Chef Brad Leone, a fermentation specialist and regular on Bon Appétit’s beleaguered YouTube channel, hosts a series called “It’s Alive with Brad.” The magazine describes it as “a wild, roundabout and marginally scientific adventure exploring fermented foods and more.” And Leone has leaned into the “marginally scientific” aspect of his show, framing himself as an affable doofus with an amateur understanding of culinary terminology and protocols. For a time, the magazine marketed a shirt on social media as the “It’s Alive-Endorsed, not FDA endorsed long-sleeve” (the shirt’s official name is “Brad’s Fermentation Station long-sleeve”).
This has occasionally gotten Leone in trouble. Last year, Bon Appétit had to remove one of his videos, a demonstration on seafood canning that failed to follow FDA guidelines. And recently, Leone had another run-in with health standards. This one concerned an episode of “It’s Alive,” published on April 4, in which he explains how to make pastrami. Peppered among the usual hype from enthusiastic followers — Leone has a vocal fan base — are several comments from foodies and viewers alleging that Leone’s curing methods are unsafe. “Anyone who knows anything about cooking should know the video that Brad posted is extremely dangerous,” reads one example. “He did not follow safety procedures and this ‘pastrami’ could kill you if you attempt [to] make it yourself.”
The Bon Appétit chef may have sidelined food safety to a degree that could cause botulism in those who attempt his methods at home, according to writer and “food antagonist” Joe Rosenthal, who is known for using Instagram to document the alleged errors of Leone, as well as other food media players’ missteps. Rosenthal ripped into the seafood canning video in two lengthy Instagram stories last year; in a new set of stories dedicated to the pastrami incident, he highlighted, among other things, an Instagram commenter who claimed that she experienced “mind boggling diarrhea” after making Leone’s pastrami.
The stakes of pastrami-making are a bit higher than they might sound. Botulism is a rare, but serious condition that, if contracted, can attack the nerve system and, per the CDC, lead to “difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.” It’s usually caused by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum, which is pretty common in many of the environments we live in. Typically, this is fine — the bacteria are coated in a protective layer of spores which are rarely harmful to people. The catch is that, given the right conditions, they can produce what the CDC describes as “one of the most lethal toxins known.” A prime incubator of those conditions: “improperly home-canned, preserved, or fermented foods.”
For that reason, home-canners and meat preservers typically follow a tight set of health guidelines to minimize risk of contamination. Wet meat-curing is a complicated process that websites like Amazing Ribs lay out in much greater detail, but the basic gist is that a hunk of meat is sitting in a solution for an extended period of time. To make sure that meat does not become a fatal poison, chefs will sterilize their equipment, use boiled or distilled water, and precisely measure and time their brine according to the size and cut of their meat, so the solution gets through the whole slab.
But, although Leone fails to mention several of these precautions (and actively discourages boiling water), the key point of conflict is his approach to sodium nitrite, a crucial step in safe curation that kills Clostridium botulinum before the bacteria can produce nerve-annihilating toxins. Chefs introduce nitrites with curing salts or ingredients like swiss chard powder, celery power, or cherry powder, if added in appropriate quantities. Controlling the quantity is key. If you fail to add enough, you risk contaminating the meat; but adding too much, in turn, creates its own health risks. It’s complicated enough that Amazing Ribs made a “wet cure calculator” to help home chefs nail the proportions. Even that includes a long, vaguely ominous disclosure that ends by saying: “Sorry to be so pedantic, but we long ago decided it was a bad business practice to make our readers sick.”
Leone uses homemade celery juice and sauerkraut, which a pop-up over the video notes “have naturally occurring preservatives.” Celery does have nitrates, which can be reduced to nitrites — but not in predictable quantities or with the concentration you’d get from a celery powder. “The problem is celery is mostly water,” Rosenthal told Gawker. “He used a couple of stalks of celery and made juice — there’s no way you’re going to have enough nitrates in that.”
Leone’s results, Rosenthal told Gawker, spoke for themselves. When meat is cured with sodium nitrites, it colors the meat red — which is why cuts like hams and hot dogs appear pinker than you might expect, even when cooked. Leone’s pastrami is a dull shade of brown.
Bon Appétit has not yet responded to our request for comment, but the magazine does offer an interesting disclosure in the description of Leone’s pastrami video:
Although we all enjoy the discoveries that come with Brad’s unique experiments in the kitchen, if you’re inspired to create your own version at home be sure to follow a tried and tested recipe so your preparations line up with food safety standards.
Update: A spokeswoman for Bon Appétit sent a statement after this piece first published. “Our safety practices are of utmost importance at Bon Appétit and we have many processes in place to ensure all content is accurate, fact-checked and safe for viewers,” she wrote. “Our culinary production team extensively reviews all of our video content to confirm they adhere to safety protocols. In addition, we have a fermentation expert who oversees our recipes for this series, including this video.”