F&W Game Changers: Stephen Satterfield
On a given day, Stephen Satterfield is running. "I'm a runner. That's really important to me," says Satterfield, writer and founder of Whetstone Media. "I like to go for fairly long runs to clear my head at the end of the day." For Satterfield, running his own race is both a practice in self-care and in business. Since launching his thriving food media company in 2017, Satterfield has been bucking the food media status quo, centering overlooked narrators and subjects in Whetstone's hallmark longform journalism and storytelling. Through nuanced insights on origin, ancestry, and preservation, he uses food and drink as instruments for us global citizens to cultivate a deeper understanding of our place in the human experience.
The Whetstone moniker is a nod to Satterfield's years spent working in restaurants where the former sommelier who studied culinary arts would observe the nightly procession of chefs whetting their knives. "It is about ritual. It is about getting sharper." Indeed, Whetstone is Satterfield's call-to-action for all of us to sharpen our perceptions of one another and our empathy for one another.
The host of High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, the ground-breaking Netflix docuseries based on James Beard award-winning author and historian Jessica B. Harris' book of the same title, remembers what the food media space was like just a few years ago. "The environment was a lot of lists, a lot of 'best of this,' a lot of 'cheap eats,' a lot of 'top restaurants.'" Satterfield recounts the cyclical and myopic coverage that often only revolved around restaurants and chefs of European origin.
But Satterfield, who has been studying food media since he was a kid in his hometown of Atlanta absorbing cooking shows on Food Network and PBS, sought the type of inclusive and expansive origin stories linking culture, food systems, and politics that Whetstone has become known for. The poeticism that threads Whetstone's words and imagery is directly tied to Satterfield, who has been writing poetry since he was a middle school student toting a journal full of poems. Now his poet's sensibilities — the slowing down, reflecting, and reimagining — are distilled through food, and have become the ethos of his brand.
Perhaps that's why Satterfield's voice has been a central one in the gradual food media identity shift happening today. "When we look back five years ago, honestly, the environment now is so much more mature. The dialogue is a lot more complex." It's a response largely shaped by a synthesis of conversations across social media, "our societal water cooler" as he calls it, but Satterfield underscores that until more people of color have rank and ownership, more change is still needed.
What began as a quarterly print and digital magazine has blossomed into a multi-sensory storytelling platform covering more than 100 countries. Whetstone Media is comprised of the celebrated Whetstone magazine; Whetstone Radio Collective, a podcast network featuring several weekly shows such as Spirit Plate, which pays homage to Indigenous communities and foodways and El corredor del néctar, a Spanish-language show all about mezcal; a video storytelling outlet; and a digital marketplace that intersects agricultural and artisans offering handmade goods like ceramics and Oaxacan textiles. But Whetstone becoming a full-blown media company was always Satterfield's vision, and he assures that there's much more to come.
"We're running a very profitable direct-to-consumer magazine business. Which is precisely the thing I was told would not be possible when I was asking people for money on the front end of this journey." Satterfield has been transparent about his quest for capital and the pushback he's received over the years. But in early 2022, Satterfield announced that Whetstone had finally raised $1.3 million in funding, which means more cinematic storytelling is on the horizon. It's a hard-won victory for Satterfield, but also for others operating independently owned media outlets in a sea of conglomerates, and particularly for Black food and beverage publishers, for which there are just a handful.
"It's been thrilling to take this leap and to really be able to know, at least for now, the work that we're making is funded. We can move how we want to from a creative standpoint, without creative limitations."
As Satterfield writes this new chapter for Whetstone, he's also penning his own. High on the Hog, which won a 2022 Peabody Award in the documentary category, has been renewed for a second season, and he's working on his book, Black Terroir, about wine, land, and identity. Satterfield admits he still gets a little nervous whenever he launches anything. But he turns any nervous energy into fuel and keeps on running.