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Tanya Holland describes her tumultuous journey to opening Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland and becoming a top chef.
10 min read
February 25, 2020
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On a busy Thursday morning, the streets of Uptown Oakland are bustling with commuters speed-walking to work and streams of cars barreling down Broadway street. But as soon as you step inside Brown Sugar Kitchen, you’ll find a different scene: The airy, sun-filled space sets you at ease with its warm wood accents and calming teal walls, as the scents of sizzling bacon and freshly roasted coffee entice you to take a seat. Waiters walk by balancing plates of crispy cornmeal waffles topped with pieces of perfectly golden, buttermilk fried chicken; hearty vegetable scrambles alongside thick slices of artisan bread; and fluffy biscuits laced with bacon, cheddar, and scallions. Chill music plays in the background, punctuated only by the soft sound of conversations and the occasional clang of pots and pans.
Welcome to chef Tanya Holland’s domain. Her impressive culinary acumen, impeccable attention to detail, and unwavering standards have transformed her humble soul food restaurant into a bonafide dining destination—attracting the likes of rapper Drake, Academy Award–winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana. Even after 10-plus years, the soul food restaurant continues to serve as a convivial community gathering place, where on any given day at any given time, you can find local business owners and creatives along with young professionals and families from across the Bay Area (and beyond).
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Case in point: It’s 9:45 a.m. on a Thursday, and nearly every table is full. “It’s always busy here, even during the week—it’s crazy,” says Holland, 54. The success and popularity of Brown Sugar Kitchen have not gone unnoticed, either. Since the restaurant’s debut in January 2008, Holland has won numerous awards and accolades, and even has a day named in her honor; The City of Oakland declared June 5, 2012 as “Tanya Holland Day” for her “significant role in creating community and establishing Oakland as a culinary center.” She’s also made guest appearances on The Today Show, The Wayne Brady Show, and The Chew, among others. Most recently, Holland competed on Top Chef and served as a guest judge on Iron Chef America.
Considering all of her success, it’s a little surprising that Holland didn’t always aspire to become a star chef and restaurateur. Raised in Rochester, New York, by Southern-born parents, she was exposed to various cultures and cuisines as a child. Aside from fried chicken and gumbo, her parents made everything from Kalua pig, to paella, to matzo-ball soup as part of a gourmet cooking club they created with six other couples. “They were very into food and entertaining and hospitality, making people feel comfortable,” Holland says. “That had a big impact on me, because I like creating a special environment for people.”
She brought her appreciation of food with her to the University of Virginia, cooking and hosting dinner parties for friends. Holland also started working part-time as a server in a restaurant, but at the time, she says, “I wasn’t thinking about cooking as an occupation. I didn’t have ambitions to become a chef.” In fact, Holland entered college as an engineering major, then eventually switched to art history and Russian language and literature. (“I didn’t really know what I wanted to be,” she admits, laughing.) After graduating in 1987, she worked in advertising for several years and supplemented her income with various restaurant jobs. It wasn’t until she landed a gig as an office manager for a catering company that she started to seriously consider working in the restaurant industry.
“That was the transition that changed everything,” she says. “We did big, lavish events all around [New York City] … They were very impressive, and food writers from all the major magazines would come in and interview my boss. The experience totally changed my whole view of the industry. I started to see these endless possibilities, and I decided I wanted to commit to the industry.”
Armed with her newfound passion and drive, Holland applied and was accepted to the acclaimed École de Cuisine La Varenne in Burgundy, France, and later trained under French-style chefs in restaurants. She further sharpened her culinary skills during a stint at celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York, where she worked as a line cook and met many of his rising-star cohorts, including Mario Batali.
“[Batali] once told me, ‘You can learn just as much working for yourself as you can for other people,’ and that was a really significant line,” Holland says. “It’s definitely a harder, more expensive lesson when you’re learning from yourself, but I thought it was really cool that he said that, and it’s true.”
After that seed was planted, Holland began to seriously consider opening her own place and being a restaurateur, becoming more inspired the longer she worked at Mesa Grill alongside Flay. “I thought, OK, if this punk can do it, I can do it,” Holland recalls, laughing. What she didn’t realize, however, were the obstacles and barriers she would face as a woman of color. She tried opening restaurants in New York, Boston, and Martha’s Vineyard, but she couldn’t find access to capital and had trouble finding men who wanted to work for her—discrimination she had faced in countless kitchens before.
“In the beginning, I didn’t see it as much, maybe because I didn’t want to,” Holland explains. “But as I started getting really good at my craft and getting stronger, I could see that I was a threat to a lot of my male counterparts. They were threatened by my college education and formal training, so they would undermine me, withhold information, not teach me the same skills they would a young man, encourage me to take the ‘easier’ job—but I never take the easy way out. I wanted to push myself and challenge myself … I kept trying to find environments where I could feel empowered, but it didn’t really happen until I created my own environment.”
In 2000, Holland landed a gig as a cohost on Melting Pot, a Food Network show that highlighted ethnic cuisines from around the world. (Chefs Aaron Sanchez, Cat Cora, and Padma Lakshmi were also hosts.) Melting Pot helped launch Holland into the national spotlight, and her first cookbook, New Soul Cooking: Updating a Cuisine Rich in Flavor and Tradition, was published soon after the show ended. But Holland missed serving customers, so shortly after moving to Oakland in 2003, she renewed her search for a restaurant space. While she originally wanted to open a spot in Jack London Square or Old Oakland, she once again had issues with landlords who refused to rent to her.
“It was really hard to convince them that I had the aptitude to be successful in this industry,” she remembers. “I had to keep proving that I had skills, even after 20-plus years of cooking. They would tell me, ‘You’re not a proven entity. You’ve never owned a restaurant before.’ Meanwhile, I had tons of experience, I had been on TV, I had written a cookbook … I knew I could fill the seats, and I knew I could build a business. I just needed a chance.
“It's really frustrating and sad to face discrimination in this business, because so much of American cuisine originated in the black woman’s kitchen,” Holland continues. “We cooked during slavery and after slavery, using a fusion of African, European, and Asia spices. … But [the restaurant industry] is based on patriarchal systems that support men but not women, so it’s harder for us to get the same support and resources men [chefs] do.”
"There aren’t a lot of examples of people who look like me doing what I’ve done. I feel like I really need to be a role model for women." Tanya Holland
Despite the challenges she faced, she continued to believe in herself and her vision—and her tenacity, grit, and perseverance paid off. She eventually found a small space in industrial West Oakland, and thanks to funding from the city and donations from friends, family, and neighbors, she was finally able to bring Brown Sugar Kitchen to life. The focus? Elevated soul food with California flair.
The concept was a total hit. Her 50-seat, diner-style eatery served nearly 2,000 customers each week, until Holland decided to shutter the flagship restaurant to focus on the new iteration in trendy, booming Uptown. But Brown Sugar Kitchen continues to draw droves of customers with its innovative, flavorful dishes, including the signature fried chicken and waffles, fluffy beignets, comforting chicken and shrimp gumbo, and blackened catfish. It’s also enabled Holland to expand into dinner service and offer new items such as braised oxtail, Andouille deviled eggs, and roasted corn hush puppies. “This new space really reflects my taste and what I really wanted to create from the beginning, so I feel grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to execute that,” she says.
And Holland isn’t finished yet. In late summer, she’s launching a new concept at the venerable Oakland Museum of California—and it’s unlike anything she’s ever done before. Instead of dishing up soul food with a California twist, Town Fare will have a plant-forward focus, serving farm-fresh salads, grain bowls, and noodles with North African, West African, and Caribbean flavors. While it’s a deviation from what Holland is used to, she’s excited about the new venture and the opportunity to represent Oakland and the Golden State.
“Oakland is such a diverse community, and California has so many amazing regional differences, so I wanted [Town Fare] to show how we eat here: [The food is] very soulful, no matter what your heritage is,” Holland says. “I also wanted to use it as a platform for sustainability. That’s why we’re making the menu more plant-forward and being really mindful of the environment and sourcing sustainable ingredients, because that's the way of the future.”
California’s incredibly culinary bounty has deeply influenced Holland, who sources local, organic, and sustainable ingredients as much as she can to ensure her food is fresh and distinctly Californian. Her next cookbook, tentatively titled California Soul, will showcase how much California has impacted her cooking and highlight the unique ways people like to eat and cook here.
With a booming restaurant, a new one in the works, and an upcoming cookbook, Holland might appear too busy to take on much else. But she’s always thinking about what’s on the horizon and continuously has multiple irons in the fire. “One of my friends was like, ‘If you don’t ever do anything else in your life, you’ll be fine,’ but I’m not one to rest on my laurels,” Holland says. “I’m always looking to see what’s next. It’s just kind of my nature; I can’t help it. There’s so much more that I still aspire to do—and that I know I can do if given the opportunity.”
Fully aware of the hardships she endured to get to where she is today, Holland also gives back to the community, often donating her time to charity and offering words of wisdom and encouragement to women seeking her advice. In 2018, she even applied and was one of 15 chefs selected from across the country to participate in the James Beard Foundation Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, where she learned advocacy skills and explored her potential power as a representative for change in the local community.
“My goal is to inspire a new generation of chefs, especially because I didn’t really have that,” Holland says. “There aren’t a lot of examples of people who look like me doing what I’ve done. I feel like I really need to be a role model for women—especially women of color. I want that to be part of my legacy.”
Q: What are your favorite comfort foods?A: Spaghetti with red sauce, chocolate, and chocolate chip cookies. I’m a cookie monster—I love cookies so much.
Q: What do you do for fun? A: I hardly have time for hobbies, but I love going to spas. If I could go to a spa every weekend, I’d be happy. And just walking around the different neighborhoods in Oakland is always fun. I also like going to Lake Merritt and hiking in the Oakland Hills. There are such great views and redwood groves up there, and people don’t even realize it.
Q: What do you love most about Oakland? A: The diversity; you see all kinds of people here. And it’s a city, but it’s a little slower paced and very accessible.
Q: Who are your culinary icons? A: Emily Luchetti, a pastry chef who I met when I first moved [to the Bay Area]. She’s been such an inspiration, and even though I’m not a pastry chef, I think she’s amazing. Also, Leah Chase in New Orleans, who’s still cooking in her 90s! I have a photo of her up on the wall [in Brown Sugar Kitchen]. And Edna Lewis and Julia Child, of course.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring female entrepreneurs? A: You need to learn as much as possible from other people, if they’re willing to teach you. I couldn't find people willing to teach me and share knowledge, but I love sharing knowledge and encouraging young women. I advise: Get all your ducks in a row and make sure you’ve had several people review your business plan, you’ve got good legal representation, and you’ve got good accounting. It’s great to be passionate about something, but you still need to treat it like a business if you want it to be sustainable.
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