“Acquiring press is like rolling dice. It’s never a straight line, and never a perfect exchange.”
Chef Behzad Jamshidi, founder of Moosh NYC, a collaborative platform for hospitality workers, is telling me about his first time landing a mention in the New York Times. He had spent the entire weekend cooking a multicourse meal for more than 120 people — all for a $500 flat fee on the organizer’s promise of a prominent feature.
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The event, a theatrical Seder that brought in such celebrity guests as Katie Couric and Antoni Porowski, wasn’t the first time Jamshidi had worked with the organizers under grueling terms. When asked why, he sighed. “I needed [press] to get a green card,” he said. “My livelihood was on the precipice of generating media for myself — it wasn’t about personal validation, but a matter of continuing to live and work here.”
For his efforts, he received a one-line mention — sans food photographs — at the end of an 1,100-word article. He was exhausted and angry, but had little recourse because the coverage promise came not from the Times but from the event organizers.
Jamshidi’s experience is common for those seeking a chance at so-called earned media — that is, unpaid coverage. While readers may assume all such mentions are based on merit, critics with an insider perspective of the press cycle cite an unfair system that prioritizes those with power and money.
When operating in an industry as competitive as food, press accolades may very well launch a career, cause a concept to go viral, even turn a previously under-the-radar city into a destination — while the lack thereof may mean an uphill battle for survival. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has threatened the livelihoods of so many in the restaurant industry, the stakes are even higher.
Acquiring the social clout to pique the interest of, or recognition from, food media is an expensive process in and of itself. Even when no dollars exchange hands, the cost of repeated exposure and familiarization can be calculated in time. “Look at the [James] Beard House — I did a dinner there in 2011, and not only did it cost me $10,000 for the flights, food, staff, it was a lot of time away from my restaurant, and I don’t get paid,” says San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn. (Per formal Beard Foundation policy, she was given a stipend of $30 per guest to offset expenses. The foundation recently announced that when it resumes Beard House events, “it will be with a new financial model that prioritizes compensating talent.”)
When asked why she still went through with the event, her answer is familiar: “I thought it would be a way to bring attention to what we were doing,” she says. “We all need exposure, that’s the reality of it.” (Seven years later, Crenn won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: West.)
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In the case of chef Melissa King, a “Top Chef” winner now running her own partnerships company as well as a product line called King Sauce, being able to participate in a life-changing opportunity came down to her bank account. When she was approached by the producers of the Bravo show, she was “a private chef … so I had saved up money and could still pay my bills. If I had applied when I was still working at a restaurant … I wouldn’t have had the financial means to participate.”
In her eyes, the financial gamble was worthwhile. Filming took place over an unpaid period of six weeks, and King placed fourth in “Top Chef: Boston” and later won “Top Chef: All Stars LA.” However, she recognizes that these kinds of TV opportunities aren’t an option for many others: “We need to respect that talent should be paid.”
As Jamshidi says, “Creating your own options requires you having the network to mobilize your ideas.” In his case, the best access he had to press coverage was through the event organizers he worked with, who were friends with reporters from outlets such as the Times and Vogue.
For others, the key is being able to hire people with those connections.“There are still many newsrooms, oftentimes those with fewer resources or smaller staffs, that solely lean on PR pitches,” says Whitney Stringer, who helms an eponymous PR company, “and often publicists only represent certain kinds of people … which means many female entrepreneurs, people of color, Black business owners get overlooked.”
For those without such connections, researching writers and sending cold emails becomes required coursework: “I studied how to write emails to editors,” says Philadelphia chef Omar Tate, founder of Honeysuckle, a platform that uses food to discuss ideas and nuance of Blackness. “And I know who I’m emailing because I’ve studied that person. I went to book signings. … I bought my own ticket to media events just to meet people.”
Yet even among those who find the means to participate, the process of deciding who and what are valuable and unique enough for coverage is subject to the biases of an unbalanced newsroom. As Bon Appetit’s restaurant editor Elyse Inamine wrote in a public statement this year, potential stories that found the most support in her office had “the same aesthetic, cuisine, and chefs” that appealed to her “white, straight, upper-middle class and urban-dwelling” peers, while her pitches “fell with a thud on the cutting room floor, no cushion of mutual experience to buoy them.”
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After all, humans are proven to agree with and favor those we share similarities with. “The things we find pleasant are racialized, they are determined by our background, and they reify our tendencies towards group thinking,” says Soleil Ho, the San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic.
With such concentration of power in a few hands, marginalized groups and organizations with less funding can be overlooked unless those in media work to expand and deepen their coverage. As Food & Wine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah explains, the magazine’s Best Restaurants list, which she leads, “fortunately and unfortunately, is still based on an opinion of a person. Recognize it is one person. That is why having more perspectives is deeply important.” This year’s list featured Thattu, a Keralan restaurant inside a Chicago food hall. As Shah says, “I’m not sure others understand what it means to have a Keralan restaurant to represent that part of India — but I know, and it is a big deal.”
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To Shah and Ho, one key action is actively widening their search net (including using the Hot & New feature on Yelp, which Ho describes as “oddly democratic”). “Restaurants with PR firms are able to get on my radar that much faster,” explains Shah, “but I only give so much weight to it.” (Ho adds, somewhat cheekily, “The last piece I wrote that came from a PR pitch was Le Colonial — it doesn’t guarantee you positive coverage.”)
Yet hiring PR still does not reduce the burden of free product and meals, in the form of marketing campaigns that include press dinners and samples sent to media outlets. Jing Gao, the chef behind the spice and condiment company Fly By Jing, says giving away inventory costs “in the thousands of dollars” annually. So what happens to those who can’t afford such giveaways? Many businesses, including Gao’s, try to never find out.
She recounts two examples: Once when Bon Appetit’s marketing department asked for (and she sent) several cases of chili sauce for an event; another when an editor asked for more jars, first “heavily implying there would be a mention in an upcoming issue … as a ‘carrot’ ” — and later confirming inclusion — “but it never happened.” (A Bon Appetit spokeswoman said it is a common practice for food media to ask for product donations for inclusion in “swag bags,” and Fly By Jing did receive a mention on the channel’s Instagram Stories as a result.)
This “unspoken quid pro quo,” as Ho describes, of free food for potential coverage has become a de facto method of exchange despite the natural conflict of interest. Many food businesses do not have the budget to “pay” the dues necessary for landing media coverage, so their only outlet is their product itself. Ho says the phenomenon is industry-wide: “So many places are guilty, from fancy restaurants to mom-and-pop shops.” On the other hand, freelancers who often pitch and write about these businesses are not given budgets to sample new products or dine at restaurants, and they may not be subject to the same codes of ethics that prohibit staff writers at publications such as The Washington Post from taking freebies. Thus, “those [food] costs are externalized elsewhere,” Ho says, and the places that are pitched and featured are those that can afford to offer freebies.
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The first step to rectifying these issues sounds very familiar: diversify. At the James Beard House, former culinary director Jameeale Arzeno says employees “need to be asking, ‘Who is on the board? What are their interests? Who gets the final say on the programming? Are they representative of our industry — that is, primarily people of color?’ ” (The answer at the Beard Foundation: Four people of color are on a board of 24.)
Better representation could also help alleviate the pressure on a handful of people of color in high-profile positions to “single-handedly fix systemic issues,” as Shah describes. “Sometimes I feel it is my job, as the only PoC running a national list. I don’t know if it’s self-inflicted or if the pressure is actually out there. But I feel I need to reach the places others don’t, to stretch the same budget to get to more places that others may not feel are worth their limited resources.”
Redefining “chef” and “restaurant” can also help change who gets covered. “Cooking is not a one-note experience,” says King. “Look outside the box and write about chefs with an alternate career. The more we talk about it, the more it becomes normalized.”
Shah has expanded “restaurant” to include food trucks, pop-ups and food halls — “things that don’t require a lease on the space.” “The idea that you can’t find hospitality in a nontraditional space does not feel inclusive or true to me,” she says.
Both she and Ho stress the influence of reader feedback. “Reader tips are what papers run on. I read them more closely than PR emails,” says Ho. Similarly, consumers can hold the press accountable with their dollars, such as with the recent uproar over Bon Appetit’s inequitable pay structure.
Tate says consumers, writers and editors alike need to scrutinize the privilege involved at every step of media coverage. “We need to look at food as a full package,” Tate says. “We must unpack it every time we talk about it.” This is hard work: “Part of being well-read is seeing and knowing the connections. Who owns the places? Who comes from the same kitchens?” Ho says. “You must be skeptical, even towards your own work.”
Ultimately, Tate says, “we are all linked.” Unless we look at the relationships between media and underrepresented subjects “and say, ‘We don’t want this dynamic anymore,’ we’ll just end up in the same mouse wheel.”
Dorsey is a chef, writer and founder of a nonprofit community think tank called Studio ATAO.