Tanya Holland once had three restaurants in the Bay Area. Now there are none. What happened?


There are only a handful of local chefs who have been so successful that their names are synonymous with the Bay Area. When you hear a name like Alice Waters, for example, you immediately think of her as a Bay Area chef and queen of California cuisine. Or Martin Yan and Cecilia Chang, the ancestors of Chinese-American cuisine in San Francisco.

But in this pantheon of famous Bay Area chefs, there’s also Tanya Holland, who brought local and national recognition to West Oakland as a foodie destination with Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008. When the soul food restaurant opened, Holland was serving up to 1,800 customers a week. . Most people wanted to experience his take on chicken and waffles, where the waffles were made with cornmeal and the chicken was fried in a batter seasoned with tarragon.

Brown Sugar Kitchen moved to downtown Oakland in 2019, where it continued to serve catfish po’boys, Creole meatloaf, hot buttermilk cookies and, of course, chicken and Holland’s signature waffles.

However, in January 2022, she abruptly closed the revolutionary restaurant. “When you don’t have all the resources for decades, it adds up,” Holland told SFGATE in January. “I hung on for as long as I could. I fought the resistance probably much longer than I should have.

Nonetheless, in all of the work she currently does to advance the hospitality industry, there is always an equity and inclusion lens. What interests her most is equity for women and marginalized groups in their respective work environments.

One of the reasons she closed Brown Sugar Kitchen was because Oakland’s demographics had changed significantly.

“It was becoming increasingly difficult for employees to live near the restaurant,” she explained. “It’s quite significant. A lot of my employees came from Vallejo, Modesto, Hayward just because there weren’t as many good paying restaurant jobs. They were just trying to have a quality of life.

Chef Tanya Holland shares a laugh with a vendor while checking out eggs at the Old Town Oakland Farmer’s Market in Oakland, California on May 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

In the end, it was not a sustainable business for Holland or its employees.

So what is one of the Bay Area’s most esteemed chefs doing right now?

Even though Holland is no longer associated with any of the restaurants she originally opened, she continues to make waves in the food world in more visible ways.

Holland has been featured regularly in short television segments, dating back to 2000 when she appeared on “The Today Show.” Her media profile soared to new heights in 2017, when she was a contestant on Season 15 of “Top Chef,” an experience she later confessed to Food & Wine Magazine was unpleasant and “the continuation of bro culture. “. She later hosted a cooking show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network titled “Tanya’s Kitchen Table with Tanya Holland”.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, however, she decided to use this new media platform for good — and on her own terms. With the help of a few connected friends, she started her own podcast called “Tanya’s Table”, where she interviewed different people with and without ties to the world of food. His first guest was Questlove, founding member of Grammy-winning hip-hop group The Roots, where the two talked about music, culture and, of course, food (Questlove has a community Instagram account called “Quest Loves Food “). She interviewed Bay Area chef and “Salt Fat Acid Heat” author Samin Nosrat, Danny Glover and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

“If I could host a dinner party and invite a diverse group of people, who would I ask?” she says, describing how she got the idea for the podcast. “I have athletes, musicians, activists, writers, restaurateurs. These are the people I would like at a dinner party to have a conversation. That’s why we call it “Tanya’s table”.

The idea for the podcast was influenced by a recurring dinner party hosted by his parents, with family friends from different cultures and backgrounds, when Holland was around 8 years old.

“It was called the gourmet club,” she said. “But it wasn’t as if the kitchen still reflected the members’ heritage. They would just choose something – I think they did a soul food dinner one night, one month they did a Jewish Seder. Spain, Italy, Mexico… I was exposed to all things.

Chef Tonya Holland (left) looks at strawberries her friend Romney Steele, the owner of The Cook and Her Farmer, just bought at the Old Town Oakland Farmer's Market in Oakland, California on May 6, 2022 .

Chef Tonya Holland (left) looks at strawberries her friend Romney Steele, the owner of The Cook and Her Farmer, just bought at the Old Town Oakland Farmer’s Market in Oakland, California on May 6, 2022 .

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Growing up in Rochester, New York, Holland said her neighborhood “wasn’t very integrated.” When her parents organized these meals, which were actually for adults and couples, Holland was allowed to follow because she was an only child. These meals helped introduce the Netherlands to the importance of diversity, while cherishing and building a different culture through food.

This early life lesson stayed with Holland and shaped his social impact in the community – both locally in the Bay Area and abroad.

Again this year, it has partnered with an organization called Global SF, a nonprofit economic development agency “blazing the trail for international businesses to locate, invest, and grow in the San Francisco Bay Area. “.

As an ambassador for the organization, along with Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions and Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s, Holland recently visited Sweden and Denmark as part of a food and biotech tour focused on durability.

“She constantly brings people together in a special way – she brings real warmth,” Brioza said. “Over the years, I’ve heard her speak on various panels and admire her articulation and compassion for the industry, and perhaps most importantly, I love her positivity no matter the challenges.”

One of the panels she deals with is the Foundation’s Chefs and Restaurateurs Awards Ceremony James Beard – Holland is the awards chair and trustee of the foundation’s board of trustees. This annual awards ceremony is like the Oscars for the restaurant and bar industry.

Holland has certainly cemented its place in the food history books and continues to push to work towards a better and more inclusive world.

Yet her most significant addition to the food world canon may be her latest cookbook, “Tanya Holland’s California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West,” which comes out in October of this year.

The last Dutch cookbook will be published in October 2022.

The last Dutch cookbook will be published in October 2022.

Courtesy of Ten Speed ​​Press

“It’s about how California influenced my cooking…but we also talk about the migration of African Americans from the South to California, which includes some of my great aunts and uncles,” she said. . “It’s a topic that hasn’t been covered. No one has looked at the food contribution of African Americans in California, which is significant.

Although technically a cookbook, with over 80 recipes, it will focus on the key ingredients, cooking techniques and traditions that black Americans brought with them from southern California. Much has been written about the food traditions that migrated from the South to Chicago, but Holland’s book will be the first of its kind to highlight how these traditions and recipes evolved once they settled in the Golden State.

Recipes featured include green cabbage tabbouleh, fried chicken paillards with arugula and sea sprout salad, rhubarb upside-down cake and honey and lavender chess pie, which will merge the traditions of the Southern with Californian flair.

Holland’s departure from the restaurant that has earned her critical and cultural acclaim may have seemed unexpected, but given the stress of the pandemic, she feels like she wants to redirect her passion for food into something more sustainable. .

“Frankly, the restaurant industry is still not, at least for me, a place of empowerment. There is still a long way to go,” she said.

Rather than burn out in the industry, Holland’s genuine warmth has led her to build new relationships in different parts of the food world – like connecting with 10 Speed ​​Press to create a book kitchen that doubles as a history lesson to empower the lives and stories of the people from the South who made the dangerous move West. Some of these stories will be highlighted in the local artisans section of the book.

Chef Tanya Holland poses for a photo outside Swan's Market in Old Town Oakland in Oakland, California on May 6, 2022.

Chef Tanya Holland poses for a photo outside Swan’s Market in Old Town Oakland in Oakland, California on May 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Although running a restaurant is not sustainable, what is sustainable is being a role model and helping to make the world a better place, one human being at a time. Holland’s commitment to hospitality enhances this sentiment. It is not a commodity, there is no price.

“I am very passionate about hospitality. I was raised in a home where that was a big value,” she said. “Back then, people would stop and my parents would say, ‘Do you want something to eat?’ And they would find something to offer them. This hospitality in any forum is just rare these days.

And although she has left the restaurant industry for the time being, she wants to see more women of color running restaurants, like she has. When asked what advice she would give to rising women of color in the restaurant industry, she replied, “Follow your passions. Keep growing your network and learn as much as you can from others. I remain an open book and while it may not look like what you think it’s going to look like…it’s like the old adage: when one door closes, another opens.


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