Whetstone Media Co-Founder Stephen Satterfield is a respected wine expert, food writer, and social entrepreneur. A native of Atlanta, GA, Stephen’s childhood and culinary perspective was shaped by the Southern cuisine prepared by his grandmother and father.
This idea of food as shared memory, heritage, and place is what defines the mission of Whetstone Media, a multimedia production company by and for the people. The platform is dedicated to documenting food, tourism, and cultures across the globe.
Whetstone Media consists of the following mediums:
- Whetstone Magazine, a quarterly magazine available digitally and in print;
- Video dispatches in locations such as the fish markets of The Gambia;
- The short film Wild Grapes, which follows Stephen’s journey through the Republic of Georgia, the birthplace of wine;
- W Journal, a blog featuring articles from culinary experts and scholars; and
- The Point of Origin podcast in partnership with iHeartRadio.
Whetstone Media’s Podcast, Point of Origin
The latest episode, “Food Apartheid: (And Why We Don’t Call it a Food Desert)” focuses on communities that lack access to fresh, affordable, and nutritious food. Stephen speaks with guests such as Bronx farmer and food justice activist Karen Washington, who coined the term food apartheid to bring attention to these disparities.
According to Washington, “Predominately white men [control our food system]…[but] the food system was built on the backs of enslaved people and indigenous people…we started the whole framework of agriculture…here in these United States.” She goes on to describe how Black people were denied the right to our forty acres and a mule and inundated with the processed foods found in low income neighborhoods.
As Stephen states, “These are not deserts, but thriving communities who are living with a lack of local resources that have been manipulated and withheld with intention, not happenstance.”
Stephen’s Feature in The Rise
It is no surprise that Stephen’s contribution to elevating marginalized food experiences through Whetstone Media landed him a feature in Marcus Samuelsson’s The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food. His ancestral roots in West Africa by way of the Transatlantic Slave Trade inspired this dish: Spice-Roasted Black Cod with Benne Seed Dressing.
Benne seeds, which are essentially the ancestor of sesame seeds, were imported from West Africa to the Carolinas in the 1700s and cultivated by enslaved people. They have a nutty flavor and are a useful thickening agent for the soups and stews popular throughout the Diaspora.
Preparing The Recipe
The recipe calls for black cod fillets, but my grocery store only had Alaskan cod. After doing some research, I discovered that Alaskan cod is leaner than its black counterpart; I was careful to add butter and cook it for a shorter period of time to avoid it drying out. I patted the cod dry and topped it with browned butter and benne seed dressing.
For the dressing, I blended molasses, minced garlic, lemon juice, sesame seed oil, and sesame seeds. Then I mixed in some toasted sesame seeds for texture and seasoned with kosher salt and pepper.
After that, I seasoned the cod with basil, thyme, parsley, rosemary, smoked paprika, cardamom, coriander, and berbere. I let it marinate for about 15 minutes and then baked it skin side down at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. The buttery sweet, nutty fish went perfectly with African yam fries (not sweet potato!) and a garnish of green onions.
I sat down with Stephen to learn more about his not-so-linear path to becoming a food media entrepreneur at Whetstone Media.
The Early Years
How did you get involved with cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
Growing up, my father was the main culinarian in the extended family. I was able to see a male in the kitchen, not just on the grill or making oatmeal. There was this idea of not having one’s masculinity [threatened by cooking].
[My love of food also comes from the fact that] I’m a Black man from the U.S. South. Atlanta, Georgia [specifically]. My experience with food closely resembles that of other southern Black people. We have a way of organizing ourselves in our households, religious spaces, and restaurants. It is always about creating a safe place for Black people. [The importance of these spaces] cannot be taken lightly, especially in periods where we have less liberty, less mobility.
I think a lot about Leah Chase and [her restaurant] Dooky Chase in New Orleans, where many of the [civil rights] leaders met to plot their own liberation. It is probably one of my favorite places in the country. It’s kind of a restaurant, but also a museum. It has a vibe that feels so connected to our history.
It is quite understandable that such a powerful history would draw you toward the restaurant world. Can you talk some about your early years in the industry?
I went to culinary school in 2004. I learned French technique in restaurant kitchens, along with the fact that kitchen hierarchy and culture is super problematic. I found myself drawn to wine [and attended a hospitality and managerial program to study it]. I love wine, it was my favorite subject in school.
After my training, I worked as a sommelier. I was a wine buyer for a small restaurant in Portland. I spent three years in the industry. I was in it heavy. Studying, learning, attending tastings. I joined the International Sommelier Guild. I checked all the boxes, got all the certifications. I wanted to be credible, to learn, to be taken seriously. But also, I just loved it.
I was really in love with it–the culture and language–but I really hated how white it all was. Wine culture is very white, very limited: the ownership structure, the tastings I would go to.
I would attend a trade tasting with 200 winemakers, distributors, and buyers. And yet, I would be lucky to see another Black person in the room. It started to fuck with me a lot. It made me think, “How would white people feel if you put them in a room with 500 Black people?” I reached an impasse in the wine world.
Wow. That is a difficult situation: loving the work you do, but wanting to feel comfortable while you do it. This is indeed a conundrum faced by Black people and other people of color quite frequently. What did you decide to do?
I wanted to decolonize my own experience with wine. I returned to Atlanta and started a nonprofit there. It was focused on supporting Black and indigenous wineries in the Western Cape of South Africa.
Why South Africa?
[I was drawn to the] familiar story of colonization there. The wine industry had been colonized by the Dutch. The apartheid government started to make some resources available to Black and indigenous wineries. There was some energy on the ground about redirecting resources. I don’t really know if it worked, but it was enough to start a conversation.
From 2007 to 2010 I was doing pro bono marketing for these wineries in the States. Basically getting people in the U.S. to do what they do best: buy shit. We were trying to move into direct to consumer, we ship wine anywhere, but we bumped up against the financial crisis.
I’m sorry to hear that. It sounds like you had a great thing going, disrupting oppressive systems in an industry you loved. What was next for you?
In 2010, I went back to the States. I managed a San Francisco farm to table restaurant for a couple years. Learned a lot about a lot. I worked with the local farm community on behalf of the restaurant. It was a pretty white, agrarian community. I chronicled that work.
[Interestingly enough] I had developed an interest in media making in South Africa. It served as a source of creative and intellectual stimulation for me. This was a precursor to starting Whetstone [Media].
I wanted to do work that better reflected the rest of the world. I started Whetstone in 2016. I had already been in food for 10 years. At that point, the food media perspective was very limited. The more equitable coverage hadn’t started yet. I guess now [in 2021] it seems straightforward. [But back then it was very clear that] the industry needed to be more diverse.
I was dissatisfied with the representation Black and Brown people were getting. White-owned corporations were paying [freelancers] minimum wage to write an article. They were extracting [bits of] the culture, but not deepening the coverage [to really highlight these communities]. It was transactional.
I wanted to be a Black publisher really badly and I didn’t want to work for any white people. It was important to me to showcase diverse global perspectives. I wanted to make sure that the most intimate parts of people’s cultures were not treated as transactional.
Launching Whetstone Media, a Black Owned Food Media Company
Even though there is a wave of diverse representation in media, many of it feels trendy as opposed to authentic. I am so glad that you are working to disrupt that with Whetstone Media. This shows others that we can in fact successfully tell our own stories. How did you get started?
I started on the path to publishing failing, spinning my own wheels in Fall 2015. In Spring 2017 we launched our first print magazine. We just published our sixth issue a few months ago. We also have a podcast called Point of Origin with I Heart Radio, video dispatches, and W Journal. The Journal consists of online articles published 2-3x week all over the world. Lately we have been focused on the Asian subcontinent.
Congratulations! It sounds like a lot of hard work but the work product is absolutely stunning. You are putting out amazing quality to the world. I have to ask, how do you keep this financially sustainable?
I had no mentors starting out, but the blueprint was simple. Everyone is their own brand these days, but there are not many ways to get paid in media as an owner. If you want to own your own media company, either advertisers/sponsors have to pay for it or the customers/subscribers do. You do not get to be a real business without one of the two.
Otherwise, it becomes about free labor–a community/nonprofit organization–or an individual visionary’s labor. The content is based on emotion. They got to push shit all the way uphill and they get squashed by the boulder. It’s just physics.
I’m friends with, in community with, a lot of POC and others with nonconforming identities. [We would talk about] how frustrating and annoying and basic the food media was. Once we created the first volume of [Whetstone] magazine, Black and brown people saw what we were trying to do. We saw the gap and filled it.
We are powered by people buying subscriptions and we haven’t taken investors. We like what we are doing and the people we work with. We want to hire people and put out more stories. We want to get bigger.
Follow Whetstone Media co-founder Stephen Satterfield @isawstephen and @whetstonemagazine for amazing insights into global food culture.