You’ve seen her all over HGTV–from Designed to Sell, to Destination Design and House Hunters on Vacation. Now Taniya Nayak has jumped to HGTV’s sister network, redesigning troubled restaurants on Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible. She comes by it naturally, having designed numerous hot spots in Boston with her restaurateur husband.
I had the chance to interview Taniya recently for Williams-Sonoma’s Designer Marketplace, but you know I like to save a few little nuggets for my own blog. So here’s a little bit more of my Q&A with the smiley star!
Who is your HGTV BFF? Is there another host with whom you have particularly bonded?
Yes—my girl, Sabrina Soto (The High Low Project). I actually have two BFF’s from HGTV. One of them is John Gidding (Curb Appeal: The Block), who did Knock First on ABC Family with me—so we were friends before HGTV. Sabrina and I worked for the same production company. She was doing Get it Sold and I was doing Designed to Sell and we were both sort of relinquished to Washington, DC without our hubbies. We were out there on our own and we bonded like no one else. We just got back from a week’s vacation in Jamaica together and had such a blast while we were there. We’re just the bestest of buds, and so grateful to have someone in this industry who’s such a friend, because there’s zero jealousy. We’ve shared tears of joy for each other, like when she got her Target deal, I was crying for her and when I got HomeGoods, she was crying for me. We were on the phone, jumping up and down and it was so nice to have 100% support all around.
Speaking of getting offended, you usually get a lot of resistance from the restaurant owners who don’t really want to make changes. Has anyone really gotten crazy on the show?
Absolutely. In an episode that hasn’t aired yet, the restaurant owner flipped out in a way that I have never seen on any of the 60 episodes we’ve done so far. She walked out and we didn’t know if we were going to have a show to finish shooting! It was that intense. She was not accustomed to being told what to do. I thought it was fascinating because she signed up for the show! She let out a blood-curdling scream—this woman was yelling at the top of her lungs. It was horrifying! I can’t wait for this episode to air!
You seem perpetually perky on TV. What upsets you on the job?
It’s funny you ask that because on Restaurant Impossible, one of the directors said, “Taniya, listen. You’re too smiley. Robert’s yelling at you and you’re smiling. You’ve got to be more upset.” But I wasn’t upset. We’re all here for the same goal—to put a restaurant back on its feet—so I don’t take it personally if Robert is screaming and yelling about something. In fact, I find it kind of funny sometimes!
Tell us about the “real” Chef Robert Irvine. Is he different off-camera than he is on-camera?
He is what you see on TV. There’s no fakeness going on at all, although what you don’t always see is how he is with people he cares about. We recently did a behind-the-scenes episode and they actually showed his wedding. When it comes to his daughters and his wife, or a restaurant owner he really connects with—even with the contractors and the other designers and myself—he’s a big mush!
*The following content originally appeared on Williams-Sonoma Designer Marketplace.*
Boston interior designer Taniya Nayak has built an impressive television resume, hosting seven popular design shows on networks like HGTV and ABC Family. Now she’s set to take the restaurant world by storm, making over restaurants on Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible and designing nine popular hot-spots on the East Coast with her restauranteur husband, Brian O’Donnell.
I noticed you’re an honorary board member for the Room to Dream Foundation. What is that, and how did you become involved?
The Room to Dream Foundation performs makeovers in Boston area hospitals and homes for kids who are sick with chronic illnesses. The president of the ASID in Boston reached out and told me there was a charity event coming up and invited me to go. It turned out to be for Room to Dream and I was so blown away by it. The very first show I ever did on television was a show about designing rooms for teenagers (Knock First) on ABC Family. So I felt completely connected to this charity when I walked in. It was all for sick kids who can’t get out of their houses because they’re hooked up to machines or they’re just not well. I thought it was just amazing, so I’m thrilled about being an honorary board member.
Can you share a story about one of the Room to Dream projects?
Sure! Normally, we focus on a family and a room in their house, but there was one project that was a little bit different. There was a school for young girls with issues—some had struggled with juvenile delinquency or eating disorders, some had been raped or molested—and these girls were sort of abandoned. They had this carriage house in Arlington, Massachusetts where the girls could go hang out as a reward for good behavior. This was a place they could cook meals, read books or go on the Internet, watch movies or play games. They asked if I could redesign that space. We had a blast. We brought in Mohawk flooring, painted, and spruced up the best that we could. I had a nice chat with the girls beforehand and asked them, “What would you love to see in the space? What would make it feel like home?” It was heartbreaking because a lot of these girls had no idea what “home” would feel like. I asked the girls to participate and help with the painting and some of that stuff so that they’d feel a sense of ownership—that it was theirs.
When I read that your dad was an architect, I was so interested to know if you have ever collaborated on a project with him?
My dad is my life mentor. I have to say, the reason I became a designer is because of him. I respect him and value everything he has taught me. He’s an architect, and his outlook on design is very much about shapes and how light hits, and structure and form—all of that. I come in and try to tackle the interior space with texture and color. We really make an amazing duo—we have worked on projects and they’ve turned out beautiful, but we just realized we’re better off doing our own thing and giving each other advice. He comes to me for my input if he’s working on something that requires interior design and I always go to him for advice. He’s been in this business for 50 years—he knows what he’s doing!
Do you and your father share a similar design aesthetic?
We are both big fans of mid-century modern style. I have a pair of Wassily chairs that I literally stole from my parents when I moved into my first place. I was like, “Dad, I have to have these chairs!” I love them because they remind me of growing up and yet they’re so timeless. When I was three years old, I was climbing into them, and now they’re in my house and just fit in so beautifully.
You’ve transitioned from focusing on residential design to restaurant design—not only on Restaurant Impossible, but you’ve also teamed up with your husband by designing his Boston restaurants. What is it about restaurants that has piqued your interest?
I love the fast pace of it. One of the things that is really fabulous about designing on television is that we have these lightning speed turnarounds for makeovers, whereas in real life, residential design takes a lot longer. As a designer, you know it can take a while to get an answer from the client on a chandelier or whatever. With restaurant owners, there’s no mucking around. They need to open—every day gone is a dollar gone. They need to start making money. What I love about the challenge of doing restaurant design is you get to be over-creative. Not that you can’t do that with a house, but you can push the envelope that much further because it’s a restaurant. They’re looking for something unique. At the same time, there’s a balance to strike with money. I know this because my husband and I are in the restaurant business—we have nine restaurants in the Boston and Rhode Island area. I totally get it. You can’t spend millions and millions of dollars when you’re opening a restaurant because you won’t make that money back. As a designer, I understand how much money we need to put into a restaurant so that you can actually recover your return on investment. You can still make it look fabulous—there’s no reason why designing and saving a little bit of money while you’re doing it means it has to look any less amazing than if you’d spent millions.
You seem perpetually perky on TV. What upsets you on the job?
The only thing that is a kind of pet peeve of mine is when I have an idea for something and a contractor says, “No, it’s not possible.” Anything is possible—you just have to figure out how to get there. Just tell me another way to do it. If it’s not possible to do it the way I’m asking, what is possible? There’s got to be a way to do it that will bring me just as much happiness. I’m flexible—I’m not like, “It must be this way or no way.” Just help me achieve this look somehow. Even when it comes to the dollar value of something we design. Tell me if there’s a way we can tweak it a little bit so it doesn’t cost as much.
You grew up in the Boston area. Is there anything distinctive about Bostonian interior design?
I hate to generalize, because I think with any major city, you have such a variety of design personalities and types of styles and demographics. But one thing I know about Bostonians—being one, myself—we’re a no-frills group of people. I’ve seen that come through in design. I see a lot of raw elements with more luxurious layers on top of it. So you might see a natural, reclaimed wood paired up with lush carpet and a fancier chandelier. There’s a nice mix and a balance.
How did you get your start in television?
I was doing my master’s at the Boston Architectural College and they sent an email to all of the students encouraging us to audition for Knock First about ten years ago. I figured what the hell? I honestly went with zero expectations—and zero interest, for that matter—of being on television. I got a call back and was selected as one of four designers on the show. When the show ended, I was really bummed because I loved it so much, so when one of the producers sent me a Craigslist ad that said HGTV was looking for a young, urban designer for an edgy new series called Freestyle, I sent them a link to the show I’d done on ABC Family. HGTV called me 30 minutes later! They wanted me to do their pilot—isn’t that crazy? Now I’ve been with HGTV about eight years.
Now that you are starting to branch out into home décor products like lighting, how would you describe the Taniya Nayak brand?
My brand is all about affordability and achieving a look that is going to help bring a customer’s vision to life. I want every space I’m associated with to be livable. I call it “Livable Luxury.” I also have a few items that are really high end, because there’s a market for it—people who want one key splurge item that will really wow.
How do you balance your real-life design business and your television work? That seems like a lot to juggle.
When I’m not shooting, I feel like I’m having time off! The reality is that I’m running around doing four restaurant design projects in Boston right now—huge projects—but when I’m in my home or working in my office, it feels like time off to me because I’m not on the road, traveling. I have a couple of great people who work with me for my firm and they truly help keep the business going while I’m doing the show. I wouldn’t be able to do both if I didn’t have a great team.
As we’ve sort of touched on, you’ve designed several of your husband’s restaurants. What are some of the challenges of working with your mate in a situation like that, and how did you overcome them?
Let’s just say that the first one was a learning experience! The fact that we survived that first one confirmed that we are a force to be reckoned with in the restaurant world. I’m not even kidding! Since then, we’ve done so many projects together, I feel such a trust with him and his partners. We have a wonderful working relationship—we ’re that couple who goes to a restaurant and for the first ten minutes, we’re talking about what we would do differently as the restaurant owner. Maybe I would turn the music down a little bit or move the hostess booth over here…and he would ask, “What would you do with the design?” We’re both so passionate about good food, good design, great service—all of that stuff.
Now that you’ve been doing Restaurant Impossible for a while, do restaurant owners ever hound you for advice on how to tweak their restaurants when you’re dining out?
Actually, that doesn’t happen. In fact, last night, a new restaurant opened up in our neighborhood and we went on their first night. The owner recognized me and said, “Geez, we’re just open one day, do we already need your help?!” What does happen is that I get a lot of emails from restaurant owners asking, “Do you do the services that you do on Restaurant Impossible—can you come and help us if we have $10,000 to spend?” The unfortunate thing about that is the $10,000 budget we have on the show is just for materials—it doesn’t include labor, which in the real world is a huge expense that viewers aren’t factoring in.
Do you ever go into a restaurant and think, OMG, we have to get this place for Restaurant Impossible!
Yes. I would really love to do an episode in Boston and thought I’d found the perfect Boston restaurant to makeover. It was a breakfast place, but the design as the previous restaurant in the space—it had been a steakhouse or wine bar or something. It was that old-fashioned, heavy burgundy rug and wood and fancy chandeliers and it just didn’t work for this diner concept. I thought we could do such great things for them—what a perfect show! I made the mistake of introducing myself to the owner and tried to be delicate about it, but told him if he was interested, to call me. It’s hard to make this suggestion without insulting someone! I tried to stress that I didn’t mean it offensively at all, but I just thought the design of the restaurant could match the name so much better. I never heard from him!
Out of all of the shows you’ve been on, do you have a favorite?
That’s such a tough question. I love Knock First because I got to do this stuff for teenagers, who can get caught in this feeling of being isolated and disconnected. This was a great show because we were really getting their stories out. There was no fluff around it. We had gay teenagers who were open and I thought it was remarkable that we were showing that side of it. This was ten years ago—on ABC Family, too! I loved it for that reason, but then I also loved Designed to Sell because that’s what built my credibility and it was awesome that we were helping people and making substantial changes, but we weren’t spending $10,000 on three rooms in a house. I loved House Hunters on Vacation because I got to travel to the most luxurious vacation destinations—how can I complain about that?! On Restaurant Impossible, we cry after every episode when we see how we’ve transformed these people’s lives. I just feel so blessed. With every single show I’ve done, I’ve been so lucky.
What’s next for you?
Like I said before, I’m working on four restaurants in Boston, and we’ve had two open recently. One is called Turner’s Yard, and as Bostonians, we’re super stoked about this one because we partnered with Tim Wakefield from the Boston Red Sox and Shawn Thornton with the Boston Bruins. They are so excited about this restaurant, which tickles me a little bit because they’re such super-mega-superstar athletes, to have them get so pumped about a restaurant is pretty cool. There’s also a Boston-based band called Dropkick Murphys with an international following, and their lead singer, Ken Casey, is also a partner—we’re having a great time with that. Another one, called Abby Lane, is downtown in the Boston theater district. It’s in a building that had to be completely gutted, which took over a year. Everything had to be redone—it went beyond decorative aspects. For another restaurant called Blue Inc., we brought on Executive Chef Jason Santos (Hell’s Kitchen) and he is just this crazy, blue-haired guy. His food is just like him—he’s an over the top, amazing chef!