No choice but to quit: Priya Krishna chose unemployment over a workplace that didn’t work

From underpaid and underappreciated to “the privilege of a lifetime,” a happy ending that defied the pandemic.

Priya Krishna’s job shift came during the pandemic, though not because of it: She and two other employees of color at Bon Appétit resigned in August 2020, about two months after editor Adam Rapoport left his post amid charges of racism—and after contract negotiations with the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen employees foundered. She had been freelancing in addition to her Test Kitchen work; suddenly those assignments were all she had, and a lot of it quickly evaporated as the restaurant industry closed up shop. No regular gig and too little freelance work, in the midst of a shutdown with no end in sight: Not the most promising of futures.

I remember the first day of working from home at Bon Appétit; I was at my parent’s place in Dallas where I ended up staying for three months. I had lost a ton of freelancing assignments and sort of mentally accepted that my income was going to be a certain amount less. But I thought: I can live off of this, and that’s fine.

The industry I reported on was imploding, with no help from the government; adding to that was the killing of George Floyd and all the protests that ensued. It made me think about my blind spots as a journalist, as a person, and how can I be better, what I can improve. There was a lot of anxiety, self-reflection, trying to figure out how to do the most good in the privileged position I was in. Reporting was really helpful, shining a light on voices who I felt at that moment needed to be highlighted.

I came back to New York on a Sunday in June, and the next day, that Monday, was when Adam Rapoport resigned. I found out when everyone else found out, on social media.

Us leaving will send a really important message to people about the importance, especially for a person of color, of valuing yourself, realizing this industry needs us more than we need it.

That summer I hit an inflection point where you’re doing something that on the outside feels like you are succeeding, moving in an upward trajectory, but personally feels like you’re about to implode every day. That was beginning to be my experience on the video side of Bon Appétit, compounded by the quarantine and everything else. From the outside it seemed like the work was growing my career and my following—bringing a lot of people joy—but in reality it was making me feel not valued. Like I was lesser than.

A headshot photo of Priya Krishna. June 2021

Edlyn D’Souza

Priya resigned from Bon Appétit two months after editor Adam Rapoport left his position amid charges of racism.

I didn’t decide to quit outright: I decided that first I’d try to negotiate the fairest contract possible. But if that didn’t work, I felt comfortable walking away. I’d gotten what I could get out of this. It was time to turn a new page and only do things that would make me feel good about myself, and work for places that value me. It’s important to note that walking away from a bad situation requires a certain amount of privilege. I wasn’t getting paid very much in the first place, and I had savings, I had other projects going on, a cookbook, a lot of other stuff. I was willing to bet on myself, which sounds well and good, but if you need to pay the bills, it’s not always possible.

A big part of my calculus was, well, I can afford to leave. I am unhappy here. Us leaving—there were three of us—will send a really important message to people about the importance, especially for a person of color, of valuing yourself, realizing this industry needs us more than we need it. I might as well use the privilege I have to try and help others who are a bit earlier in the process—help them value themselves and not end up in the situation I ended up in, underpaid and unhappy.

It’s like being in a bad relationship, right? You always want to think the best of the other person. You always want to give them another chance. ‘Maybe I can change them. Maybe I can turn this into a workplace I want to work at. Maybe this will get better.’ There were a lot of promises I was hanging onto, hoping that if those promises were kept, maybe this would be a place where I could feel happier. I kept that up for months, maybe even a year, before I realized things were just not going to improve.

Those of us who left have benefited from the visibility of all of this. There are many shitty workplaces. It just so happened that Bon Appétit was a highly visible, shitty workplace. I knew it was going to be okay. We all had platforms. We all had visibility. Not everyone has that; not everyone can take that leap. But we did. I left thinking, ‘Let’s see what comes my way and I’ll figure out how to make a living out of it.’

There’s a lot of value I hope to add to the food section, and I want to own that—not feel like I have to tiptoe around because I’m a guest in someone else’s house.

I started freelancing for The New York Times in 2016. The Times was sort of my white whale; I really wanted to write a story for them. I wore one of the editors down with ideas until they finally said, ‘Okay, you can write 600 words on the mithai (Hindi for ‘sweets’) shop you love in Houston.’ And I thought, ‘I know I can do this. I need to hit this assignment out of the park and get my foot in the door.’ Then I kept pitching stories, kept pitching stories, but nothing really landed for another year.

Or they’d send me tips: ‘Look into this and see what you come up with.’ It was a chance for me to prove that I could take some little inkling of an idea and expand it into a full-fledged story. And a lot of it was building a relationship, turning in my copy on time, filing it with no spelling or grammatical errors, doing basic fact-checking, learning as I went. I have Post-Its on my computer about words my editor doesn’t like, things like that.

And then, last summer, I saw that the Times was hiring some reporters, so I applied, probably last July. I started the interview process in the fall, after I left Bon Appétit. It was a very, very long, extensive process, and I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months. I felt like I had a good chance, but I also didn’t want to make any assumptions or get too excited.  

I always like to operate from a worst-case-scenario perspective. Let’s assume I don’t get this job, what’s my way forward? Then if I get the job, great.

I found out I got it in February.

I’ve only had one full-time job and that was at Lucky Peach, my first job out of college. I was just grateful to have a job in food media because at that time, working in this field felt so inaccessible, impossible to break into. Even though it was a customer service job, I was happy to be there. And in a way, I feel like that about the Times: I’m just happy to be there. But I also have a lot of confidence. I know how to write for them. I have a track record and I feel really good about what I have to offer.

If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that while it is the privilege of a lifetime to work at the Times, I think I bring a lot to the table. There’s a lot of value I hope to add to the food section, and I want to own that—not feel like I have to tiptoe around because I’m a guest in someone else’s house. I would love to be there for the long haul to help shape the food section. They’ve made so many hires who are going to shape the future of food coverage; it’s really exciting. I feel grateful. But I also I feel imposter syndrome. I have to keep reminding myself that I have done the work. I have put in the hours, I have pounded the pavement writing stories.

I literally had a list of 15 stories I was ready to bring on my first day at work.

I think I’m more aware of my blind spots than I was before. And I’m willing to take things a little bit slower if it means I’m doing something more thoughtfully. I think it’s important to get an assignment, take a step back, and evaluate if I am the right person for this assignment. Can the framing of the assignment be thought about in a more nuanced way? I’d like to think I put a bit more thought and care into my actions now. I am also not as obsessed with needing to be scheduled and productive every minute of my day. I’ve gotten a lot better at taking a step back and taking time for myself, and to assist others. I’m looking a bit more outward than inward these days, which I think is a good thing.

Priya Krishna is a food reporter for The New York Times and author of the best-selling cookbook, Indian-ish.

Karen Stabiner is The Counter's West Coast editor and the author of Generation Chef, about a young chef who opens his first restaurant. Karen teaches at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism; to learn more about her books and articles, visit karenstabiner.com.