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Chef Tanya Holland looks ahead to her next chapter

Chef Tanya Holland (Smeeta Mahanti)
Chef Tanya Holland (Smeeta Mahanti)

You may know chef and author Tanya Holland from her appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef” or her show “Tanya’s Kitchen Table” on Oprah’s TV network.

She recently closed her trailblazing Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California, after 15 years in business. The restaurant put Oakland on the map as a dining destination.

She’s most proud of creating a tiny, intimate space with so few resources that brought together a diverse group of people, she says.

“That just really made my day every day,” she says.

In 2019, Holland moved Brown Sugar to a larger space in Oakland then opened a second location in San Francisco. She says learned too many lessons to count from the hard-hitting pandemic and trying to open two locations at once.

She says she’s constantly talking to colleagues about restaurant survival and the variables that contribute — like location, trending cuisines, etc. The pool of employees in a certain location is key to a restaurant’s success too, she notes.

“For instance, in the Bay Area, there’s been kind of a mass exodus. Housing prices continue to rise and there’s not enough housing,” she says. She adds that local restaurants are forced to compete with the compensation of tech companies who operate cafeterias for their workers.

But she holds faith in the industry, she says, because restaurants offer a crucial “third space” for people to relax, gather together and eat. Restaurants also play a large role in the national economy, serve as a stepping stone for immigrants and provide a way to share cultural traditions, she says.

Preserving and sharing cultural traditions has always been important to Holland. She’s known for a different kind of soul food: She trained as a chef in France and has family roots in the South. Her style is deeply influenced by her parents, who she says hosted a gourmet cooking club for 20 years with five other diverse couples.

She clung to “this notion that people are going to get along over food,” she says. Her goal was to provide people with a dining experience, which is why she dreamed of opening her own space when in cooking school. She says she also wanted to “take the cuisine that I grew up with and elevate it and make it also more accessible to people who weren’t necessarily from that cultural background.”

Opening Brown Sugar in a marginal neighborhood inspired Holland to take her soulful bistro idea, focus on the flavor and make it a “something that everybody could kind of understand,” she says.

Holland is known for her fried chicken. People talk about coming to her restaurant and being able to indulge in exceptional chicken and waffles, for instance. “It’s so ironic,” she laughs, because the sheer amount of her mom’s fried chicken that she consumed growing up made her swear it off at first.

“After I left my parents’ home, I was like, ‘I don’t want to fry chicken anymore,’ ” she says. “And then I became known for my fried chicken.”

She perfected the recipe by sourcing the best sustainable, hormone-free chicken, marinating it overnight and using clean oil to fry it up, she says. The details add up: Serving the chicken immediately is a necessity, she notes.

Timing is everything too, she says. Much of her cuisine required patience as the chicken tenderizes in the marinade and the yeast for the waffles rises overnight. Some people had doubts when she was cast on “Top Chef” considering Holland specializes in slow cooking.

Holland is keeping her options open as she looks toward staying active in the cooking industry. She still runs the Town Fare restaurant at the Oakland Museum of California and has a new cookbook coming out next fall. She says she doesn’t count out creating another space for people to experience her food.

She’ll also keep advocating for equal access in the restaurant world, she says. Holland doesn’t want special tools or handouts — just the chance for her and other female chefs of color to be considered and included in industry opportunities like her white male counterparts are.

“The restaurant business was really founded on a very patriarchal construct. But there’s so much feminine energy that is required for a restaurant to be successful,” she says. “So I think just finding the balance and getting people to understand that women have the same aptitude and capacity to be successful as long as they have the same tools and the same resources.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.