The Interview: Tanya Holland Is Bringing Soul to SF

By Janet Reilly


Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen by Gabriela Hasbun.

Even if you’re not a foodie, you’ve likely heard of Tanya Holland, the Bay Area celebrity chef, cookbook author and owner of soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. For more than a decade, Holland has been dishing up barbecue shrimp and grits, fried chicken and waffles, and other Southern delights to us ordinary folk and celebrity diners alike (think Drake and Steph) in her unassuming Mandela Parkway restaurant in Oakland. But now, Holland is ready to step it up a notch, opening Brown Sugar Kitchen in San Francisco’s Ferry Building in the fall and moving a revamped version of her famous restaurant to Uptown Oakland.

On a recent afternoon, I caught up with Holland in her iconic Oakland location. Dressed in a casual, head-to-toe black outfit, Holland lights up the dark restaurant the moment she steps through the doors.

As we settle into conversation, it’s clear she has a lot on her plate (no pun intended) with the move and addition of a second location, but this superstar has her eyes on the prize and her feet planted firmly on the ground. Meet Tanya Holland.

Let me take you way back. You grew up in Rochester, New York, and food was an important part of your family — so much so that your parents founded a gourmet cooking and eating club. Were you a part of that as a kid? No, it was just for adults and couples, but because I was an only child, if they hosted it, I was always like, “What’s going on?” The club went on for 20 years and you know, I kind of took it for granted … but what really amazed me as I grew older was the diversity of the group. My neighborhood wasn’t very integrated, but my parents made a conscious decision to create [a diverse group]. They are just such open-minded people and raised me that way, so diversity has always been a big value of mine. I learned early on that if people are going to get along anywhere, it’s over food and drink. It really brings people together.

You attended the University of Virginia, where you were a Russian language and literature major. Do you speak Russian? [In Russian] A little bit. My vocabulary is limited now but a lot of Russians tell me I have a great accent. I applied to engineering schools because I was excelling in math and science, but then I got to school and I didn’t like it. I started studying a bunch of different things, and I was getting straight A’s in Russian, so I decided, “Let’s major in that!” I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I had a fantasy of being an ambassador for the State Department, but the exam was just too daunting. I fell into advertising for a little bit, [but] I always had a restaurant job. I realized after taking cooking classes and working in restaurants in Manhattan that that’s where I wanted to really focus.

Superstar Drake is a regular at Brown Sugar Kitchen, where he poses with Holland and her latest cookbook.

Is that where you worked for Bobby Flay? Yes, I opened Mesa Grill as a server in ’91 before I went to cooking school. I was really inspired by him and his journey and the food there. I actually just heard from Bobby like a month ago. He direct-messaged me on Twitter, and I hadn’t heard from him in like 15 years.

What was the biggest takeaway working with him? The power of television, for sure. And how to pick the right partners, to be authentic, [cooking with] big bold flavors. Also, the volume that we did at that restaurant was really intense and that trained me for having my own high-volume place.

In the early ’90s, you attended culinary school in Burgundy, France. What was that experience like? It was great. I actually just got back from France. It was the first time I cooked there since I went to cooking school. There was nothing like being at the source. You know, it’s sort of like the base of all kitchens. It’s just the foundation of so much of modern cuisine.

You’re known for your contemporary soul food. Were you able to cook that way when you were in Europe? I was cooking French food. I went to school with a bunch of Americans. I remember we had one Thanksgiving dinner, but I couldn’t find cornmeal anywhere so I couldn’t make cornbread or stuffing or yams. There’s a lot of ingredients, like okra, that don’t translate.

What brought you to the Bay Area? It’s a food capital I had never lived or worked in, and I [tried] to get out here a few times in the past and it just never worked out. I wasn’t finding the opportunities I wanted in New York at that time and so I just decided to go for it and I haven’t looked back.

Being a woman, and a woman of color, in the industry, are there unique challenges you’ve had to overcome? Yeah. I don’t know if it was naïveté, but my parents let me believe I could do anything. I went to the right schools, I knew the right people, and then I really hit a wall after I left school and got into the professional world. It was like, “No, you’re not going to get that opportunity.” To me, that’s the hardest thing, whether it’s sexism or racism, is not allowing people the opportunities especially when they’re really motivated and really want to do the work. For whatever reason, [people] are either threatened or just uncomfortable because they don’t know that culture or they can’t see you as having potential for leadership. In France, when they saw that I worked hard and I had a work ethic, that was all that was needed. But in the States, I had to really do a lot more jockeying around for positions based on things that had nothing to do with my work. They had to do with either my gender or my race. It was evident to me because I was usually the only black person in the kitchen, and in a few of them, the only woman. So I went off on my own sooner than I wanted to. At that time I was friendly with Mario Batali, and [he said], “Tanya, you can learn as much working for yourself as you can working for others, just go for it.” So I did because I wasn’t getting management opportunities in other places. I also came to the Bay Area because there were so many women chefs/owners here, too. I knew about [Traci Des Jardins], [Elka Gilmore], Alice Waters and Elizabeth Faulkner.

Chef extraordinaire Traci Des Jardin and Holland pose while preparing a meal together.

Is there a camaraderie among female chefs in the business? For sure. I’m not a big joiner at all, but I do join my professional women’s organizations. I’m part of Les Dames d’Escoffier, which is an invite-only organization. It’s just a stellar group. I’m so lucky to have these colleagues out here that are accomplished but also striving to do more things and we all share our information. So that’s really helpful because I didn’t have that network back east.

From day one, Brown Sugar Kitchen has been successful, and that doesn’t happen with many restaurants. What do you attribute that to? There are different measures of success. I would say I’ve been popular, but my measure of success is financial freedom and the ability to say “I want to expand,” [or] “I want to do this project,” whatever that is. I knew that I wanted to expand after two to three years, when we were busting at the seams … We’ve been able to keep the doors open, but we haven’t been profitable for years, which is why we closed.

What kind of experience do you want to create for your diners? With the old space and with the new spaces, I want people to get more than they expect. [I want them to be] really surprised by the level of service, the quality of food, the consistency, and to feel taken care of. More than cooking, I’m really passionate about hospitality. I love the hospitality industry. I really want people to feel cared for. It’s not about cooking for me, it’s about feeding people.

Do you have a philosophy around food? My personal style is about cooking accessible food. I want everybody to feel welcome in my space no matter what their socioeconomic, racial or gender background is. And I also pride myself on diners [being able] to see someone who looks like them in the kitchen, on the floor and vice versa, because I didn’t always work in establishments where that was the case.

I understand you’ll be serving dinner at the new Oakland space, something you haven’t done before. Yes, [we’ll have] a [semi-private dining area] because the whole point is like, “Where is Drake going to sit when he comes back?” Drake, Steph [Curry], and all the many VIPs we’ve had, which has been great. It’s crazy who has come here. I met this woman at Outside Lands a few weeks ago and [she told me] last time she was here someone from [Issa Rae’s] Insecure was [at the restaurant]. I love that show! That’s why I call it “the little restaurant that could.” I’m just hoping they’ll be happy with the new location. I know I will.

Tell us about your move to San Francisco. I love to tell people that I beat out seven chefs for [the Ferry Building lease]. There were a lot of really notable chefs vying for that space because it’s an amazing location … I feel like Brown Sugar Kitchen has legs. I’ve been approached by developers in other markets to be the Shake Shack of soul food. It’s been really fun to figure out what the design is, what the pared-down menu [will be]. [This is] becoming the sweet spot for restaurants. It’s about where your profit margins are the best. That’s why a lot of us restaurateurs and chefs are looking at those kinds of concepts. So that’s exciting for me.

How do you think your San Francisco clientele may differ from your Oakland clientele? San Francisco is a very international crowd. Obviously, the Ferry Building is a big lunch crowd, there’s a lot of commuters. So there’ll be people from the more extended Bay Area. Yes, it will be different, but I’m looking forward to both.

You’re a chef, you’re a restaurateur, you write cookbooks, you’ve done celebrity chef shows. How do you do it all? I’m really good at compartmentalizing and multitasking. It’s just a strength of mine. I’m a pretty good communicator … I feel really lucky right now. I’m at a point in my career where people are really interested in my story and my journey. It’s great to tell because I know it’s empowering to people who are coming up and trying to figure out what they want to do and if they can do it. I didn’t have a lot of role models that looked like me who had done what I did, so it’s really important for me to be that as a woman, and as a woman of color.

Holland and her colleagues in Les Dames d’Escoffier at a conference.

What do you do to relax? Drink lots of wine, travel [and] get away. I had a really relaxing time in France. The spa. My favorite stay-cat-ions are up in Napa, Indian Springs, Cavallo Point or Sausalito. We’re so lucky in the Bay that getaways are so accessible. I also take walks, hikes and get on my bicycle whenever I can, and swimming, too.

Do you have any chefs that you admire? Traci [Des Jardins] is someone I’ve admired for years and I’ve gotten to know her a little bit more. We have participated in a lot of different events together and she’s just lovely and so talented. [She is] someone who does a lot, and has done a lot and that’s very inspiring. Mary Sue [Milliken] and Susan [Feniger] down in L.A. at Border Grill, too. They’ve had such long careers. Emily Luchetti who’s a local pastry chef and has written so many books and was interim president of the James Beard Foundation. She’s very active there and has always been generous with me with her time and information. Those are the top ones on my list, but there’s a lot.

What’s your favorite meal? Pasta Bolognese. So good!

The lightning round:

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken… Opening this restaurant in West Oakland.

I’m happiest when … I’m at the beach, in the ocean.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Be at the beach, probably in the ocean, in Maui.

Biggest regret … I wish that I had gotten a business degree.

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