Published by a crew of innovative high schoolers, Pass the Spatula offers a fresh vision for food writing.
As the restaurant industry was forced to pivot in the wake of COVID-19, Food and Finance High School’s curriculum found itself in a similar position. At the New York City culinary high school, students’ mornings are devoted to general courses like English and history before breaking out into their own internships, working the line at restaurants or assisting with social media for food organizations. Last year’s junior showcase—an annual event with food prepared and served by the entire class—was put on hold. But staying true to their mission to highlight trailblazing chefs of color, the elements of the showcase evolved into Pass the Spatula, a student-run food magazine released in August 2020. (You can order a copy here.)
Paging through the one-off print magazine, it’s clear that the scope of stories and themes are ambitious for any journalist, let alone a group of students balancing the workload with calculus homework and sharpening their knife skills. Each aspect of production—creative direction, writing, reporting, illustration, partnerships, and recipe development—was led by the Manhattan-based high school’s 2020 junior class, with assistance from Cherry Bombe founder Kerry Diamond. The 120-page magazine strikes a balance between past and modern histories, highlighting historic chefs and food figures and today’s industry leaders, seen through the lens of the next generation of chefs, writers, and creators. Articles include everything from personal reflections on their past kitchen internships and extracurriculars like cooking contests to centerfold interviews with Padma Lakshmi, JJ Johnson, and Kia Damon, accompanied by recipes each of them inspired.
“There are so many injustices happening today and it’s the younger generation that
has to take charge. Being silent is no longer an option,” writes Jade Atkins in the magazine’s opening letter from the editor. “It’s crazy really, but I hope this magazine can accomplish something in helping people acknowledge what the world is missing out on and what they have been failing to address when it comes to chefs of color.”
Now seniors and soon entering their final semesters of high school, the Pass the Spatula team looks back on their stint in food media and considers its impact on their futures: taking on freelance writing and internships at other food publications, local restaurants, and bakeries. I recently spoke with the magazine’s creative team—editor in chief Jade Atkins, co-creative director Hasanah Sabree, managing editor Leonel Ramirez, and marketing manager Anthony Trabasas—about the gaps they most urgently wanted to fill in food media, expanding the idea of the food industry beyond hospitality, and the types of cookbooks they’d like to author one day.
To start off, how did this idea come about? How were you able to coordinate this with remote learning and not being in the environment that you’re used to?
Hasanah Sabree: It was supposed to be that every junior class at Food and Finance High School has this junior showcase, and we would feature a main topic. Our idea was [writing about] Black chefs, basically, but since the pandemic happened, we couldn’t really have people walking around touching food and eating. So, and you know, everyone was at home. We worked with Cherry Bombe to make this magazine happen and try to showcase all of our ideas into this magazine. So that’s kind of how it started.
Leonel Ramirez: And before this year, the media wasn’t really at our school. We kind of had the little classes and stuff, or a yearly thing where we have all these people come in, we’d have one or two people in the media that write. We have Kerry Diamond, who Hasanah mentioned—she’s been working with our school for a little while, but it wasn’t really a big prospect [of ending up with a career in media]. It’s either you go to culinary school, you own a restaurant, and that’s pretty much about it. And not that that’s wrong, but there are so many more aspects to the food industry.
Speaking for myself, I don’t want to be a chef. I like cooking, but I don’t see myself doing that. So I’m like, “Okay, where am I going to go?” Even though a lot of us are interested in food, and a lot of us do want to take this route, we want to utilize the education that we’ve been learning for all this time. Because if you’re going to do something different, then we don’t want it to look like something we got from years prior or something we had last year, like [the theme of] zero waste. We wanted something that worked off of what was actually going on. And most of the kids [at Food and Finance High School] are BIPOC. So, kind of [through] that notion, this began.
And I think this format may have given the showcase a larger reach than you would have with the traditional showcase.
Anthony Trabasas: Especially when the theme is about, let’s say, pioneering chefs of color, that team was brought life by our batch during the start of the year, but once the George Floyd protests, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, started to progress, you know—I mean, the overall message of our magazine really rode the wave. So, you know, again, especially with our magazine presenting so many different issues that are really pressing toward the events that happened in the past, it was just really unprecedented of how far and how big our magazine spread throughout the country or even throughout the world.
What were the things that you noticed in food media that you wanted to avoid?
Leonel Ramirez: I would say . . . Don’t make it look like you’re doing it to get a pretty picture. Don’t make it look like you’re doing it because, “Oh, we need this Indian chef just for the sake of the magazine, otherwise we’re going to get called out on it or bashed for it.” No, we wanted to feature [Priya Krishna] for the right reasons, because she’s talented. We want that representation. But we also want to acknowledge that she’s paving the way for people like us. I also wrote a piece on queer chefs. Because even within the community, we’re so marginalized, and there’s still prejudice within the system. I didn’t want to make it look like, “Oh, just because we need that gay representation and that queer representation.” No, we want to celebrate their queerness. But at the end of the day, being queer isn’t the only thing that makes them them. They can cook; they know how to bake. They know how to get it done in the kitchen. Ultimately, you want that representation, but that’s not their entire thing.
Jade Atkins: Yeah. I feel as though Pass the Spatula really brings more to the people relating in their own personal experiences, and even just wanting to learn or get a recipe just right off of a magazine, but having an actual backstory to it and actually meeting chefs that are more like them and have similar ideas or beliefs, in a way. Pass the Spatula hits somewhere close to home, in a way where you can just pick it up off your bookshelf, find a nice recipe to cook for dinner, and just have that thought that, “Oh, students made this, but they also had the idea of bringing people together with it.”
Did you ever consider careers outside of the restaurant industry—like in the adjacent world of food media?
Hasanah Sabree: Honestly, when I first came into the school, my mindset was always only on restaurants, and that was my goal. I never really thought that I would come out of this school, you know, publishing a magazine or doing graphic design in culinary school. So that was kind of cool, to implement different skills I didn’t even know I had because of this magazine.
Anthony Trabasas: Growing up in the Philippines, I really wanted to be a chef after watching Chef’s Table. Now we have a broader experience for food media, graphic design, social media, PR, food justice activism, sustainability . . . all of those different things under the vast umbrella of the food industry. Working on Pass the Spatula really opened my eyes to the different possibilities that there are for me and for my future in the world of food. Even if I do want to be a chef, I’m really contemplating whether or not I could take different paths in food media, whether that may be in photography or videography or social media, graphic design. I mean, there are so many different interests that opened up after working with Pass the Spatula.
Jade Atkins: For me, it was when I was writing the Judy Kim Q&A. She started off basically doing florist-type things, a lot of flower shop–type stuff, before heading into food and the food world in itself. And she doesn’t really deal with food like we do as students—in the kitchen, doing runs from point A to point B, front of house. She does a lot of food photography and food styling. And it gave me a broader look and point of view about what you can do with food, even though you don’t have to be in the kitchen all the time. You can also write about it and do food activism—because she also sells her cakes and stuff that she makes for Black Lives Matter or other organizations that support people who don’t have enough, or who just don’t get a lot of attention that they deserve.
Leonel Ramirez: Speaking from my personal experience, during sophomore year, I was not interested in cooking—and to be honest, I just didn’t want to go in the kitchen. I was just going to this room because I had to get my education. It’s still a high school. You have your general education classes; you still have to get those completed. And that was the only reason I was going. I dabbled in sustainability and activism for a while, I did theater last summer. And I’m like, “Oh my God, what if there’s a really good job that finds that intersectionality between everything that you’re interested in?” I can have my love for food, but it doesn’t have to be right in the kitchen using a knife. How can I make my stride without adhering to what other people want me to do? What the school wants me to do? What the vision of what people think that it is that you go to that school for. “Oh, you can’t cook? I thought that was the whole reason you went to culinary school?” No, I can find other avenues and still say I’m a proud member of it.
What have been some big takeaways after interviewing so many chefs and entrepreneurs for the magazine?
Leonel Ramirez: With my work, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to chefs that lived everywhere from Florida to Minnesota to Brooklyn. Going in, I was so nervous. I was like, these are practically food celebrities. They may be like, “Oh, that’s a stupid question, why are you asking me that?” But it’s a lot different than what you think. You watch Bon Appétit, you watch Buzzfeed, and you’re like, “Wow, they live these perfect lives.” Not only can they cook, but they’re going to go to their beautiful houses, at their beautiful apartments with their lavish kitchens. And they’re just living the life. And that’s a lot of what we think they’re doing. Right? Whether it be mental health, whether it be struggling coming up with recipes or envisioning something for the future, they’re facing the exact same thing that we’re facing, too—it can be to another degree. It can be so different because we have different lives. I’m not a Bon Appétit chef that makes videos that get 3 million views. That’s not me. But we still have this shared love of food. And with that same shared love of food comes different difficulties, different barriers. And they’re going through the exact same things.
Hasanah Sabree: Since I didn’t do most of the writing, I kind of just looked over everybody’s pieces and changed the layouts. Something that really stuck with me from Judy Kim’s story was that not every chef was born and thought to themselves, “Yes, I’m going to be a chef.” She first got into the fashion industry, and hearing that—it’s like, oh, that could be me, because I’m really into fashion. Like, I could be as successful as her and still show my fashion in, like, cakes. And you can see that show through the patterns in her cakes and in the way she decorates. The way you start and what you take from what you used to do—like, if you’re an artist, or if you even do construction or something, you can really implement that in your food and what you want to do in the food industry.
Anthony Trabasas: I also had the opportunity to interview some New York restaurant chefs who are currently restaurant owners or executive chefs or pastry chefs at some really great restaurants here in New York City. Having the opportunity to interview them and ask for their thoughts about COVID, it’s just something that’s really eye-opening to learn more about. Looking at the effects of COVID-19 and the pandemic on the restaurant industry—it’s a very unprecedented time for the industry, especially with the risk of a second wave coming in. So I guess it’s not really a surprising realization, but there’s this innovation in being able to tread through the uncertain waters. Being people who are going into the food industry, we’re just currently looking back at the whole umbrella of what are the possibilities of food, ’cause, you know, the future of food is going to change. There’s going to be more careers in food media, research, and design.
What’s the future of Pass the Spatula? What in store for 2021?
Jade Atkins: I know there’s nothing set in stone for the second issue or anything, but I do have to say that Pass the Spatula especially has been an outlet for us, and it helped us get to meet new people and actually understand them, and also talk to them on a different level. Like, I got to do an Instagram Live with Christina Tosi not too long ago. And she was so supportive, and I got to share with everyone what the main message was about Pass the Spatula: bring awareness of what’s happening in the world that nobody really wants to talk about. Some people—or in magazines, in food media, and media in general—they just don’t talk about it a lot, or when they do, they don’t like to specify. They like to sugarcoat. And I feel just talking about it and just being relatable with it can bring a good awareness and also impact them in a way where they want to do something—probably make a difference and help better for the next generation.
Leonel Ramirez: We might not be as involved as we were last year, but we want it to be something that’s going to be remembered for kids coming to Food and Finance in the coming years. I joke that even if next year’s class does it, we’re always going to be the best one. We’re always going to be the inspiration for everything.
We all have different lives. But I think we can all say that Pass the Spatula has opened up so many opportunities, unimaginable opportunities. I had a Food Network executive reach out to me to audition for a cooking show. And just because they saw my work on Pass the Spatula, I was hired as a freelance writer for Chalkbeat. How did that even happen? It’s just so exciting to see, at the end of the day, the other avenues that it’s opened up for other members of the editorial team. Like Hasanah, she’s a Cherry Bombe intern now. And Jade and Anthony are interns now [at Milk Bar and Misi, respectively]. We’re always going to have this one connection of Pass the Spatula.
Anthony Trabasas: Tying in with the work of Pass the Spatula and the legacy that it built, it just serves as a foundation for some more interesting and unique topics that the next juniors from Food and Finance High School can tackle.
What’s your dream cookbook project?
Leonel Ramirez: I guess if I could dream up my own cookbook, it would be getting a little personal. I lived with my mom for a majority of my life. I do live with my dad now. I miss her recipes. I miss some Mexican cooking and most Hispanic cooking. And that’s not to say I don’t still eat some of those foods, but trying to get that childhood feeling—it’s like, no matter how much you try to re-create it or replicate it, you’re never going to get that same feel. It’s like, you try these recipes, but it’s never going to taste as good as mom and dad. So, I guess my dream cookbook would be “Leo’s Childhood” or “Our Childhood.” I’d probably have a bunch of people come together and say, what’s one recipe that I really loved as a kid?
Jade Atkins: For me, I would have to do a legit baking book—everything, every dessert that you could think of, probably just in one book, but they would be allergy friendly. I have food allergies, severe ones. And I can’t have a lot of things that you guys may have tried. Like macarons? Never had them, but wanted to . . .
Hasanah Sabree: Mine would focus on just trying to expand the minds of people around halal food, since I am Muslim. I do eat halal meat, but people have this stereotype that it’s all those halal food trucks at the corner, You know, mostly like Arab food. That’s what people think halal food is—you know, like, gyros and rice with the white sauce and stuff. Like, people think that is halal food. But it’s really just the way something is killed. So, like, I would have a cookbook trying to break that stereotype—that Muslims don’t just eat that, you know, just whatever our culture gives us. And we eat regular food, just like everyone else. So that’s kinda what my cookbook would be around.
Anthony Trabasas: Being Filipino, of course I’m a Filipino cook. Growing up in the Philippines, I was just surrounded by such an amazing food scene there. If you’re going to ask the random guy down the street what Filipino food is, he won’t have an answer. I guess bringing Filipino food up to the world stage is probably a really great theme I’d tackle in my cookbook. And, of course, you know, America has so many different and so many cool Filipino chefs.
FOUR FAVORITE COOKBOOKS FROM THE PASS THE SPATULA TEAM
Indian-ish by Priya Krishna
“It breaks this notion of what it means to not only be Indian, but what Indian food should be,” says Ramirez.
The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini
“She kind of explains it in a way like if you’re butchering meat, but with broccoli or cauliflower steak,” says Sabree. “It’s different ways that you can cook vegetables, not just steaming them or grinding them in like a smoothie.”
The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook by Rosanna Pansino
“Its geeky and nerdy because it has a bunch of maps and science-y things. It’s just my favorite one because it has the periodic table, but in cupcakes, or a blood cell cupcake with red velvet,” notes Atkins, adding that the book’s raspberry puree recipe has been her go-to.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
“Looking back at my obsession with Chef’s Table, I always wanted to learn how they actually made those different foods with those techniques and ingredients. I’m pretty much a nerd for food science and modern gastronomy,” says Trabasas.