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One young black chef on what food media needs right now

Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, a 16-year-old Oakland chef
Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, a 16-year-old Oakland chef, wants to hear more black voices in food media.
(Nico Oved)

Grief and rage over George Floyd’s death, and the death of countless other unarmed black Americans, were palpable on social media this week, where my feed was filled with blacked-out Instagram squares and impassioned calls to address what writer Ibram X. Kendi has named “the American nightmare”: the racist policies and systemic inequalities that shape everything from who gets stopped by police to who is more likely to die from the coronavirus in America.

Many people shared resources to fight racism and amplify black voices, including lists of community justice organizations, books and black-owned businesses.

One Instagram comment in particular caught my eye, from Rahanna Bisseret Martinez, the 16-year-old Oakland chef who was a finalist on “Top Chef Junior” in 2018, who wrote that the L.A. Times has failed to “celebrate the black lives that have created L.A. food community.”

Her comment made me take a hard look at myself, the newspaper I write for, and what changes we can make to better serve our readers.

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Legacy publications, including the L.A. Times, too often fail to reflect the communities we profess to serve. The culture inside most American newsrooms and media organizations is still predominantly white; pay studies show that journalists of color make less money for doing the same work, and are less likely to be promoted into leadership roles. These things shape the stories that get told, which in turn help shape the national conversation.

Every single one of us who work in media needs to do a better job to address our shortcomings and actively promote fair and inclusive journalism. Sometimes it takes a kick in the pants — or being called out on Instagram — to remind us.

I spoke to Rahanna this week about the changes she wants to see in food media. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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You wrote on Instagram that too much of our journalism this week was focused on restaurant property damage.

I don’t think it’s the main topic at hand right now. It seems like sometimes people use it to derail an important subject. The problem is not protesters. It’s racial injustice and police brutality. It’s people dying.

Many people are sharing lists of black-owned restaurants (including L.A. Times Food). How helpful are these lists?

They’re helpful in putting black-owned businesses in the spotlight and allowing them to reach more people. But I also feel that you can’t combat injustice with capitalism alone. We need social change.

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Also, we can’t just group all black people together. That can kind of pigeonhole black chefs and authors. Not every black chef is going to be speaking or cooking on black topics. We see a lot of European chefs doing Mexican restaurants, Asian restaurants and different things like that. They’re never questioned for cooking different types of foods.

What are some changes you want to see in food media?

More black food editors and black food writers in 2020. There’s no reason why a food section in any newspaper should be without a black writer, and they should be paid the same as their counterparts.

We want restaurant reviewers that are black and understand the complexity of black diaspora foods. We want food and chef events with a multitude of black concepts and leaders. We want to see black people winning, judging, producing and directing televised culinary food programming. We want food media that respects our black heritage foods and all other foods that have been marginalized.

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Rahanna Bisseret Martinez
Rahanna Bisseret Martinez has interned at top Bay Area restaurants, including Californios and Mister Jiu’s.
(Rahanna Bisseret Martinez)

I want to see more content for and about black people.

With cookbooks and cooking-related books, we see cookbooks for Italian and French and you know, all different types of Asian cuisines. But there’s never a black foodways or black-related cookbook section. That’s not a filter that you can apply to your search when you’re searching online.

One of the central discussions in food media these days is who is allowed to cook or write about certain foods.

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I think in the grand scheme of things, anyone can write about any topic. But the fact that the recipes and culture of many people of color aren’t widely taught, it’s hard to write about things most people haven’t been taught about.

Are you hopeful about change?

I’ve been really encouraged and hopeful. I see people from different backgrounds supporting change.

I think change can come from both within and outside of publications. I see new publications coming up like For the Culture from the cookbook author Klancy Miller

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I do see bigger food companies on social media who have posted a picture of a black square and that’s it, which I feel is an easy way to get people on your side to support you. In the long run, that really doesn’t do anything.

A lot of the times what comes with privilege is the ability to not think about these problems. I think we’re at a point now where we can listen to each other.

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Ask the Critics

Restaurants are starting to open, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to dine in yet. What are your thoughts?

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— Veronica L., Facebook

You’re not alone. I also feel uncertain about whether I’m ready to eat in restaurants. California is currently in “Advanced Stage 2” of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-stage plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy. In this stage, restaurants are allowed to reopen under stringent guidelines. But the number of new COVID-19 cases in California has continued to increase in recent days. I’m a worrier by nature, and there are more than enough questions to ruminate on: Is L.A. County reopening too quickly? Is worker safety being compromised for money? Can independent restaurants hang on much longer without reopening, and how will they do in a post-quarantine world governed by the rules of physical distancing? Bill Addison covered this ground with nuance in his newsletter last week. If you missed out, read it here.

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— Two words: robot waiters. How one Dutch restaurant is managing new social distancing rules with help from a couple of shiny white-and-red robots.

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The historic Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue
The historic Canter’s Deli on Fairfax became a protest pit stop last weekend.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)


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