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

There are only a handful of local chefs who have become 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 the queen of California cuisine. Or Martin Yan and Cecilia Chang, the forecasters of Chinese American cuisine in San Francisco.

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

Brown Sugar Kitchen relocated to downtown Oakland in 2019, where it continued to dish out catfish po’ boys, Creole meatloaf, warm buttermilk biscuits and, of course, Holland’s signature chicken and waffles.

However, in January 2022, it abruptly closed the groundbreaking restaurant. “When you’re not fully resourced for decades, it adds up,” Holland told SFGATE in January. “I hung in there as long as I could. I fought the resistance probably a lot longer than I should have.”

Nonetheless, in all the work she is currently doing to advance the hospitality industry, there’s always a perspective of equity and inclusion. What she cares about most is equity for women and marginalized groups in their respective work environments.

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

“It was becoming increasingly difficult for employees to live close to the restaurant,” she explained. “That’s pretty significant. A lot of my employees were coming from Vallejo, Modesto, Hayward just because there weren’t as many good-paying restaurant jobs out there. 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 farmers market in Old Town Oakland in Oakland, Calif. on May 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

In the end, it wasn’t a sustainable business for Holland or her employees.

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

Even though Holland is no longer associated with any of the restaurants that she originally opened, she is still making waves in the food world more visibly.

Holland was regularly featured on short TV segments, dating back to 2000, when she appeared on “The Today Show.” Her media profile grew 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 the bro culture.” Later, she hosted a cooking show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network called “Tanya’s Kitchen Table with Tanya Holland.”

When the pandemic struck in 2020, though, she decided to use this newfound 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 food world. Her first guest was Questlove, a founding member of the Grammy award-winning hip-hop group The Roots, where the two Her Quest talked about music, culture and, of course, food (Questlove has a community Instagram account called “Quest Loves Food” ). She’s interviewed the likes of 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 said, describing how she came up with the idea for the podcast. “I got athletes, musicians, activists, writers, restaurateurs. Those are the people that I would want at a dinner party to have a conversation. So that’s why we call it ‘Tanya’s Table.’”

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

“It was called the gourmet club,” she said. “But it wasn’t like the cuisine was always reflecting the heritage of the members. They would just pick 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 the things.”

Chef Tonya Holland (left) looks at strawberries her friend Romney Steele, the owner of The Cook and Her Farmer, just purchased from the farmers market in Old Town Oakland in Oakland, Calif.  on May 6, 2022.

Chef Tonya Holland (left) looks at strawberries her friend Romney Steele, the owner of The Cook and Her Farmer, just purchased from the farmers market in Old Town Oakland in Oakland, Calif. on May 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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

This early life lesson stuck with Holland and shaped her social impact in the community — both locally in the Bay Area and abroad.

Just this year, she partnered with an organization called Global SF, a not-for-profit economic development agency “paving the way for international companies 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 on a sustainability-minded food and biotech tour.

“She consistently brings people together in a special way — she brings genuineness,” Brioza said. “Over the years, I’ve heard her speak on various panels and I admire her articulation and compassion for the industry, and perhaps mostly, love her positivity, no matter the challenges.”

One of the panels she keeps busy with is the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs and Restaurateurs Awards ceremony — Holland is the chair of the awards and a trustee on the foundation’s board. This yearly awards ceremony is like the Oscars for the restaurant and bar industry.

Holland has certainly cemented her place in the food history books, and continues to push for working toward a better, more inclusive, world.

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

Holland's latest cookbook will be published in October 2022.

Holland’s latest cookbook will be published in October 2022.

Courtesy of Ten Speed ​​Press

“It’s about how California has influenced my cooking … but we’re also talking about the migration of African Americans from the South to California, which includes some of my great aunts and uncles,” she said. “This is a subject that has not been covered. Nobody’s looked at African American food contribution in California, which is significant.”

While it is 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 the South to 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 those traditions and recipes evolved once they settled in the Golden State.

Among the recipes featured are collard green tabbouleh, fried chicken paillards with arugula and sea shoots salad, rhubarb upside-down cake and honey lavender chess pie, which will fuse Southern traditions with California flair.

Holland’s departure from the restaurant that brought her critical and cultural recognition may have felt unexpected, but given the stresses of the pandemic, it feels as if she wants to reorient her passion for food into something more sustainable.

“Frankly, the restaurant business is still, at least for me, not a place of empowerment. There’s still a ways to go there,” she said.

Rather than get burned out in the industry, Holland’s genuine warmth has led to her to make new connections in different parts of the food world — like connecting with 10 Speed ​​Press to create a cookbook that doubles as a history lesson to empower the lives and stories of Southern folks that made the treacherous move out West. Some of those 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, Calif.  on May 6, 2022.

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

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

While running a restaurant may not be sustainable, what is sustainable is being a role model and helping make the world a better place one human being at a time. Holland’s commitment to hospitality showcases that sentiment. It is not a commodity — there is no price tag.

“I’m very passionate about hospitality. I was raised in a house where that was an important value,” she said. “Back then, people would just stop by and my parents would say, ‘Would you like something to eat?’ And they’d find something to offer them. That hospitality in whatever forum is just rare these days.”

And while she’s left the restaurant industry for now, she wants to see more women of color helming restaurants — like she did. When asked what advice she would give to up-and-coming women of color in the restaurant industry she said, “Follow your passions. Continue to build your network and learn from others as much as possible. I remain an open book and although it might not look like what you think it’s gonna look like … it’s like the old adage: when one door closes, another one opens.”

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