Tanya Holland knows community—she even jokes that Kevin Bacon has nothing on her when it comes to finding degrees of separation. She told us about those common denominators, plus her successes and challenges in the restaurant industry.

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Tanya Holland Hi Res Headshot
Photography by Smeeta Mahanti
| Credit: Photography by Smeeta Mahanti

The food industry has long been considered a man's world—but Tanya Holland is doing her best to fix that. The Oakland-based chef currently runs Brown Sugar Kitchen, a modern soul food restaurant serving up classics like buttermilk fried chicken, po' boys, cheesy biscuits, and gumbo. But Holland is more than just a restaurateur. Having started in the business to earn money on the side, she's now a two-time cookbook author, a Top Chef competitor, and a podcast host. Holland was even awarded her own day back in 2012. Seriously—Tanya Holland Day (June 5) exists in Oakland, California, because of the community she created there.

Even more than that, though, Holland has persevered in an industry where she hasn't always felt so welcome. She's at the top of her game now, but on the way up, she faced challenges and roadblocks that white male counterparts didn't experience. Regardless, Holland is continuing to cement her place in the industry and is glad that conversations about diversity and inclusion are finally happening. With a brand-new podcast, an episode of the HBO Max series Selena + Chef, and a spot on the James Beard board of trustees, Holland is nowhere near slowing down. We caught up with the chef to learn about her career goals, future podcast guests, and new restaurant endeavors.

Rachael Ray In Season: Tell us about your background and your restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen.

Tanya Holland: I fell in love with the restaurant industry when I moved to Manhattan in the late 80s. I started taking cooking classes, then ended up going to cooking school in France, at La Varenne in Burgundy. I was there for almost a year and a half, then came back and worked in New York, Boston, and Martha's Vineyard for ten years. When I left New York, I was on the Food Network series Melting Pot, and then wrote my first cookbook, New Soul Cooking, when I moved out here to California. Seven years after I moved, I opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in the West Oakland neighborhood. In 2014, I also published the Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook. We just relocated about a year and a half ago... and then Covid, then the Black Lives Matter movement.

Did Brown Sugar Kitchen close during lockdown, or did you stay open for takeout?

If we closed, it was just a few days to regroup and figure out what we were doing. We had to lay some people off. Then we pivoted right to takeout, mostly because I had perishable inventory and really needed to move it. I gave away a bunch, which gave people the idea of using restaurants to feed first responders and people in need. Now we just added some patio seating to extend outdoor dining while we can. It's cool, but it's a lot. It's a lot more work for us as restaurateurs, and we're still paying rent on spaces that we can't use.

Credit: Photography by Smeeta Mahanti

What was the most challenging thing about shifting to takeout?

The packaging. Being someone who's very environmentally conscious, I'm buying compostable packaging, but it's just a lot of material to pack up the food. Dine-in service is more sustainable because you're washing plates and flatware. Also, the storage of all the packaging is just taking over my restaurant.

Are you hoping to open other locations or restaurants in the future?

I won the food and beverage contract at the Oakland Museum of California last year, so I'll be programming the menu for the cafe they have, Town Fare. They're still moving forward because the museum is planning to reopen in November. It's a beautiful space—it's been there for years—and it's mid-century modern architecture, so the center of the museum is an open-air space with grass and landscaping. They used to do food trucks on Fridays and are hoping to restart that next year. A lot of the cafe's food will be grab and go, so I'm sort of lucky in that way.

You recently released a podcast, Tanya's Table. Was that something you had wanted to do before the pandemic, or was it born out of lockdown creativity?

A little of both. I was supposed to have a treatment for a TV show called Tanya's Table, and it was going to be me sitting down, having conversations about food and culture. Then last year I moved into a building with a sound room, and I said out loud a couple times that I should do a podcast. But I had no idea what that would entail or how to get my head around it. Then four or five months later, my friend introduced me to the production company MuddHouse Media. They sent me this equipment, all this electronic stuff, and I was like, "Oh, this is nice. What do I do with this?" So they found a local producer to help me get it set up. Then it just came together really organically. I had relationships with people that I didn't know well, but I knew I wanted to talk to them extensively. I'd met Questlove a couple times and wanted to talk to him more. Even people I didn't know, like Bassem Youssef. Their stories just really interest me.

Do you have plans for a second season?

Oh yeah, we actually already have commitments from about four guests. Danny Glover, he's local, and Festus Ezeli, a basketball player who used to play for the Warriors. Also, Ayesha Curry has said she would. Plus Ericka Huggins, who was a Black Panther and very active in the 70s here in Oakland. She's a regular customer.

Credit: Photography by Smeeta Mahanti

It's great that you're getting all these different perspectives.

That's the point. That's the issue with our country: Everybody's been in their bubble and not finding those common denominators. That's my thing that I love to do when I meet people, to determine what common denominator we have. I have said to many people that Kevin Bacon has nothing on me. I can find half a degree of separation from people. And I enjoy doing that, I really do. It's fun. It makes the world smaller.

You virtually taught Selena Gomez how to make fried chicken and biscuits in an episode of Selena + Chef (which had me totally drooling). Did you know immediately that you wanted to teach that recipe?

It came to me pretty quickly. I've noticed over the years that home cooks are often intimidated to fry chicken because of all the hot oil. She did really well! She wasn't afraid. I thought the biscuits would be good items for her to have in her repertoire. The producers said that the food she cooked with me turned out better than most of the food she cooked with other chefs. That meant I was a good teacher, so I'll take it! But she was a good student, too.

At the end of the episode, Selena donated $10,000 to No Kid Hungry, a charity that you chose. What was your reasoning behind that choice?

I've been working with them for years. I've done some fundraising, but I've also visited the schools that have benefited from No Kid Hungry's breakfast and lunch donations. I just see the kids thriving and hear from the teachers and principals how significant that is. It's great to see the work being so hands-on like that.

You were also just appointed a position on the James Beard board of trustees. How did that come about?

It's crazy because I wrote this op-ed for them a couple years ago after attending the awards for the first time in a while. I had kind of boycotted the organization because it just didn't seem equitable. Then they started working on programs to include people who might not have access to the foundation in terms of resources. They did some advocacy work and also started women entrepreneurship leadership classes. I had aspired to be an awardee most of my career, but at some point I figured it wasn't going to happen because I saw them only awarding a particular kind of chef or restaurateur. The irony is that now I will have the chance to really make an impact and a change. I'll be on the awards committee. So it's interesting, and it's an honor. The foundation has some work to do, but I'm excited.

Tanya Hi Res PC - Smeeta Mahanti
Credit: Photography by Smeeta Mahanti

You're certainly a role model for women, particularly Black women, in the industry. Do you have any advice for chefs trying to break in?

It can only get better—and it is getting better. Perseverance is the key, but also continuously showing up with integrity and as much positivity as you can. Even with the barriers I've had, it does take time. You have to pay your dues. But I always say: Talk to everyone, take notes, listen to what people have done, and read whatever you can. These are pieces of advice that people I admire gave to me. Read everything, because you want to know who came before. You can learn from their mistakes and their triumphs.

What are your hopes for the future of the restaurant industry and your own career?

I've been spending a lot of time on Brown Sugar Kitchen, trying to figure out what I want it to look like moving forward with staff and company culture. Between Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement, there's actually been a lot of silver linings. I'm grateful that people are starting to have the conversations that I've wanted to have for decades about diversity and inclusion, and that people are supporting me and thinking about me because they've realized that I maybe didn't have some of the same opportunities as my colleagues.

It's sort of a blessing and a curse that I'm always looking forward, always wondering what I can do next. The podcast has been great but I want to do television. I would like my own show. I'm working on my next cookbook, so hopefully that will be sold. What else? I have this fantasy that Kamala Harris will become president and she can appoint me ambassador to France, even though it's such a coveted appointment. It's usually someone who's donated a lot of money, but I feel so qualified because I studied French for eight years, I lived there, I'm a good host, I'm a good negotiator, and I'm a good diplomat. I just got a message this morning from my colleague Brenda, who owns Brenda's Soul Food in Oakland. She's Filipino and from New Orleans, and she told me the French Consulate contacted her about a program on James Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson's chef. Brenda told me she felt like it should be a Black chef and asked if I would do it. I was like, are you kidding?! Of course! Not only do I want to talk to the French Consulate, but I went to University of Virginia, I've been to Monticello, and I'm obsessed with James Hemmings! You just gotta put it out there, and eventually things happen. I'm a big believer in intentions.

What an unexpected opportunity!

Sometimes you can't even imagine what could be open and possible for you. That's the thing about opportunities. I would encourage people to stay open! Don't think, "I'm only going to do a fine-dining restaurant" or whatever it is. That's what I was thinking, and then I ended up in this little spot in West Oakland. It wasn't what I originally wanted, but it became a story and led from one thing to another. It's a happy accident.