As a high schooler, Elazar Sontag worked at restaurants like Pizzaiolo and Duende. But these days, he’s only in a restaurant kitchen when he’s writing about one, as the new restaurant editor for Bon Appétit magazine.
“I worked in those restaurants picking up prep shifts, staging or interning after school when I was in high school. I would put on my apron and peel onions for six hours,” the Berkeley-born/Oakland-raised writer recalled. “It wasn’t the most glamorous work.”
It’s work that helped lay the groundwork for his future career, starting with Flavors of Oakland, a cookbook Sontag co-authored with UC Berkeley student Anya Ku when he was only 17. Speaking to Nosh in 2015, Sontag said that “The entire mission of the [cookbook] project,” which was crowdfunded through a series of Indiegogo campaigns, “is that it would be accessible to everyone in Oakland.”
After high school, Sontag moved to New York to study at Bard College. A career in journalism followed, as Sontag took on work for publications like the Washington Post, Vice, Serious Eats, Grub Street, Epicurious and even Nosh. Most recently, he was a staff writer at Eater, Vox Media’s food website. (Disclosure: Nosh editor Eve Batey was the editor of Eater San Francisco during Sontag’s tenure at Eater’s national site.)
Writing was never Sontag’s plan, though. “I didn’t work in restaurants because I thought it would make me a better food writer,” Sontag, now aged 24, said. “I worked in restaurants because I truly believed that I was going to become a restaurant cook and eventually a chef.”
But a lot of what he saw, even working in kitchens run by folks known to be kind and fair to workers, made him rethink that path. “When I was cooking in those restaurants or interning in those spaces, I wasn’t out yet,” Sontag said. According to Sontag, who is a gay, cis male, “kitchens are complicated places to be queer.”
“It’s not that I worked with anyone hateful, or that there were really even times when I felt unwelcome,” he said. “Nevertheless, the structures in a lot of kitchens, even the best ones, are still not so conducive to queer people feeling like they can really fully express themselves.”
Eventually, he realized that a transition out of the kitchen and into writing was the only way forward.
“I couldn’t as a young gay person who wasn’t out imagine a life for myself in the kitchen. I just couldn’t physically envision it,” he said. “So much of what I love to cover as a writer and editor is about these queer restaurant spaces. It feels like such a gift that I get to tell the stories and celebrate these spaces that when I was a teen, I didn’t even know that existed.”
In his new role as Bon Appétit’s restaurant editor — an extremely big deal New York media job — Sontag will continue writing about queer spaces as he did in his last piece for Eater. He’s also been reunited with a number of his former Eater colleagues, many of whom joined the publication in the years after a racial reckoning at the 66-year-old Conde Nast food magazine prompted a shakeup across its masthead.
His new boss is Sonia Chopra, who left Eater to become BA’s executive editor in late 2020. He’ll also work with BA’s new digital editorial director, Serena Dai, the former editor of Eater New York who most recently ran the food section at the San Francisco Chronicle.
“It’s sort of the cherry on top that I also get to work with people from Eater who I respected so much,” Sontag said. “Sonia is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I’m just in awe and I feel so lucky that she’s my boss now,” he said. “It’s almost like a homecoming.”
“Everyone who was already here, that wasn’t from Eater or has been with Bon Appétit for a long time, or that came in the last year or two are (also) crazy talented,” he said. “You don’t feel that everywhere you work.”
Though his job is firmly based in New York, Sontag still returns to Oakland on the regular. He also acts as a de facto tour guide for New Yorkers who are traveling to the West Coast.
“If I want people to have the best possible experience in the Bay Area, I send them to a lot of those ‘OG’ places because they make me so happy,” he said. “Sometimes, I even send them to places that I haven’t gotten a chance to go to yet and I ask them to report back.”
“There’s a lot of places on my list that are such an exciting new wave of new talent and new vision in Oakland,” he said. “I’m excited to see that continue to blossom.”
That affection appears reciprocated, Sontag said, mentioning the flurry of messages he got when his most recent career news broke. “There’s this real Oakland kind of love and pride and support that I feel from so many angles. I get so many texts and emails where people are really proud of me. It feels so genuine and so loving,” he said.
“I adore New York and I don’t plan to leave, but I get homesick,” he said. “It means so much to me to have people who I grew up with and who I looked up to, who felt like celebrities to me, seeing where I am now and recognizing the moment…that has been really special.”