Tanya Steel is a global food industry leader, author and award-winning editor with a list of achievements long enough to fill an enormous cookbook. She was the editorial director of Epicurious, Gourmet.com and Clean Plates; an editor at Bon Appétit and Food & Wine; and a writer for The New York Times. The author of three books—Food Fight: A Mouthwatering History of Who Ate What & Why Through the Ages, Real Food for Healthy Kids and The Epicurious Cookbook—she also appeared regularly on the Today Show, CBS’ Early Show, Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef, among others. The winner of a James Beard journalism award and dozens of other honors, she is now the award director for the Julia Child Award and launched the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge & Kids’ “State Dinner” with former First Lady Michelle Obama. Steel, 57, moved to Sarasota last fall.
How did you end up in Sarasota?
I had come here for several years because my twin boys, who are now 23, had an aspiration of becoming professional tennis players. My husband and I would drive around Sarasota, and I was so charmed by it. My husband passed away at the age of 58 in December 2019, right before the pandemic. He had been sick with a disease called frontotemporal degeneration, which is a dementia that is very underreported and underdiagnosed. It’s now January 2020, and I’m sitting in my lovely house in Westchester, New York, looking at these barren trees and thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to figure out what makes me happy.’ I wrote down on a piece of paper ‘swimming as much as possible, seeing green every day, living someplace affordable, accessibility to New York and London, and then being in a culture that has arts, museums, ballet.’ What came up was U.S. News and World Report, saying Sarasota was one of the best places to retire.”
What do you think about the food scene here so far?
“I think we’re getting there. I’ve gone to a lot of restaurants. I’m finding that the quality of ingredients is terrific, and that’s the most important part of food, having the best ingredients. There is still classic Florida, let’s fry everything. It would be great to see less cooking and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. I’d also like to see more vegetable-focused restaurants and menus. That’s the trend taking over the world and that’s a good thing. We need to eat less meat. It helps our environment and our bodies. But I think Sarasota is this sleeping beauty. It’s ready for its closeup.”
What might surprise people about food writing and the industry?
“It’s hard not to be clichéd and sound like everybody else. But one of the things I like best about being in the food world is the kindness and generosity of people. There’s a reason it’s called hospitality. My first journalism job was at Mademoiselle magazine and I was in the beauty department. I knew that was not for me. My next job was at Food & Wine. The difference between going from the beauty industry to the food industry was gigantic. I couldn’t get over how much nicer people were.”
What has been a career highlight?
“Giving speeches standing next to Mrs. Obama in the East Room of the White House when we did the Kids’ ‘State Dinner.’ Being on the stage with her, hugging her and talking to her like she’s a good friend, giving a speech in front of the world’s press and all these spectacular families and kids that are rock stars—all of that was surreal then and now. That experience changed my life.”
How did that happen?
“I had always wanted to do a national recipe competition for kids because I wanted to get them in the kitchen and eat healthfully. I pitched it to the White House. All of the winners—one from every state and territory—came to the White House in July, toured Washington, and the next day went to the White House for an actual state dinner. The president would come and shake everyone’s hand. We did this four times.”
You’re still working with kids as the executive director of C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program, a 30-year-old national nonprofit.
“This has been a nice evolution from the Kids’ State Dinner. The point of C-CAP is to put kids on a path to success whether it’s a career in food or they go into something totally different. We’re providing tools—résumé building, jobs, life skills—to be successful. I travel and work with top chefs in the country and do fund-raising events. We provide $2.5 million a year in scholarships to 100 kids a year. We have 20,000 kids every year.”
You’re also writing another book.
“This one is straightforward, practical advice for people who are caring for dementia patients. I would like to do a lot of speaking about it and raising money. I’m committed to finding a cure and erasing the stigma. We need to recognize that dementia is a physical illness.”
Any other food trend you’re interested in now that you’re a Floridian?
“I’m fantasizing about vegetable and fruit gardens. We’re in a special little paradise, so it makes sense to take advantage of the rain and the sun and bees and grow our own little plots.”
Your newest food obsession?
“The peanut better ice cream at Main Street Creamery. It’s a big problem.”