On Tuesday, June 30, staffers on the Los Angeles Times food section prepared to log in to Zoom for their weekly 11 a.m. meeting. It had been pushed back 15 minutes — a potentially ominous sign. The day before, writer Tammie Teclemariam published a lengthy Twitter thread laced with allegations about the section’s editor, Peter Meehan, spanning his time as editor of groundbreaking food magazine Lucky Peach and as head of the Times’s food section. Now, after a day of nonstop texting and immense uncertainty, the team would face each other for the first time.
Sitting in their bedrooms, living rooms, and other makeshift workspaces, the staffers anxiously signed on. Meehan was missing, but as faces from other teams populated their Zoom windows, it looked like it might be business as normal, except for the appearance of Times managing editor Kimi Yoshino, Meehan’s direct boss. At the top of the meeting, she outlined the paper’s response to a few of the assertions in Teclemariam’s thread (Meehan’s salary is not $ 300,000; he planned coverage of Juneteenth). A discussion about cliquishness broke out after Andrea Chang, the section’s deputy editor, asked staffers to come to her with any concerns; several food staffers, including Chang, apologized for contributing to an atmosphere of insiders versus outsiders that orbited around Meehan.
As the conversation continued, Bill Addison, one of the paper’s two restaurant critics (and formerly Eater’s national critic), worried that it was sidestepping the larger issue raised by the thread, which he describes as “the culture of fear that Peter had been masterful at creating.” Before it could end, Addison spoke up and said, “Even after those tweets, I am right now afraid of retaliation from Peter.” The tone of the room shifted. One by one, staffers spoke out: about waves of panic that hit whenever a Slack or phone call from Meehan arrived, about him belittling their work in public Slack channels, or screaming in all caps about small mistakes. One staffer reminded Yoshino that she had come to Yoshino’s office and wept about Meehan’s behavior. When someone outside the department remarked that the group seemed eerily calm discussing these painful experiences, Ben Mims, a cooking columnist, replied that Meehan was still their boss, and they were afraid of what he would do.
The next day, Yoshino informed Meehan the paper would launch a formal investigation into the allegations raised at the meeting. Meehan offered his resignation and publicly apologized on Twitter, characterizing Teclemariam’s thread as alleging “a number of things I don’t think are true” and describing his failures as those of perfectionism. “In my tunnel-vision commitment to making the best things we could, I lost sight of people and their feelings,” he wrote in a statement.
Later that week, Jenn Harris, a senior writer in the food section and a 10-year veteran of the paper, posted a statement in a locked company Slack channel. Torn up by what she’d heard in the meeting, Harris apologized for not speaking out sooner. She said that she’d been on Meehan’s good side, and she’d been afraid to find out what would happen if she wasn’t. She alleged that Meehan once called her “fuckable” after a work dinner. On another occasion, she alleged, he rested his head on her shoulder and slid his hand up her dress in the back of a car. After she pulled his hand away and said, “no,” Harris said he tried to put his hand up her skirt again. When she demanded to know what he thought he was doing, she alleges that Meehan, who was intoxicated, had mumbled, “Pushing boundaries.”
In the midst of the national uprising for Black lives sparked by a white police officer’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a wave of protests broke out in newsrooms across the country, from the New York Times to Refinery29. The first of these were directly tied to issues of racism and anti-Blackness, but they have since expanded to the broader problem of toxic leadership in the industry, and the dominance of white men and women in positions of power. Social media has driven much of this reckoning by providing a space for rank-and-file editors and writers to speak out. Most notably in the food media world, Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport resigned in the wake of social media protests by employees of color over unfair treatment, sparked when Teclemariam tweeted a photo of Rapoport in brownface.
While Meehan’s resignation occurred after his staff spoke out in a meeting, many of those staffers say without Teclemariam’s Twitter thread, that conversation would never have occurred. Meehan’s departure occurs during a moment of wider agitation at the Times over the paper’s hiring decisions after its acquisition by the billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2018, which some staffers say privileged star journalists from the East Coast establishment — overwhelmingly white and male — who were richly rewarded while existing staffers battled in union contract negotiations for fair compensation after years of brutal cuts. Meehan is in some ways the most obvious example of this trend: He never relocated to Los Angeles, instead flying out one week a month from his home in New York.
Meehan may not be a household name, but he is one of the most consequential food journalists of the last decade, whose mentors and compatriots include Mark Bittman, David Chang, Jonathan Gold, and Anthony Bourdain. One of an emerging generation of culture hounds who took food seriously as a badge of cool, Meehan started his career working for Bittman, who helped him land a gig writing the New York Times’s $ 25 and Under column in 2004, a plum position for an emerging food writer. His real ascendance began when he teamed up with Chang, at the time a brash young chef who sparked a nationwide mania for ramen and pork buns, whose early creative evolution Meehan had chronicled as part of his column. He went on to co-author the Momofuku cookbook, which was as groundbreaking as the restaurant was, and helped establish the irreverent yet maniacal perfectionism of Chang’s star persona.
In 2011, Chang and Meehan joined forces with Chris Ying, then an editor at the San Francisco small press McSweeney’s, to launch the food magazine Lucky Peach. From the first issue, the magazine was a phenomenon, combining McSweeney’s fetish for literary excess and groundbreaking design with Momofuku’s foul-mouthed, ramen-worshiping swagger. Over its six-year run, the magazine racked up critical adoration and industry awards, spun out successful cookbooks, and arguably changed the way food media worked and looked forever. Its abrupt closure in 2017 caught even the magazine’s contributors off guard, and was attributed to irreconcilable differences between Meehan and Chang. (Both signed a legal agreement in 2013 with a robust nondisparagement clause.)
In the summer of 2018, Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic and secular saint of Los Angeles food, died of pancreatic cancer. Gold was a frequent contributor to Lucky Peach, and had already been advocating for Meehan to be recruited to oversee a revival of the Times food section. After Gold’s death, Meehan came to work at the paper, first as a consultant and then as the section’s official editor, overseeing the relaunch of a standalone food section, heavy on illustration and other hip signifiers of the design that had characterized Lucky Peach. With his many, many connections in the food world, he delivered in-depth features on, say, the closing of the world-famous Faviken, and brought talent from all over the world to the paper’s monthlong, revenue-generating Food Bowl. Within months, Meehan developed a reputation across the paper as difficult, but these issues were considered by upper management to be the necessary price of working with a hard-driving auteur.
To Meehan’s expansive roster of friends and allies, he was a generous, brilliant, and genuinely subversive writer and editor. I know this from personal experience: There’s a great deal of professional overlap between Eater and Lucky Peach. A number of its staff and contributors, including many people I spoke to for this story, have contributed to Eater. I’ve attended numerous Lucky Peach parties, contributed a story to the magazine, and have met Meehan on several occasions, finding him to be charming, thoughtful, and sharp.
Behind all of Meehan’s public success, however, were ever-growing ranks of scarred, fearful staffers who worked under him. Interviews with more than two dozen sources, including former Lucky Peach employees, current Los Angeles Times staffers, and freelancers for both publications, allege that Meehan’s management of both these publications veered beyond the realm of a difficult boss in a high-stakes environment, and into a deeper and more disturbing toxicity. They describe a relentless cycle of unrestrained generosity and explosive anger, while his disdain for professionalism, combined with a zeal for perfection, led to workplaces with few boundaries and constant tension. A number of sources for this story spoke anonymously out of a fear of professional retribution from Meehan or their current employer.
Violent tempers, inappropriate jokes and comments, and allegations of sexual misconduct are far from unknown issues in the media world, and they’re a hallmark of the restaurant industry. Lucky Peach got its start in the cradle of the Momofuku restaurant group, making these dynamics even more intertwined. Former Lucky Peach staffers with restaurant experience say it was especially disturbing to see the behavior they associated with hostile kitchens — behavior David Chang has apologized for perpetuating in his own restaurants — replicated in an office.
Former staff, including many media industry veterans, say working under Meehan was shattering in a way they had not experienced under other tough bosses. At Lucky Peach, his over-the-top insults and physical displays of anger — slamming doors, hitting tables, knocking over chairs — created an atmosphere of fear, while female staffers say that Meehan’s sexual jokes and inappropriate comments crossed a line even in their freewheeling and irreverent workplace. At the Los Angeles Times, Meehan’s outbursts were limited to Slack or other written communication, but pushing back, staffers say, led to difficulties around deadlines, feedback, and assignments, while his lack of professional boundaries culminated in one employee finding herself subject to repeated sexual commentary, and, in one incident, unwanted, sexually charged touching.
Meehan declined repeated requests to speak on the record. In a letter sent to Times food staffers and provided to Eater, the paper’s management said, “Employees told us that Meehan created a negative work environment where employees did not feel comfortable raising their concerns. … We have taken a series of actions that reflect the seriousness of the allegations, including imposing, where appropriate, discipline, and insisting that managers receive new counseling and training.”
Marian Bull, who freelanced for Meehan both at Lucky Peach and the Times, says Meehan’s persona, steeped in subversive cultural tropes, could obscure how his behavior reinforced a much blander and more oppressive status quo. “He thought his transgressiveness absolved him,” she says.
In food media, the last great economic cataclysm ushered in a broification of the industry after decades of publications staffed and run largely by white women and gay men. In 2009, Gourmet shuttered, and Bon Appétit was relaunched under Rapoport, a straight, white male editor from GQ. Lucky Peach was born soon after, on a lark: What if a food magazine was written for the people who cooked the food, not who ate it?
Chris Ying met Meehan and David Chang in 2009 while putting together an experimental newspaper, called the San Francisco Panorama, which featured a food section, for McSweeney’s. A year later, the pair approached Ying, who had cooked in restaurants, with an idea for a food magazine. The first issue, exuding pork fat and swagger and bad words to spare, was overseen by Meehan and Ying and put together by McSweeney’s staff, with significant input from Chang. In addition to its restaurant cred, the magazine’s aesthetics and zine-like attitude borrowed from indie rock culture, positioning it as a publication for those left out of the mainstream.
Chasing the unexpected hit led to a fuzzy leadership structure and a bicoastal operation. Ying became the editor-in-chief, heading a small San Francisco office spun off from McSweeney’s, while Meehan worked from New York. While the magazine, especially its early issues, was a true collaboration between Meehan and Ying, Meehan always held a larger share in the company, commanded a higher salary, had more say over the budget, and was more tightly connected to Momofuku and Chang.
In late 2011, Rachel Khong was hired as the magazine’s managing editor and first employee. The first time Khong hung out with Meehan, her new boss, was at an alcohol-fueled dinner at San Francisco’s Mission Chinese, where the small staff of the new food magazine were feted. At the end of the night, she sent an email to her boyfriend when she got home, asking for a ride to the office the next morning and adding, “Peter Meehan kissed me goodbye!” Today, Khong says she no longer remembers this kiss, in part because her time working for Meehan involved a barrage of blurred boundaries. “For many mornings during those years, I would wake up to a Peter phone call and go to sleep after talking to Peter,” Khong says. “It was always there were just never any boundaries.”
As at many indie publications, the work schedule at Lucky Peach was punishing at best, and like many small staffs working closely together to produce an aggressively honed creative product in a pressure-cooker environment with unforgiving standards, a distinct workplace culture emerged that reflected the profane, transgressive high-low spirit of the magazine. The bicoastal offices ran on constant riffing over email and Hipchat, a Slack precursor, and elaborate wordplay and absurdist imagery were the norm. Editors would say they were tickling, massaging, diddling, and piddling a piece; jokes about hot chats and “that’s what she said” were volleyed back and forth. At the San Francisco office, a running prank was to jump out of the closet to scare other employees; deadline stress would devolve into ridiculous fake headlines and photoshopping frogs’ heads onto bodybuilders.
By 2014, Meehan began to staff up the New York office, which was eventually located in its own space at 128 Lafayette Street, in Chinatown. (Disclosure: This space is now the Eater test kitchen.) The giddy, weird energy that pervaded the magazine’s stressful early days — which still reigned in San Francisco — was overlaid with dread in New York. While members of the San Francisco office say they had seen glimpses of Meehan’s temper — Khong recalls seeing him slam a door violently over a video call — on the East Coast, fear of his anger pervaded the office. Several staffers recall a New York editor saying, during one of Meehan’s explosions, “Peter, please don’t make me cry today.”
Priya Krishna, who was hired out of college to do outreach and customer service, says that, at first, getting a job at Lucky Peach was thrilling. She’d devoured the magazine in college, and when she went to events with “Lucky Peach” on her nametag, people were eager to talk to her. Behind the scenes, she says that the work culture was increasingly toxic — the New York office was often tense and silent. She would cry on Sundays because she had to go back the next day. “I was scared to go to work,” she says. “My day was dependent on this man’s mood, whether Peter was going to feel generous that day and buy us all lunch, or whether he’d be angry at something that would set him off.”
Late in her tenure at Lucky Peach, Krishna was called into a meeting over a subscription partnership that was underperforming. “Peter banged his hands on the table really really loudly and the table shook, and [he] yelled ‘WHAT HAPPENED?’ at the top of his lungs,” she says. Another employee sent messages to the SF office about the incident over Hipchat. When Krishna took a scheduled call after that meeting, Meehan publicly berated her for not addressing the partnership immediately, and told her to go home for a month and see if she had a job when she came back. She resigned a few days later.
During the photoshoot for the magazine’s last cookbook, All About Eggs, which Khong traveled to New York to oversee, the tension in the office was extraordinarily high, even by Lucky Peach standards. Meehan slammed a door so loudly the staffer who witnessed it was frightened. At one point, a staffer alleges, he grew so angry about the state of the kitchen, which was littered with boxes from new equipment, that he shoved a chair out of the way to charge at her in a manner she found threatening. “He stormed at me physically, and stood over me, raised a fist or his hand,” she says. Then, she says, Meehan seemed to catch himself and back away. “That was the tone and tenor of how things were there,” she says.
Walter Green, who began working at Lucky Peach as a designer in the magazine’s early days, when he was just 20 years old, says Meehan encouraged him to write, and he viewed him as a mentor. “He could be a really, really sweet guy at times,” he says. “He would invite us to get burgers with him in the evening and hang out with his family.” But even though Green, who eventually became one of the magazine’s art directors, was never a target of Meehan’s temper, he understood it as a problem in the office. “I viewed him as a damaged person who would act out,” he says. “Coming from a family where people do sometimes fly off the handle and say mean things or act out, if I’m around Peter, I want to make sure to keep him calm and make sure he doesn’t blow up at people. You feel protective of your coworkers.” Green says that when things got tense, he would take Meehan on walks to calm him down or play silly music to lighten the mood.
While Lucky Peach’s culture was casual and frequently profane, former staffers say that Meehan revelled in his propensity for over-the-top insults and descriptions of violence, which struck a dissonant chord coming from their boss. Of a contributor who wouldn’t translate a piece he reported for the magazine, Meehan wrote in an email in 2016, “I’m gonna mouthbarf seeing that half-bald sweater-wearing pussy’s name printed in my magazine if he’s unwilling to do the basic legwork of the relatively simple fucking task at hand.” Multiple staffers describe Meehan recounting a time he threatened another employee by saying he would shove a “golf umbrella” up his ass and open it. (This former employee says Meehan never said this to him).
Lucky Peach employees often spoke in crude metaphors or riffed on absurdist sexualized scenarios. But multiple staffers say that Meehan crossed the line, indulging in a truly constant barrage of heavily sexualized terminology in casual conservation and at times making quips directed at specific female staffers. In one exchange, when Khong said getting through submissions would be “easier with interns,” Meehan responded, “No, that’s NSA sex.” When she got a space heater for the office, Meehan said he’d always been trying to “heat up her space.”
Coming from her boss, these types of jokes made Khong uncomfortable, but she had no idea how to respond; she felt obliged to either play them off or to laugh. “He was a grown man who was my boss and I felt I had to be deferential to when he made those jokes,” she says. “He felt people were either cool or not cool, and you could be on either side of that.”
Aralyn Beaumont, who was hired as an assistant editor for the magazine before becoming its research director, also remembers Meehan making off-putting comments that objectified her. At a work lunch, Beaumont says that he remarked in front of the entire table, “You might have bluer eyes than Chad Robertson, who I thought had the prettiest eyes.” During that same visit to San Francisco by Meehan, after Beaumont ordered ramen, Meehan asked her if she was bulimic — an inside joke that referenced when Chang ate so much ramen during a trip to Japan that he threw up, an incident recounted in the first issue of Lucky Peach. To the young, junior employee, the comment felt alienating. “Maybe he thought that was a compliment, but I had an eating disorder since I was 13,” she says.
In New York, Meehan’s behavior around one young female staff member in particular made others in the office uncomfortable, even though they were unsure if it bothered her. Staffers recall Meehan giving her shoulder massages and making joking suggestive comments about her. On one occasion, he put his feet in her lap. Staffers brought their concerns to Ying, then the magazine’s editor-in-chief. The group discussed going to HR, but decided against it, in part because the HR team served Momofuku as a whole, not Lucky Peach. Ying opted to discuss the concerns with Meehan in person. “I had a private conversation with him, in which I expressed how disappointed I was both in the fact that his actions were making the staff uncomfortable, as well as disappointed as his business partner that he would jeopardize the business in this way. He was pretty contrite.” Ying did not address the issue with the female employee, since he saw the problem as lying squarely with Meehan, but he says that he now regrets not dealing with the situation more forcefully.
The woman at the center of these accusations told Eater there was never an inappropriate relationship between herself and Meehan, and while she does not recall much of his behavior, she believes this was in part because she did not think she could challenge the culture there, and so she accepted it. In retrospect, she believes that some of his actions toward her were inappropriate — she says that he once repeated a joke he’d heard that touched on her sex life — and undermined her professionally. But she had no idea that a complaint had been lodged by her colleagues; no one at the magazine ever spoke to her about Meehan’s behavior.
By 2016, Meehan and Ying’s partnership began to deteriorate, and Ying became more involved in projects outside the magazine, including the nonprofit he co-founded, Zero Food Print. Ying says that he and Meehan spoke about transitioning to an editor-at-large role, but in time, he felt that he had transitioned into no role at all, where his suggestions and ideas were undermined and disrespected. When Peter began repeatedly asking when he planned to leave entirely, he decided to do it. At the time, Ying was one of the few prominent Asian-American editors in the food world, and his departure marked the end of an era at the magazine. (Several staffers of color observed that by the end of Lucky Peach, the masthead had become almost entirely white.)
In both an editorial context and casual conversation, discussions about race and ethnicity could be frank and involve reappropriating slurs or stereotypes, especially in dialogues between Ying and Meehan. Some of these conversations were genuinely productive for the magazine, but Ying says he now regrets how he spoke about Asianness with Meehan. “I gave him an ‘honorary Asian card.’ That’s my fault and I own that,” Ying says. “I was improving my relationship with Peter by defanging myself. You give other people power by saying, ‘Here, it’s cool, because I’m saying this in front of you.’ It’s self-degrading in so many ways. The damage is it gives him license with other people who aren’t okay with it.”
Meehan did not appear to see (or set) boundaries between how he spoke with his business partners, Ying and Chang, and how he spoke to people who worked for him. For Asian-American staffers who were not partners but employees, his habit of speaking like an insider to Asian-American culture was fraught. Khong recalls that during her time there, Meehan discussed staffers’ ethnicity in a way that felt tokenizing. “It was like he’s calling you a Malaysian person or a Chinese person, [so you should] go get this story, or ‘Chris and Rachel are the Asians, they can do this,’” Khong says. “This casual way of referring to Asians, or to Dave being Korean, felt right on the edge of appropriateness. I think he felt like he was in on the joke.” And while the magazine’s aesthetics often reappropriated or satirized Orientalist tropes, when Meehan was the creative force behind the joke, it took on a different tone; Krishna recalls feeling uncomfortable when Meehan styled one of her mother’s recipes with a statue of a Hindu deity in the Power Vegetables cookbook, for instance.
While Chang was the most famous face associated with Lucky Peach, he claims to have had limited visibility into the work environment, mostly contributing ideas over email and meeting with Meehan or Ying at infrequent work lunches. He was in contact with high-up staffers, including Khong and Ying, but says he did not meet other employees until after the magazine’s closure. His distanced approach, which became more pronounced, several staffers say, as his relationship with Meehan grew more tense, meant that staffers struggling with Meehan’s behavior were unsure who to turn to, while Chang’s own reputation for anger did not encourage people to come forward.
Chang provided the following statement to Eater, in which he says he is bound by a legal agreement not to disclose or disparage Meehan. “First, to the staff of Lucky Peach, I let you down and I’m sorry. Within the first twelve months of the magazine’s start, I largely stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the company. I chose instead to contribute ideas from a distance. I am incredibly proud of the magazine, its contributors, and its staff, but frankly, I wasn’t around for much of its life and I regret it.” Chang notes he has gone on to work with several former Lucky Peach staffers, including Ying and Khong at Majordomo Media, and Krishna on a forthcoming cookbook. The statement further says, “Throughout my career, I have been known — even celebrated by the media — for being an angry bully in the kitchen. I have tried not to hide my shortcomings and I have worked extremely hard to become a better leader and a better person.”
“Had I been better, had I created an environment that was a polar opposite, with no shades of black or gray,” he added later, “I can imagine a scenario where they would have come to me, and that’s what I’ve been wrestling with.”
One veteran of Lucky Peach says that the magazine’s last year, when the San Francisco office consisted only of Aralyn Beaumont and Meehan was fully in control, was less marked by his temper. Ben Mims, now a cooking columnist at the Los Angeles Times, worked for Meehan during the magazine’s final months, and says he had no bad experiences with Meehan then. The magazine’s closure was sudden, unexpected by freelancers or staff, and because neither Chang nor Meehan can or will speak publicly about it, remains a subject of fascination. (One thing everyone agrees on is that Lucky Peach was not profitable.)
Ying says he feels frustrated that over the years, Meehan has become known as the “founder” of Lucky Peach when the first issue was put together over his own kitchen table. He also expressed frustration over how allegations about Meehan’s behavior might erase the work he and other Lucky Peach staffers were proud of. “Rachel worked on every single piece in the magazine,” Ying says.
The magazine’s goodbye letter, written by Meehan, argues that he and Ying got too much credit for the magazine, but does not mention Khong at all, despite her integral role in much of the magazine’s history and development; she became its executive editor in 2015. Khong departed the magazine in 2016, having hit her limit with Meehan’s behavior and frustrated by disparities between her salary and compensation and those of new hires. “I never wanted to leave the job,” Khong told me through tears. “The good parts were so good and he was the biggest bad part of it.”
The environment Meehan stepped into at the Los Angeles Times was markedly different from the scrappy early days of Lucky Peach, and several former Lucky Peach staffers told me they’d hoped the structure of the institution would blunt Meehan’s behavior. In fact, Meehan’s arrival as a consultant was greeted with relief by a paper still reeling from the loss of Gold. As editor of the newly created food section, Meehan frequently battled with other departments at the paper, isolating it from the organization as a whole. Because Meehan never moved to Los Angeles, his interactions with staff mostly occurred in locked Slack rooms or clustered in weeklong visits.
Even though Meehan only flew out for one week a month from New York, his manner over Slack, over email, and in edits was enough to put the whole section on the defensive. Mims, the former Lucky Peach staffer, says that when a story of his went live on the site without following protocols, Meehan exploded at him in a group Slack channel, berating him in all caps over the decision, even though Mims thought Meehan had approved it. The exchange, over what Meehan called, “THE F-ING STORY THAT JUST WENT LIVE,” prompted a conversation with Meehan’s deputy editor, Andrea Chang, in which Mims said no one should speak to their employees like that. After a day of tension, Meehan, who was in the LA office, sent an apology email and gave Mims an awkward hug, according to Mims, saying, “We hurt the people we like the most.” Mims says after this, he believes it became harder to have pitches approved or to get feedback in a timely fashion, resulting in stressful, last-minute rushes to meet deadlines — leading him to conclude that pushing back any harder would make his life even more difficult.
Bill Addison, one of the paper’s two restaurant critics, who had worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Magazine, and Eater before coming to the Times, also says within weeks of joining the paper, he found Meehan’s behavior went beyond tough editing into something that felt like bullying. He admired the editorial eye Meehan brought to the section, Addison says, but within months he found himself demoralized and afraid. He did not speak up beyond going to Yoshino, because he feared both internal retaliation, since he perceived Meehan to be supported by the paper’s leadership, and public castigation, since in the past Meehan had publicly attacked other colleagues at the paper on Twitter.
Patricia Escárcega, the paper’s other restaurant critic, says she also felt shut down by Meehan, despite the fact that he’d fought to bring her to the paper. Other staffers describe the relationship between the two as notably chilly. She felt singled out, and eventually went to Yoshino to complain. In an email to Eater, Escárcega described the meeting: “I told her I felt like I was working for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I told her I was walking on eggshells. I sat in her office and cried. She said he was under a lot of stress.”
Escárcega, the only Latina in the section, says she also felt a “subtle” pressure to write about Mexican food, a subject that she cares about deeply but didn’t want her work reduced to. “It definitely felt like there was more resistance when I wrote about different types of cuisines,” she says. In an initial statement from a company spokesperson, the Los Angeles Times told Eater, “Meehan has been an advocate for more inclusive coverage in the section he helped relaunch, reflective not only of Los Angeles’ vast and diverse food scene, but also of the writers, photographers, designers and illustrators who chronicle it.”
Managing editor Kimi Yoshino, who was Meehan’s direct supervisor, provided a statement to Eater noting Meehan’s talent as an editor should not have come “at the expense of the staff’s well-being.” The statement continues, “It became clear Peter had problems in the way he communicated and collaborated with others. I believed those problems were fixable and worked with him to become a better manager and more diplomatic communicator. I regret not doing even more to fully understand the extent of the staff’s concerns.” Yoshino characterized her own working relationship with Meehan as challenging and says, “I sometimes found his approach to be rude and disrespectful to our colleagues. I had many difficult conversations with him about the changes he needed to make as a manager, though I see now that wasn’t enough.”
One of the issues that employees struggling with Meehan’s behavior point to is that he seemed to create an environment of insiders and outsiders, and that the insiders included deputy food editor Andrea Chang and, to a lesser extent, Yoshino. Chang, senior writer Jenn Harris, and columnist Lucas Peterson (a former Eater contributor) would regularly dine out together, expensing their meals if they were relevant to a story, and posting glossy photos of these nights out to Instagram. Meehan would join during the one week each month that he was in town (there was even an Instagram hashtag: #peteweek). This “cool kids” dynamic (as more than one staffer put it) was in part driven by these posts. Instagram plays a more professional role in the food world than many other sectors of media, as an arena to display dining knowledge and build a profile, and while it’s one thing to know a boss and certain coworkers are friendly it’s another to see evidence of that relationship posted on social media for likes and clout, especially as other staffers were alienated by and fearful of Meehan.
The group was genuinely close, especially Chang, Peterson, and Harris, and the boundaries between managers and writers were blurry, since Peterson and Meehan were high school friends, and Harris had at one point been the interim editor of the food section. The group drank together often, stayed out late, visited each others’ homes, and spoke frankly about personal matters, including their sex lives, smearing the boundaries between personal and professional.
On July 3, 2019, Harris says that Meehan obliterated those boundaries. That night, she went with Meehan, Chang, and Peterson to a show at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a social outing, not a work one, and Chang drove the group. When they left, Harris says Meehan was so drunk he seemed to raise a fist at Peterson when Peterson tried to help him up, and Meehan needed to be led down to the car. “Pete got into the back of the car with me,” Harris says. “Instead of leaving the middle seat open, he slid next to me and put his head on my shoulder. I thought he was going to pass out on my shoulder and fall asleep. As we’re driving, I felt him stick his hand and slide it under my dress on my inner thigh. I picked his hand up, really caught off guard and really embarrassed. I said, ‘No,’ and put his hand back on his own lap and then a couple seconds later he did it again. I took his hand off and put it back and I said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He mumbled, I understood him saying the words, ‘Pushing boundaries.’ So I said, ‘The boundaries are fine where they are, don’t fucking do that.’”
Peterson and Chang say they did not witness what happened in the back of the car. Harris says, and Peterson confirms, that she told both him and Chang about Meehan’s actions later that night. Harris asked them not to report the incident to anyone, and Peterson suggested that he talk to Meehan directly. (Chang declined to comment further for the story.) After such a long friendship, Peterson was shocked and upset by what he had heard. The next day, he confronted Meehan and told him his behavior had been, he says, “violent and inappropriate,” and he says Meehan apologized to him. Peterson told him he needed to speak to Harris and Chang. Harris says he never did speak to her about the incident, even as they continued to socialize. “I don’t know how we all kept hanging out trying to pretend like nothing was wrong,” Peterson says. “I’m honestly still so angry with myself for not doing or saying more. During the past year, Jenn and I have talked over these incidents a lot. And I think we were just really afraid.”
Later that summer, while out at the Chateau Marmont, along with Chang and Peterson, after a review dinner at Chateau Hanare nearby, Harris joined Meehan on the smoking patio. She does not exactly remember what they were discussing, but she believes it was the subject of dating apps and her experiences with them. Harris says that Meehan said, “Jenn Harris, you are fuckable, you’re very fuckable. I know I shouldn’t be saying this to you, but I would stick your head in a pillow and fuck you.” She says that she did not interpret this as a solicitation so much as an inappropriate attempt to compliment her, but it made her deeply uncomfortable, so she went back to the table. She says she later told Peterson and Chang, as well as several other people, about the comments.
There was one other incident, which Harris did not include in her Slack post after Meehan’s departure. On another night in late summer 2019, Harris, Meehan, and Chang got together at Chang’s apartment, again as a social outing rather than a work one. They ordered in Thai food, and there was drinking — Harris perceived Meehan to be very drunk. She says, “We were sitting on the couch, and I was getting up to leave and he just looked at [her and Chang] and drunkenly said, ‘I could have fucked both of you tonight.’ I started laughing, like, are you fucking delusional? I said, ‘Well, I’m leaving now,’ and I left him there.”
Harris says she was never afraid of Meehan during these interactions, and at times tried to convince herself that these actions and comments had not been a big deal. But she did fear him in the office, and that led her to be afraid to say anything about what happened, or to stop hanging out with Meehan and the rest of the friend group. She saw when Meehan unleashed tirades in public Slack channels, and she recalls once hearing him say he would make a person who had pissed him off “his hobby.” Harris did not ever want to become his hobby. “He can be so nice and charming and supportive of your career,” she says. “I was worthy of being invited to social engagements. I benefited from that. I would think over and over, ‘What happens when he stops liking me?’ I didn’t want to find out.”
Harris also saw how upper management valued Meehan at the paper, and his ability to bulldoze through long-standing barriers and red tape to get what he wanted for the section. During her years at the Times, the food section had long fought to have a dedicated photographer and social media person — under Meehan, they got both. Harris wasn’t sure if this was Meehan’s doing or if management was just finally giving the section the resources it needed, but either way, she did not believe her story would be heard. “He is this beloved person in food media and at work, and I didn’t know if I told someone, if I’d be the one who had to leave,” she says. “If I said something, and he was still my boss after, it would be awkward. I was just scared.” (In her statement to Eater, Yoshino says, “I was shocked and appalled to hear the serious allegations of misconduct, including against one of my longtime friends and colleagues.”)
During her long tenure at the paper, Harris worked closely with Jonathan Gold, and she’s troubled by how often management has said Meehan got the job because he was Gold’s choice, even though Gold wasn’t the person who hired him. The paper spoke to, among other sources, former colleagues at the New York Times to vet Meehan; no one ever contacted anyone at Lucky Peach. Harris says, “I knew Jonathan very well, and I really don’t think that he would have been okay with this behavior, or been aware of it. For people in the building to say, ‘Oh, he was Jonathan’s pick,’ that is skirting responsibly for who hired him, and did or did not properly vet him. That’s a deflection of responsibility on a dead man.”
Following Meehan’s resignation, a wave of posts proliferated across social media by people who had worked with Meehan at Lucky Peach and the Los Angeles Times, who finally felt able to speak out. Aralyn Beaumont described her time at Lucky Peach as “living with a hole that has yet to close.” Chris Ying wrote on Instagram that “it took me a long time — too long — to understand that we weren’t dealing with a run-of-the-mill bad boss.” Rachel Khong wrote about how Twitter could distort the complexities of the situation. “I don’t believe Peter is an evil person. I don’t believe in evil people, full stop,” she wrote. But, she continued, “the harm that was done to us was not one Tweetable instance but was daily, and relentless, and insidious.”
Staffers at the Los Angeles Times, who by then had seen Harris’s allegations about Meehan’s behavior in Slack, were sharper-edged. Ben Mims wrote that the apology posted by Meehan was “an embarrassment,” saying that “‘tunnel vision’ and a ‘management style’ doesn’t begin to describe the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that traumatized our whole team.” Lucas Peterson posted a long statement that many other staffers say encapsulated what it was like to work for Meehan, especially where he wrote, “One of my colleagues described it as like being in a house of horrors — we were all in different parts of the house, and had different experiences. But we were all in the house.”
On August 11, the entire food section at the Los Angeles Times sent a letter to management calling for an end to the holding pattern in place since Meehan’s departure. “The continued uncertainty regarding leadership — with no end in sight — is putting the future of the section in peril,” it states. “There has been no communication from upper management since July 6, which has only served to shake our confidence further during an already upsetting and traumatic time.” The letter demands regular updates on the HR investigation launched after the allegations about Meehan’s behavior surfaced on social media and Slack, and the immediate posting of both the food editor and deputy food editor positions, with an eye toward addressing the section’s lack of representation of the demographics of LA. “We at the Food section recognize the work of the Times’ Black and Latino caucuses, and insist that people of color, particularly those underrepresented in the newsroom, be prioritized in any new hiring,” the letter states.
On August 20, management relased the results of an internal HR investigation launched in the wake of Meehan’s departure. The report states, “Employees told us that Meehan created a negative work environment where employees did not feel comfortable raising their concerns. We also found that managers failed to prevent or report behavior they knew or should have known was inappropriate.” Yoshino will no longer oversee the section, and Chang has been reassigned to Column One. Internally, some LAT staffers say they are dissatified with these changes, including Chang’s lateral move into another section.
It’s not a coincidence, or even that singular, that the Los Angeles Times uprising against Meehan happened over Zoom and the reassessment of Lucky Peach happened over social media, all of it sparked by a single, pointed Twitter thread. This is a story shaped by COVID-19 and the mass quarantine of professional workplaces. The pandemic chewing through the tattered American safety net is too gigantic a disaster to contemplate head on for long, but its silent destruction is always unfolding, creating an atmosphere of fear and urgency whose only outlet is the streets, or social media.
Every institution seems to be failing, and failing us. Navigating media jobs over screens during this frightening moment has left workers isolated and exhausted, but also in possession of a strange freedom. As career ladders crumble, many journalists are doubling down on the one thing the job can still offer: a sense of meaning. That meaning grows sour if bosses are cruel or inequities are entrenched, and calling out a famous, perhaps brilliant editor as a bad boss is less intimidating if there’s no newsroom to face them in. The best hope is for a better way of life to rise from America’s disastrous failure, but right now, the pandemic still rages — the worst may just be beginning. Those with professional jobs in cities willing to issue stay-at-home orders, a bleak blessing, are trapped at home with nothing but time to reassess the past’s failures, and enumerate what must be born anew.
The question for the media reckoning underway is: What might truly subvert the old power structures? What comes after the legend of the brilliant, intimidating, perfectionist editor, embodied appetizingly by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (who in reality is most often a white man)? In the recent past, explosive tempers and blurred lines could be excused if the end product were exciting enough. Dismantling that ethos is only a start; it stems from larger inequities in how power and value are accorded in a newsroom, and who gets credit for the work. In an industry where power is nakedly ranked on a masthead, it took the lateral, flattening effect of social media to shake those hierarchies. “I think Peter had a gift for surrounding himself with talented people,” Escárcega wrote in an earlier email. “I hope we get smarter about who we exalt and why.”
Disclosures: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater. The Eater Test Kitchen that housed Lucky Peach was, for a time, sublet from Momofuku. A number of people in this story have contributed to Eater, including Tammie Teclemariam, Marian Bull, Rachel Khong, Lucas Peterson, and Bill Addison.