In 2020, it felt like Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen was everywhere. The series of videos, populated by a cast of quirky chefs cooking beautifully shot recipes at the food publication’s office, captured the food-loving public’s attention like a Friday-night serial.
They were a blockbuster for the magazine until revelations about Bon Appétit’s working conditions — marred by pay inequity and racism — led to multiple resignations and the editor-in-chief’s very un-fabulous departure in the summer of that year.
Since then, the magazine’s video arm has brought in more diverse personalities to create food content, but one relic from the past has continued to kick up trouble for the brand. In his Bon Appétit series, “It’s Alive,” chef Brad Leone plays up his rough-and-tumble, everyman personality as he demonstrates food preservation and fermentation methods. Leone and former colleague Claire Saffitz were the stars of the magazine’s previous era, drawing in millions of viewers and acolytes with their off-the-cuff instructional videos.
His fast-and-loose style is fun to watch, but the negative reception to his latest work, an April 4 demo of making pastrami at home, speaks to the sometimes at-odds relationship between popularity and credibility in food media. In the video, Leone walks through the process of making pastrami at home, with results that have many speculating about whether the recipe could make them sick.
Comments under a photo of brown pastrami on Leone’s Instagram page largely criticize the video as “a botulism party,” “extremely dangerous” and “scary.”
In the video, Leone brines beef brisket in a mixture of water, kosher salt, celery juice and whole spices. Celery juice, which contains sodium nitrate, is his substitute for curing salt, a mixture of table salt and sodium nitrite that is essential for preventing bacterial growth in preserved meat products. Leone also adds some sauerkraut liquid with the claim that its microbes will transform the celery’s nitrates into nitrites.
When I asked culinary scientist Ali Bouzari for his thoughts on the video, he noticed some nuance in the process that kept it short of a full-blown “botulism party.” He noted that the celery juice thing doesn’t work for a brine because “just like every peach varies in sugar content or every lemon in acid, every stalk of celery is prone to different nitrate load depending on how it was grown.”
Adam Rosenblum, an East Coast native and chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s Little Red Window, has been perfecting his pastrami technique for the past 16 years. He sticks to curing salt for his brine, but can see why celery juice would appeal as a substitute. “In my mind, a nitrite is a nitrite is a nitrite — as long as you can control the amount you’re putting in. I’ve heard horror stories of someone using the wrong nitrite and too much of it and people getting sick.”
A good recipe is replicable, which is why food publications invest so much in testing. With all the variables that home cooks can bring into the process, you don’t want to end up printing something potentially lethal. For Bouzari, what saves the video from becoming a weapon of mass indigestion is the fact that Leone keeps the brining meat in a refrigerator, at a temperature that inhibits bacterial growth, at the cost of any of the fermentation that Leone claims might be happening.
“It’s not impossible that something really bonkers-slash-dangerous could happen here, but this process is about as microbially risky as brining an autumnal celebration turkey in the fridge for a week and then cooking it,” he wrote in a follow-up email. That said, curing salt is as close to a guarantee as you can get when preserving meat, so why make a video telling viewers to use something as variable as celery juice in a brine for no reason, other than to pass the technique off as something more “natural”?
Even with these nuances, which aren’t explained in any way in the actual video, the outrageous reception to “It’s Alive” shows that significant damage has already been done to Bon Appétit’s reputation. For a food publication, I’d say it’s a big deal to lose readers’ trust that your content won’t make them ill.
When asked to comment on this, a Condé Nast representative responded with this statement: “Our safety practices are of utmost importance at Bon Appétit and we have many processes in place to ensure all content is accurate, fact-checked and safe for viewers. Our culinary production team extensively reviews all of our video content to confirm they adhere to safety protocols. In addition, we have a fermentation expert who oversees our recipes for this series, including this video.”
Even so, this isn’t the first time Leone and Bon Appétit have offered potentially hazardous advice in cooking videos. In February 2021, the food publication removed an “It’s Alive” episode about canning seafood in a water bath from its YouTube channel after a wave of blowback from canning experts. According to many reputable sources, including the Food and Drug Administration, the only safe way to can seafood and fish is via pressure canning; anything else puts you at great risk for botulism.
Bon Appétit hasn’t taken this latest video down, though it did add a note suggesting that viewers interested in making pastrami try a recipe that actually adheres to “food safety standards.”
It’s wild to see a mainstream media company that boasts 15 million social media followers post cooking videos that suggest you don’t follow their advice, and I’m not sure what exactly distinguishes that action from teens posting TikTok videos of themselves doing backflips into dumpsters.
This is one of the darker outcomes of digital media: a Faustian bargain where you trade audience engagement for potentially causing people harm. It doesn’t look great for Bon Appétit to continue holding Leone up as a culinary expert, let alone one of its stars.
Meanwhile, employees at the publications of Condé Nast, which include Bon Appétit and its video arm, have recently pushed for unionization amid continuing wage inequity and racial discrimination. The fact that the company continues to focus resources into thinly researched, white-led content like “It’s Alive” is troubling amid the layoffs and pay issues cited by the Condé Nast Union, which still hasn’t been recognized by company management.
At best, the presence of charismatic mediocrity at the top sucks up a lot of the oxygen in a publication that is likely filled with people who want things to change for the better. At worst, it might end up seriously harming some hapless reader one day.