In March, San Francisco food writer Marcia “Tablehopper” Gagliardi got an offer she couldn’t refuse. Would she appear on a new pandemic-inspired, interview-style podcast hosted by her 9-year-old cousin Kai? Of course she said yes. During the conversation, Gagliardi realized that podcasting might be the best way to help her audience understand the goings-on of the city’s struggling restaurant industry. Unbeknownst to her, a couple of other local food figures had reached the same realization, and all three launched podcasts with a focus on the city’s food industry in a matter of a few months.
Gagliardi says “a lightbulb went off” during her recording session with her cousin as she started to think about the restaurant workers she’s built relationships with over years of writing food “e-column” Tablehopper. “All those people are struggling under the weight of the pandemic,” Gagliardi says, but she knew that it wasn’t “enough for me to translate their experiences” in writing. Perhaps a podcast could convey the emotional toll the shutdown was having on the industry, and illuminate the ways in which the local culinary community was coming together to support one another?
Gagliardi, who has a background in voiceover work, bought a microphone, set up a makeshift recording area, and brought on an amateur producer — an avid Tablehopper reader, who offered to help for free. She named the show On the Fly, kitchen slang for rushing through a last-minute change or a forgotten order.
While On the Fly featured Nopa co-owner Laurence Jossel in its inaugural installment, Gagliardi has made conversations with women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) business owners, and those who work behind the scenes a priority, with a plan to shine a light on problems laid bare by the pandemic — such as the exploitation of workers, racism, and food insecurity — and offer actionable solutions.
“I’m interested in having conversations with people who are trying to figure out different models,” Gagliardi says. Guests have included Ground Floor Experiences founder Gwyneth Borden, Fernando Pujals of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, Zazie owner Jennifer Bennett, and veteran Bay Area chef Jay Foster. “I hope [On The Fly] creates some activism,” she says.
Gagliardi has also used her new platform to showcase the extent to which the industry is trying to save itself without substantial federal support. “We should not have to depend upon the private sector, philanthropists, and broke writers to donate money,” she says.
Tanya Holland, the chef and owner of Oakland soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen, was also attracted to the idea of creating a podcast as a way to lift up crucial voices and perspectives in the culinary world — first and foremost her own.
Holland, who is Black, has tried to break into the world of television for years. And while she’s enjoyed moderate success — clocking in a brief stint as co-host of Food Network’s Melting Pot, and participating as a contestant in Bravo’s 15th season of Top Chef — she says that it quickly became apparent that television producers expected her to play up Black stereotypes. On the Food Network, she was encouraged to be “sassier,” she says, and for an appearance on the Today show, she was invited to cook dishes associated with the African-American holiday Kwanzaa, a holiday she says she has never observed.
The experience was deeply distressing, Holland says. “[Producers] recognize that I have on-camera talent. But they never know where to put me. There’s no room for a different kind of ‘character,’” she says.
In addition, the chef says that television executives never fully invested in her as a media personality. “You can look at the networks and see who is dominating the programming — it’s always a white dude,” Holland says. “Those guys get three or four shows before someone who doesn’t look like a white male has an opportunity to get in front of the camera. Most of us don’t get access to those kinds of resources. We have to go out and create our own opportunities.”
Last year, Holland began shopping a TV treatment for a food and culture show titled Tanya’s Table. “The idea was that since I couldn’t get a seat at the table, I had to create my own.” The show would feature the restaurateur in conversation with an eclectic collection of guests, and seemed like a perfect fit for Holland’s personality; while she’s an acclaimed chef, her favorite role has always been interacting with restaurant clientele and managing the front of the house. Her pitch was roundly rejected.
Around this time, a friend connected her with Muddhouse Media, a production company that was starting to produce podcasts. After meeting with producers, things proceeded quickly. The team retained the show’s basic premise and name, found a local producer to help out with production, and began taping interviews. During each discussion, Holland made it her mission to explore the common denominators between herself and the interviewee. “I love creating a space where people can come together; I like bridging cultures,” she says.
Some episodes of the show include food luminaries, while others feature celebrity guests whose ties to the culinary world are more subtle (“Everybody has a connection to food,” Holland says). The guest lineup for Season 1 includes hip-hop musician Questlove, Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters, and celebrated food writer (and fellow podcaster) Samin Nosrat.
Holland is considering inviting at least one lesser-known personality to guest on the show during her sophomore season. “I’d like to create opportunities for others that look like me because I had such a hard time getting the opportunities I wanted,” she says. “If I can’t get there, how can the next generation?”
Like Holland, Soleil Ho has always taken control of her own career path. In the early days, she threw herself into freelance food writing and co-created Racist Sandwich, a podcast exploring the relationship between food and politics, with writer Zahir Janmohamed. And when Ho became the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic in 2019, she says she walked into the job knowing she’d create a show to supplement her work as a writer. Ho teamed up with Justin Phillips, another of the paper’s food writers, and in June they co-launched Extra Spicy, the paper’s culinary culture podcast. (“It’s been an equal collaboration,” Ho says.)
Extra Spicy was originally envisioned as a podcast that would take deep dives into the anatomy of Bay Area foods and dishes (“Anyone is welcome to steal this idea now,” Ho says). But by the time the podcast was slated to launch — nearly a year after Ho and Phillips first decided to create it — it had evolved into something new.
Ho says that at the suggestion of the Chron’s then-editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, Ho and Phillips decided to pursue “conceptual scoops” for each episode; stories others in the space hadn’t thought to articulate. This led to interviews with a panopoly of people such as “blogger and professional companion” Adahlia Cole, who explained the similarities between sex work and food hospitality; a conversation with the founders of Mission Meals Coalition and the SF Community Fridge, in which they discussed how to avoid “poverty porn”; and an installment featuring the owner of San Francisco’s only Nigerian restaurant, Eko Kitchen.
While creating the show has been rewarding in its own right, Ho hopes that it can also provide a way for listeners to feel connected to one another in these weird, quarantined times. “Podcasts have taken the place of workplace conversation,” she says. “They can fill up a space with voices in a way that we can’t do on our own right now.”
It’s possible that creating these podcasts has helped their creators feel comforted, too: None of the podcasters featured in this story have plans to cease production after the pandemic ends. Even Gagliardi, whose show was expressly created to address the damaging effects of COVID-19 on the food industry, is confident there will be plenty of material after the crisis wanes. “We’re in the trenches,” she says, “but I see a number of stories that can still be told.”