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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Bon Appétit’s vegan host Chrissy Tracey: ‘Diversity can never be an overcorrection’

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Chrissy Tracey, Bon Appétit’s first vegan chef, on the magazine’s racism controversy, cooking without measurements and food media’s biggest issue.

It was an Instagram comment that landed Chrissy Tracey the Bon Appétit gig. In May, when virtually every company was conducting a racial audit on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests, the food magazine had its own diversity crisis to deal with. Its editor-in-chief was ousted — on account of being racist; most of its POC staffers were not being paid enough; and the stars of its wildly popular Test Kitchen were calling it and being called out. Bon Appétit was facing much more than just an identity crisis.

Days after announcing to the world that food is political, the magazine was addressing its reckoning on social media. It was about time it dismantled racism from its brands. This was just the start, the message read.

It was met with a lot of hate. “No, this is just the end,” wrote one user. “Get woke, go broke,” commented another. “That’s nice, now pay your goddamn workers,” said a third one. Among the slew of outrage and caps-locked comments were a couple of empathetic reactions. One of those — reflecting on failure being universal and the importance of recognising the need to change — was Tracey’s.

She ended the comment saying she’d love the opportunity to work with the magazine. Two weeks later, Bon Appétit was in her inbox.

“Did I think my comment was going to go anywhere? No. What’s my little two-cents on social media going to do, you know?” Tracey tells me. The vegan chef is sporting a white jumper with a mustard Herschel beanie, long spectacles and dark purple dreadlocks. Talking about the magazine, she has her game face on. “For me, being part of the change from the inside is perhaps the most pivotal position you can be in.”

 

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It’s why she chose to join Bon Appétit as one of its new video hosts — and the first vegan chef — in the first place. Initially, like everyone else, she was confused and shocked. “It was a little hard,” she says. “But they took action, and did so quickly. That was important to me, because they could have easily just been like: ‘Hey, Adam apologised. Everyone’s apologising and trying to do better, and we’ll keep them on.’ But they didn’t do that. And that made me feel they were trying to change.”

The other reason was more personal. “There aren’t many Black chefs who are recognised in the food space, right? But there’s also no vegan representation outside food blogs,” Tracey points out. “There is no vegan media space, no vegan Bon Appétit. So to be able to be a face for so many who didn’t think they could have a voice, that’s just so special to me.”

 

The 26-year-old went vegan in 2019, but she grew up vegetarian. Born to Jamaican parents in Connecticut, she’s a first-generation American, and the sixth of seven kids. “Everything was centred around food in my house. My mom and dad were always cooking,” Tracey recalls fondly, stroking her hair.

Around the age of six, she realised that food was an art form. Soon, she was running a mud pie factory in her backyard, pretending to cook before she was old enough for the kitchen. Laughing, she calls it the “onset of Chrissy becoming this foodie”.

In one of her videos for Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel, she adds a tablespoon of salt to her vegan cacio e pepe. Scroll down and there’s a comment clarifying that Tracey meant a teaspoon instead. It’s a way of cooking she adopted from her mother, who never measured ingredients. “It was always just a conglomerate of whatever she was feeling in the moment. For a lot of people, it’s easy to go through a step-by-step process,” the chef notes. For her, it’s more of an oh-crap-what-did-I-put-in-there affair.

That said, she’s always looked at food from a sustainable perspective. Climate change was a huge factor in her going vegan. Her parents transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle five years ago and were encouraging her to do the same. “I kept failing, because: ‘Eh, what’s one slice of pizza? Who cares if I get sick?’”

Sick because she had IBS and would start throwing up immediately if she consumed dairy. It’s ironic, then, that she found cheese to be the hardest thing to give up when going vegan. “It’s easy if you put your desires aside and focus on the greater good for both humanity and animals,” she says of the transition. “But it’s not easy when you put your own selfish wants and needs at the fore.”

Just before she became plant-based, she began Chrissy’s, a vegetarian and vegan catering business in Connecticut. (Prior to that, she worked in the technology industry for firms including Apple and Yale.) The catering company also has a meal delivery service called Vegan Vibes Meal Prep, the name and the food both Caribbean-inspired.

bon appetit vegan
Photo: Steve Walter

But she soon realised she needed some restaurant experience. “You can’t really be fully immersed in the food industry without understanding what it’s like working with others,” she explains. She got her opportunity in a restaurant trying to add vegan options to the menu. There, she introduced Meatless Mondays, which saw “meat-eaters figuring out what the plant-based craze was about”.

Tracey’s elation has a tell: her hands are always searching for something. This time, it’s her silver locket they’re fiddling with. You can sense her pride in the campaign’s success.

It wasn’t meant to be though. She didn’t feel entirely comfortable at the restaurant: “There was a pressure to get more involved in the meat side of the industry.” They expected her to chop up meat, even if she didn’t eat it. “I wasn’t going to compromise who I am and what my beliefs are just for the experience. My purpose extended beyond what my intentions were for working there, so I had to leave.”

 

Tracey’s first Bon Appétit video was a recipe for fried oyster mushrooms, where she was by herself in a log cabin owned by her boyfriend’s parents. Her second, on the patio there, was with one of the only three remaining original Test Kitchen stars, Brad Leone. “He’s a really cool dude,” says Tracey, confirming the fun-dad image of Leone conjured up by many in the Bon Appétit fandom. “He’s very open-minded, which I appreciated.”

She explains: “A lot of people are very close-minded to veganism and vegetarianism; they automatically shut out the doors of possibilities once they hear those words. It’s always so shocking to me. You’re eating plant-based regularly, you just accompany your plants with meat.

“There’s a stereotype that all vegans are super snooty and exclusionary. Even though [Leone] eats meat, he feels it’s very important to honour and recognise what is occurring every time you eat an animal. That’s still a step forward in the right direction, instead of pretending that it isn’t what it is.”

Pretence is also something Bon Appétit has been accused of. After months of silence, its comeback video featured the new leadership of Dawn Davis, Sonia Chopra and Marcus Samuelsson (who recently came under fire for culturally appropriating a Haitian soup). That video garnered derision and upset, with audiences finding the statement of diversity too forced and accusing the magazine of trying too hard.

This is where Tracey disagrees, and strongly so. “I think people aren’t looking at the bigger picture. This whole issue came out of [the perception] that they were constantly making decisions and judgements based on skin tone. I don’t think diversity can ever be an overcorrection,” she states.

She believes most of that feeling is a result of not seeing the regular favourites — a majority of whom quit the video platform after the controversy. “Molly [Baz], Carla [Lalli Music], the whole crew — they were used to those people. It’s like if someone told you to get a new friend group. But you don’t know them, so how are you supposed to just become friends with them?”

She feels that, having spoken to each of the new video hosts, everyone will fall in love with them too. “You just have to give it time. It’s not going to be the same.”

For now, she’s had a lot of fun. “I’ve had full creative direction over my recipes, which I don’t think a lot of people realise. And that’s been really special to me because I feel non-restricted.” In the coming year, Tracey hopes to showcase her skills of baking, cooking with the seasons through plants, and introduce vegan cheese concepts to Bon Appétit.

 

I ask her what she thinks is food media’s biggest issue right now. “Prior to the last six months, a lack of representation,” she offers, and adds: “Amongst all food media channels.” But she feels there’s been a shift, and most brands have stepped up to the plate, ever since the world broke into protests for Black lives following the killing of George Floyd.

Tracey wasn’t on the streets, but still wanted to make a difference in her local community. “Being at such a disadvantage with inherited wealth and education, and food insecurity being a big issue, I wanted to find a way to highlight and showcase all the talent that existed in my state,” she explains.

That led to the establishment of Black Owned Connecticut, a platform to help up-and-coming businesses. She partnered with the Black Business Alliance in Connecticut to provide businesses access to funding, education and tools, and help them grow.

She also created the Rising Entrepreneur Fund. “I want to be able to provide once a year — and I know it’s not much, but it’s something — a $6,000 scholarship to a student graduating high school and who has a really great business idea,” she says. “I think that’s a beautiful thing, because it’s something I needed.”

For her, representation aside, there’s another gaping problem in food media. “It’s very hard to make your way in without going to the best school. [And] thinking of just vegan cooking, what is that?” Tracey points out, letting out a snigger. “There’s no space for new chefs to be discovered. I can’t even think of all the undiscovered talent that really knows how to cook and has the personality to accompany that. But because they don’t have the money, status and connections, they can’t even dream about being in that position.”

She recalls reaching out to a New York Times writer and asking for advice on how to get into the industry. “They were like: ‘Well, you know, try publishing in your local magazine, blah blah blah,’” she tells me, eyes rolled. Shrugging, she retorts: “Okay, I can do that, but I don’t think that’s going to get me to the New York Times or Bon Appétit.

“How did they even get there? If I don’t have access or certain skills or didn’t go to school for this, how can I be seen or heard?” she asks. Drawing on her personal experience, she encourages people to use their voices, especially on social media. “You never know what the power of a comment can be,” she notes, now twirling her hair onto her chin.

Her gaze moves skywards. Deep in introspection, she says: “It’s important to be intentional about what you’re seeking and just go for it, even if you make yourself silly.” She looks at the Zoom screen again, and smiles. “If you think I haven’t been on Beyoncé’s Instagram and gone: ‘Hey girl, I know you’re vegan. Let me be your chef,’” she shouts, laughing in a high-pitched tone, “you’re out of your mind!”

Read our interview with Buzzfeed’s vegan producer Merle O’Neal.

Anay Mridul
Anay is the managing editor of The Vegan Review. A journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.

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