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Regional Interests

Bryant Terry Doesn’t Want This Moment of Food Media Diversity to Be a Passing Fad

Bryant Terry leads Ten Speed Press’s new imprint, Four Color Books, which focuses on BIPOC creators. (Adrian Octavius Walker)

If you roll in food activist circles here in the Bay Area, chances are pretty high that you’ve attended some marquee event emceed by Bryant Terry, or have one of his wildly successful cookbooks on your bookshelf. Over the past two decades or so, the chef, author and activist has established himself as an elder statesman of the various Bay Area food movements. He is the Museum of the African Diaspora’s first ever chef-in-residence. He’s won a James Beard Award and an NAACP Image award.

Indeed, in a food media landscape that remains inordinately white—and, in some cases, actively racist—Terry has put together the kind of resume that’s in a class of its own.

And that, as Terry tells it, is a large part of the problem. Now, with Ten Speed Press’s recent announcement that he is heading up a new imprint called 4 Color Books, which will focus exclusively on publishing books by BIPOC chefs, writers, artists and activists, Terry wants to help provide the kinds of opportunities that were hard to come by when he was first starting out in the industry.

The imprint’s first book—curated and edited by Terry himself—is Black Food, a “recipe-driven anthology” exploring Black foodways across the African Diaspora, slated for release in October. It’s got an international list of contributors but is especially loaded with essays and recipes by Bay Area contributors like Miss Ollie’s chef-owner Sarah Kirnon and Selasie Dotse (formerly of Lazy Bear). The imprint’s second book will be the debut cookbook for Oakland’s own 17-year-old “chef prodigy,” and Top Chef Junior finalist, Rahanna Bisseret Martinez.

Later in the fall, 4 Color will also host a huge Black food summit that Terry describes as an opportunity for a whole range of Black folks in the industry—chefs, authors, scholars—to gather together to learn new skills and build meaningful relationships with one another.

When I caught up with Terry by phone recently, the Oakland resident spoke at length about his goals for the new imprint, which he hopes will help build a brighter, more sustainable future for people of color who are interested in working in food media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the origins of 4 Color and why you think it’s important for it to exist. What do you think you’ll be able to do with this sort of imprint that wouldn’t be possible by, say, just pushing for more diverse titles at the publishing house as a whole?

My agent [Danielle Svetcov] and I have long had a vision of me having an imprint. Fast forward to 2020, when we had the uprisings [after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota] and also the revelation that many of these legacy food media institutions had white supremacist and racist practices. For me, I just felt an urgency to write this Black Food anthology that I put together with over 100 contributors throughout the African diaspora. 

In the earliest stages, I was very clear that I wanted to have a mostly Black, if not all Black, creative team working on the book. We needed a Black designer who understood Black visual language and Black aesthetics and just understood Black history and had a Black viewpoint. But when it came time to put together the team, in terms of the photographer, food stylist and prop stylist—all the “below-the-line” people—it was a little disheartening because I could barely put together a short list of half a dozen super-talented food photographers that we felt like, “Yeah, this is who we want to work with.” And when you start talking about things like prop stylists and food stylists, the list gets even shorter.

And so we pitched the imprint because I wanted to have an action arm of [4 Color] where we are really working to diversify food media. I was just like, this is a problem. This is beyond DEI. This is about changing structures and really putting in the elbow grease to ensure that we’re creating pipelines so that there will be more BIPOC folks who are food photographers, food stylists and prop stylists. Because the response typically is, “Well, there just aren’t enough out there. We looked, and we couldn’t find any,” or whatever excuses some of these publishers might have. 

Black Food will be published in October. (4 Color Books/Ten Speed Press)

Is it really that Black or BIPOC food stylists and prop stylists don’t exist, then, or is it just that they haven’t had the opportunities to get experience working at the level—or with the stature of publication—that would allow them to be successful at the sort of roles that you were envisioning? 

I think it’s a little bit of both. When you’re pulling from just a small handful of people, then the odds that you’re going to have a rich diversity of styles, approaches and aesthetics—it’s much slimmer. I think it’s about increasing the volume of Black or BIPOC people who are doing food photography, food styling and prop styling. It’s also about creating pipelines and mentorship opportunities. Because the photographers who are getting the big jobs, who are well established and respected, are mostly white men. That type of photography, you learn through mentorship, through being on set. You learn by doing. So it’s important for me to think about how we can connect people with these more experienced food creatives.

We’re practicing it already. We’re getting pitches weekly from individuals who just email us directly, and we have people that we’ve been keeping our eye on for years who have a great story and whatever kinds of accolades and pedigrees. But they haven’t written a book. They don’t know anything about publishing.

I just feel like it’s one thing to talk about BIPOC folks needing those opportunities and another to really create an atmosphere where we’re nurturing people in that way. That’s something that we’re committed to doing.

If we were to look back to 10 years ago, I think it would be fair to say that the situation for people of color—and for Black folks, in particular—in food media was pretty dismal as far as representation is concerned, whether we’re talking about food criticism, bylines in prestige publications or high-profile cookbooks. To what extent do you think things have changed or improved?

I mean, significantly. If you think about some of the most prestigious publications—for example, in the New York Times, you have people like Yewande Komolafe, who’s on staff there, who’s really celebrating African food. You have Dawn Davis, who is now the editor in chief at Bon Appétit. Granted, they’re in a crisis moment, and they really didn’t have any other choice but to bring a BIPOC person on—but they made a great decision in bringing her on. I think about many of my friends who started off just writing for blogs or online publications, and now they’re getting bylines and writing huge cover stories for Food & Wine and the New York Times.

I think that we’ve seen movement, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Just historically when you have a protest moment like 2020, especially coupled with many of these institutions being embarrassed, then, of course they’re invested in repairing reputational harm. I’ll tell you what we’re going to see in the next couple years: We’re going to see a lot of books by Black food creatives, whether they be cookbooks or other food-related books. My question is when the window closes and folks feel comfortable again—when these institutions feel comfortable again—then what?

That’s why, for me in 2020, it was about seizing the moment to actually have some type of institutional power. These institutions are largely white in terms of the editors-in-chief, the people making decisions in the publishing houses and the people in the art departments. There just aren’t a lot of BIPOC folks, and so that’s why 4 Color, I hope, serves as an inspiring example of how we can move beyond just getting a check for projects and think about more sustainable ways that we can make structural change.

I worry, too, that some of these changes in food media might wind up just being a passing fad—especially since, as you note, many of the people in the positions of greatest decision-making power are still white men. How can efforts like yours and those of folks like Stephen Satterfield [of Whetstone Media and the Netflix series High on the Hog] move the needle in terms of creating a more sustainable future for Black creators and other people of color who want to be involved in food media?

I think we can look at Stephen’s Whetstone Media as an example: Coming off of the popularity of High on the Hog, a couple of weeks ago he was doing a big fundraising push. What that says to me is that the success of these institutions hinges on funding. People need to have capital to actually fund the work and pay people to ensure their long-term sustainability.

This is a larger conversation around these moments we’ve seen over the past year that confirmed a lot of suspicions that people have had about late-state capitalism not really caring about regular, everyday people. We can’t even get consistent stimulus checks! The gap between the richest among us and the rest of us has widened so much. So a lot of people are feeling like we can’t depend on these systems. We have to create our own parallel institutions that will ensure our well-being because if we wait around for the U.S. government—if we wait around for capitalism to save us—then we’ll be waiting forever. 

Something I’m very intentional about with the different authors that we’re working with is that I’m thinking beyond just one book—I’m thinking about the arc of the author’s career. I want to help bring them up to a level where they have—and pardon the colonialist language—their own empire. I want [17-year-old Oakland chef] Rahanna Bisseret Martinez’s book project to be the first of many. I want her to have a show; she deserves a show. Whatever she wants to do, I want her to feel like she has the support and mentorship to have a real thriving brand and business.

All the work that I’m doing is just a formalizing of what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. I’ve always felt like it was important for me to pay it forward and mentor and support budding authors and other food creatives, because I was lucky enough to have that mentorship and support when I first started off. Now it feels good to actually be able to have some power to go beyond just giving advice, but to actually help support people’s careers.

Copyright 2021 KQED