Stephen Satterfield is Changing the Way We Tell Stories About Food
In 2015, a young writer and sommelier named Stephen Satterfield set out to create an outlet for stories about food that he simply wasn't seeing in the media. Stories about the deep ties between land and culture, not just about hot restaurants or cooking trends. Stories told by people from diverse cultures, not about them. His outlet would be a gorgeous print magazine, he decided. He named it Whetstone, after the essential tool cooks use to sharpen knives before they start cooking. The title evoked his focus on origins.
Like many enterprising editors, Satterfield launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2017 to raise $50,000 for the magazine. He still remembers how much potential backers promised: $17,000. Because he hadn't raised the full amount, in fact, Kickstarter wouldn't allow him to keep any of the money that supporters had offered to donate.
What shows why Stephen Satterfield is well on his way to becoming one of the most powerful media figures in food is that he never gave up. Starting in 2017, he put out new issues of Whetstone whenever funding permitted, highlighting stories about South Korean dried fish, Mexican chocolate and home cooking in Kyrgyzstan. He also created short films, such as one about wine in the Republic of Georgia, and produced a podcast with iHeart Radio.
Then, last year, Satterfield's vision finally blossomed. And we're not talking one bloom, but many.
In 2021, director Roger Ross Williams and Pilgrim Media invited Satterfield to host the Peabody Award-winning High on the Hog, a Netflix series tracing the history of Black American foodways, based on Jessica B. Harris's 2011 book by the same title.
In addition to the nine issues that Whetstone has now put out, all visually sumptuous and compelling, this year Satterfield's company founded a second magazine, Rasa, focused on South Asia. He also launched a podcast network, Whetstone Radio Collective, with a growing number of shows, such as the Taiwan-based journalist Clarissa Wei's Climate Cuisine, about climate change and crops such as bananas and taro. To create additional income streams, Whetstone began importing textiles and ceramics made by indigenous Oaxacan artisans this year. And, five years after that disappointing crowdfunding campaign, Satterfield raised $1.3 million in funding to expand all these efforts.
"We have never changed our messaging," he says. "We came out of the gate, [saying] this is the point of view of the magazine, and we've been loyal to that point of view. Luckily for us, the world and the culture has shifted in a direction that is more aligned."
Whetstone, and Satterfield's encompassing vision, emerged out of a series of formative experiences in food. As a young man, he attended culinary school in Portland, Oregon, where he fell in love with wine and became a sommelier instead of a chef. He was often the only Black sommelier in the room, and so he traveled to South Africa to meet African winegrowers—and found many who were living hand-to-mouth on what had been their ancestral lands, working for white-owned companies. "It really opened my eyes about a universal story about anti-Black racism and the harmful, lingering impacts of colonization," he says. Once he moved to San Francisco and worked as a manager and sommelier at the popular farm-to-table restaurant Nopa, he started a Tumblr blog to tell the stories of the restaurant's relationships with farmers and the broader community. It was the genesis of his mission for Whetstone.
As the editor, writer and media executive's star has risen, Satterfield has consistently called for food media to recognize that who tells the story matters. Who owns the media company matters, too—when it comes to fostering talent and empowering journalists to dive deeper. "Stephen is interested in lifting other people up and using his platform to bring to life the voices of so many individuals. It's not just about him," says Naomi Starkman, founder and editor of Civil Eats, another independent media company (Satterfield was a storytelling fellow at Civil Eats in 2016). "He's trying to create a space for different ideas and different voices."
"We can actually talk about food in a way that understands that crops built empires," Satterfield says. "That in the United States, plantation agriculture and racialized capitalism [innovated] sugarcane and cotton. This isn't how we talk about food, and that's a shame. But that's also an opportunity. That's really what our work is about: making those connections for people."
With the first round of major funding secured, Satterfield is figuring out where Whetstone can grow next. After years of living around the United States and Mexico, he has settled in Atlanta. High on the Hog has started filming its second season. Now he wants to find opportunities for the talented writers, podcasters and filmmakers who have helped Whetstone Media blossom, most of whom are women and people of color. "I now know I can bootstrap a company that I own," he says. "Now I want to know: Can I grow a business?"
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