterparts.
Along with fulfilling her duties as editor, she also joined their wildly successful YouTube series: The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen. A channel where the publication’s staffers test recipes on camera and goof off with their co-workers. This also created a relatable cast of characters for devoted fans to follow. Sohla, mostly in the background of these videos, is often called at a moment’s notice to help her White co-workers complete tasks that they should already know how to do. From laborious efforts like tempering chocolate to simply explaining what a dosa is. Sohla was tokenized as the “fairy godmother” of the series, popping up to help even if she was busy.
The downfall of Bon Appetit
The inevitable downfall of Bon Appetit’s broken system of employment came in early summer. When images of Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport in brown face resurfaced on Instagram. Leading Sohla, already fed up with the toxic company culture, to ask Rapoport to resign during a company-wide Zoom meeting.
After Rapoport refusing, Sohla then took to Instagram to explain the lack of equal pay at the food company, where she revealed that she is being compensated much less than her White counterparts. In addition to zero payment for her video appearances.
Sohla then received an outpour of support, which included two of the only Black staffers voicing similar concerns. Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, Rapaport’s former assistant even gave a few harrowing anecdotes about working alongside the EIC. Stating that once, when she asked what kind of coffee he wanted he simply said: “Rihanna.”
Rapoport did eventually step down. Followed by Sohla and a majority of the other featured editors severing ties with Conde Nast (the company that runs video for Bon Appetit). Due to the fact that even months after the initial wake up call, the company didn’t significantly change.
However, despite the grim outlook, Sohla has become a highly celebrated figure in the culinary industry. Her outspoken nature representing the many voices of undervalued, marginalized chefs.
Leading Andrew Rea to reach out and ask Sohla to join his wildly popular YouTube cooking show: “Binging with Babish.” She now headlines a new segment on his channel titled: “Stump Sohla.” Where, every Sunday, she experiments with unorthodox cooking methods and out-of-the-box ingredients. Such as creating a tasting menu using food only found at a local bodega. Or, making an entire Thanksgiving meal that can be eaten in zero-gravity. Oh—and she gets paid fairly too.
The show had its premiere over a month ago, and every episode since has amassed over 2 million views. Proving that Sohla just might be more valuable than her previous workspace pegged her to be.
Besides the undoubted fun of watching “Stump Sohla,” it’s also a clear celebration of her abilities. Even the title is an appraisal of her unstoppable culinary nature. Through this positive setting, she soars through each video with confidence and ease, and not without earnestly reassuring the audience that we “can do this too.” Additionally, even though Rea is head of the operations, he simply sits back and lets Sohla take the reins. Only to return during the last minute of the video to excitedly taste her successful creations.
Why she’s important
Sohla having this space in the expansive world of food media is incredibly important. It’s a rarity for a woman of color to find both creative freedom and equitable treatment in her industry. Shown by the annual Top Fifty Chef list, which mostly awards older White men year after year. This unnecessary prestige even allows them to cook outside of their heritages. For example, no one bats an eye when White chef Andrew Zimmern creates a Chinese takeout empire. While chefs of color can only cook within their respective cultures. A blockade most likely set up to make them palatable in a position of power, if they even get that far.
As a result, “Stump Sohla” represents a type of food utopia. She can experiment, mess up, and just have fun while showing off her years of hard work. She isn’t a monolithic version of her culture, only creating “brown” recipes at every turn. The channel shows her to be what she actually is: a dynamic chef who can be as highly regarded as the Bobby Flays and Paul Hollywoods of the world. Or, even more so. Sohla’s success is downright inspiring, but still an exception. El Wylly speaking out against her toxic work culture was long overdue and in most cases, will probably not go down as well in other corporate settings where racism is intrinsic.
Her work signals a new future of independently made culinary content and shows how charismatic and absolutely powerful female chefs of color can really be. But, with every Dorito and La Croix glazed tasting menu, she’s also carving out a mere start for all the work that needs to be done.