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Tanya Holland: A soul food pioneer in West Oakland

Tanya Holland. Photo: Jody Horton
Tanya Holland: “Even with such a large African-American population, I felt like there wasn’t a restaurant [in Oakland] that represented its cuisine but in a contemporary way.” Photo: Jody Horton
You’d be hard-pressed to venture down Mandela Parkway late morning and not see a line tumbling out of Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen. Since its opening in 2008, the truly soulful West Oakland restaurant has garnered a loyal following. Some slip in for a cup of coffee soon after it opens its doors, others brave the long lines for a brunch of fried chicken and waffles, and still others come in for a late lunch of gumbo or pulled pork. There’s really not a bad choice on the menu.

Holland has been working in kitchens since she was in college at the University of Virginia, and she formalized her skills at a culinary school in France and with a stint at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. While her face may be familiar to some outside the Bay Area after a run on the Food Network’s “Melting Pot” television show, she is most well known here for her transformation of two small West Oakland storefronts — Brown Sugar Kitchen and San Pablo Avenue’s B-Side Barbecue. Holland has just released a new cookbook, Brown Sugar Kitchen: New-Style, Down-Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland, and it’s chock full of recipes from both of her restaurants.

Berkeleyside NOSH sat down with Holland to learn more. You can meet Holland at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, organized by Berkeleyside, on Oct. 24 and 25. (Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 

When did you land on the soul food concept?

When I was living in New York before I went to cooking school, I never really saw examples of soul food restaurants where the food and the room and the ambiance and the service all came together. I either felt like people would try to put their cuisine in sort of a high-end venue but it didn’t really deliver on all fronts, or else they’d serve their cuisine in a really low-end venue where people just went for the food, not caring about the service or the vibe.

So I saw an opportunity to do it differently. Soul food is also a part of my heritage, so it just seemed like a natural thing to do. I had come up with concepts that were much more high-end than Brown Sugar Kitchen where I would have interpreted the food really outside-the-box. Those kinds of concepts take a lot of capital, which I had difficulty finding, and they also take a certain location and space and finishes to match.


What makes your soul food different?

Seasonality is something that a lot of people don’t generally think of with soul food, but because soul food comes from the farm, seasonality is how it originated. Taking seasonality into account and sourcing locally creates a better product, but that’s also the way I learned to cook. When you think of the caliber of restaurants that we have in the Bay Area, and what my training and background is, it was just natural for me to cook this way. I just chose a different repertoire than other chefs.

Brown Sugar Kitchen_Spiced Sweet Potato Bundt Cake Photo: Jody Horton
Spiced sweet potato bundt cake at Brown Sugar Kitchen. Photo: Jody Horton

How much of the food that you serve at your restaurants is food you grew up with?

I grew up with versions of these recipes, but the food I serve is all my own. My mom made cornbread, but she used a mix. Her fried-chicken recipe was a little simpler than mine. Because I had formal training, I studied in France, and I worked in high-end restaurants, I bring all that to the table when I’m cooking. 

Why Oakland?

I moved here in 2003, and Oakland just really felt comfortable to me. My parents met out here and we had family here at one time, so it was interesting that I should end up here. I also saw this market that I felt was underserved. Even with such a large African-American population, I felt like there wasn’t a restaurant that represented its cuisine but in a contemporary way.

Are you happy that you ended up in West Oakland?

Yes and no. I live here and I like it, but West Oakland has a lot, a lot, of challenges. It has also has limitations as far as what we can charge, what we can earn as a business, and what people’s expectations are because of where we’re located. I won’t deny that today it has created a great story.

Brown Sugar Kitchen_Creole Shrimp and Grits. Photo: Jody Horton
Brown Sugar Kitchen’s Creole shrimp and grits. Photo: Jody Horton

We heard a rumor that you might be moving B-Side to another location. Is that still happening?

No. We’re not gonna move. We were looking into it because that location has proven to be really challenging, but then we looked at other locations and they had their challenges as well. What we do like about both of our locations is that they’re kind of on the periphery of Oakland and so we’re more likely to get diners outside of the area to visit. Then we get to create a bigger footprint by reaching people from farther distances.


What is it like running a restaurant business as a woman? Have you seen the industry change over your career?

Certainly there are a lot more women owning and running their own kitchens and businesses today. The media has helped. For example, on the Food Network, there are a lot more female images. Still, this image is definitely different from how the males are portrayed. We also don’t have quite the same access to capital and real estate. There are a few exceptions of course, but not at the same scale as our male counterparts. Then again, we have different opportunities extending our brand beyond restaurants because I do think people associate women with the home and with nesting. Obviously, there are some men who do have household products like cookware. But it does seem that the women still have more of that authenticity around those kind of products and that kind of product development. I definitely pay attention to how the different careers of my colleagues, both male and female, have evolved, just to see and notice what opportunities are coming different people’s ways.

Did you always want to work in a kitchen?

Actually I wanted to be a restaurateur — that was my goal. I went to cooking school because I really wanted to know the food so that I could hire the right people to execute it. I discovered the restaurant industry during college, and afterwards I decided to make a commitment to this industry. But I wasn’t looking to always be in the kitchen. I feel like I have a broader skill-set and I like to make use of the rest of my skills.

Brown Sugar Kitchen_COV
Holland’s new book, Brown Sugar Kitchen, was co-written with Jan Newberry and includes a foreword by East Bay author Michael Chabon

Your new book, Brown Sugar Kitchen, has a much different feel than your first (New Soul Cooking, 2003). Has the writing process different this time around?

With the first book, I pretty much did everything myself. I did all of the recipe writing and developing. With this book I had a lot more help. I hired recipe testers and [former San Francisco Magazine food editor] Jan Newberry as a co-writer. My husband also did a lot of editing and writing. In the first book, all the photos were taken in a studio and prepared by a food stylist, but for this book, we did them all at the restaurant. The photographer came on site and my husband showed a lot of different locations while I was creating the dishes. An assistant and I did the food styling and the prop styling together, so there was just a lot more hands-on involvement. This book just seems more authentic and organic.

It seems like a lot of work to do while running two restaurants!

In a way, yeah. But we planned on it. We made it happen.

Your incorporation of West Oakland community members makes the book feel very present and alive.

Yes. We are grateful for the foreword that was written by Michael Chabon. He is a well-known writer for a reason. He’s so talented and he’s as in love with Oakland, as we are, and he is a cheerleader for what we’re doing. It was a really nice gift of him to share that, and for him to see what we’ve done with so little. If you don’t do anything else, read the forward. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.


Was it hard to translate your restaurant recipes into a cookbook style?

No, it wasn’t hard. Our recipes are pretty straightforward. We mostly just had to scale the recipes down. I’m not doing molecular gastronomy!

Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH. Read more of Kate Williams’ stories for Nosh.

Tanya Holland will be talking about food, her food philosophy and what it’s like being a pioneering restaurateur in Oakland at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas this month on Oct. 24-25. See the full program and buy your ticket at the early-bird rate before it expires on Oct. 6, at www.berkeleyideas.com