Soul Food With a Side of Equality
By Lou Fancher
More than a harbinger, chef/restaurateur/author/television guest/radio host Tanya Holland is an entrepreneurial emblem. As a Black woman and founder-owner of Oakland's Brown Sugar Kitchen, the California-influenced Soul Food restaurant she established in 2008, Holland has for decades stood for equity and innovation in the culinary industry.
In July, she made her debut as a podcaster, launching season one of Tanya's Table. The 45-minute weekly podcast, airing on Tuesdays through Nov. 3, features casual, friendly conversations with primary innovators: entertainers, food writers, musicians, artists and designers, food activists, restaurateurs and chefs. What they all have in common is a love of food and cooking, along with a rich appreciation for mentors and cultural histories and everyday challenges such as finding work/life balance. Delightful insider stories include guests' often counterintuitive snack indulgences, preferred condiments and favorite dishes to cook at home.
Holland received formal French culinary training from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy, France, and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Russian language and literature from the University of Virginia. Before relocating to Oakland in 2001, she worked at leading restaurants on the East Coast. Holland has appeared on television shows including The Today Show, VH1's Soul Cities and Sarah Moulton's Cooking Live, Ready, Set, Cook!, and competed on the 15th season of Top Chef on Bravo. She is the author of two cookbooks, The Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook and New Soul Cooking. Recently named to the James Beard Foundation's Awards Selection Committee, Holland is a sought-after expert on modern soul food.
Among the more recognizable names on the new podcast's guest list are drummer, DJ and New York Times best-selling author Questlove; Alice Waters, chef, author, food activist and founder-owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse; 12-time Grammy-nominated vocalist Ledisi; Major League Baseball champion Kevin Youkilis; and Samin Nosrat, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
"With each guest I try to unearth our commonalities," Holland says in an interview in late July. "Everybody is high functioning, successful and they've had their own journey. For a lot of them, where they are now is not where they expected to be. Samin was going to be a professor: now look what she's done. She's written a New York Times bestseller."
Along with interesting likes and dislikes—Waters loves potato chips, Questlove dislikes hotdogs and okra, Nosrat is gaga for hot sauce—the conversations delve into issues relating to food instability and inequity, racism, social justice, education and food awareness, sustainability and environmentalism. The heavier topics are delivered in organic, dynamic dialogues.
"Talking comes easily to me," says Holland. "But a guest who's egotistical is hard. I've had one and it will be detectable without naming the name. There's no conversation, no exchange of hearing, listening, thoughts. This person is just talking, not engaging fully." Other than the one bumpy encounter, she says the podcast has been a liberating experience. "It's not about me. It's about the guests and the hospitality. Sure, I'm motivated to do my best as a chef and a host, but it's not competitive or comparative. I just want my business to be successful and excellent."
As a Black entrepreneur, achieving excellence has definitely required hurdling over obstacles. Primary among them is systemic racism and sexism that threads its way into every interaction—in kitchens, restaurants, banks and lending institutions, the boardrooms of major industrial food complexes and government departments related to the culinary industry.
"I have standards of my own, but they're continuously questioned because I'm not a white male," she says. "I get accused of being hostile in my restaurant because I have high standards of hospitality, service and uniforms. I get resistance." In articles she writes and keynote appearances she has made, Holland addresses historic bias. "I've been trying to vocalize about the Angry Black Woman trope. There's the white man, the white woman, and then, the Black man who's an aggressive animal. The Black woman is the bottom of the bunch who's not worthy and who's angry. Having to carry that burden has been challenging. It permeates my being all day long; from investors to employees to vendors."
Despite saying that "a white male chef with my credentials, drive and intelligence would have a totally different story," Holland expresses enthusiasm and exuberance in an interview. She wastes little time on resentment; she's too focused on solutions.
Realizing greater equity for Black business owners is not only a matter of increased access to financial capital and real estate, according to Holland, but access to greater intellectual capital such as assistance to surmount the industry's steep learning curve. Licensing applications, lending and leasing agreements—let alone opportunities to study at top culinary schools or learn about cooking and nutrition in K-12 schools—constantly reveal inequities in underserved or marginalized communities. Without support, Holland says many Black business entrepreneurs lack the bandwidth to achieve their full potential.
"There's blindness in the industry, with white restaurant owners and chefs who don't create environments that are welcoming," Holland says. "They don't understand the nuance of inclusivity. They're restaurateurs; some even in diverse communities. These are people with college degrees, but they're ignorant. They have no idea how they're perpetuating the cycle. They've never been forced to look and see what's missing."
Holland says the twin pandemics—Covid-19 and racism—have disrupted elitist sectors in the food industry. Operations like the James Beard Foundation offer an opportunity to "reboot" the system, to honor women and people of color as chefs. Her visibility is further increased by a recent appearance as a "famed czar chef" on Selena Gomez's cooking show SELENA + CHEF on HBO Max.
"I helped her make fried chicken and biscuits," Holland says. "She's very sweet and good at following directions. She's a superstar but didn't carry herself like that. It was refreshing. Her staff and the crew told me the food she created with me looked most like the food I created (more than any other episode); so that means I'm a good teacher."
Looking to the horizon, Holland says that while working on her third cookbook, she thinks of writing a memoir, developing food products that "go outside the four walls of a restaurant" to appear in grocery stores and developing a line of Japanese-style aprons like the ones she buys at KOSA Arts on 19th Street in Oakland.
"I don't want to wear chef coats anymore," she says. "They're so frigging uncomfortable. Aprons are just more feminine and I want to express that. I've always been a girly-girl. I'd love to have a tabletop line." As well as a cooking school, a television show and a State Department ambassadorship leading culinary tours in France... "Four years from now, I'll get President Harris to appoint me," she says, about becoming an ambassador. "After that, I'm good."