Chef Tanya Holland on Oakland, The James Beard Foundation, and Favorite Bites | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, March 8th, 2021  

Chef Tanya Holland

Chef Tanya Holland

On Oakland, The James Beard Foundation, and Favorite Bites

Jan 27, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Chef Tanya Holland is a marvel. If she’s not teaching Selena Gomez how to make biscuits and fried chicken, then she’s hosting a podcast or pitching shows to the Oprah Winfrey Network. In conversation, Holland is cheery and informative, qualities borne of a life of curiosity, hard work and now decades of success. Holland, who, over the years, has also been a contestant on Top Chef and hosted her own show on the Food Network, is known for her Oakland eatery, Brown Sugar Kitchen. The establishment has become so renowned the city’s mayor named an official day after Holland. We caught up with the culinary star to ask her about her favorite bites of food, working with the James Beard Foundation, how she’s become so multi-talented and, if she could wave a wand, what dish would she conjure.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): What was the first bite of food that made your mind explode?

Tanya Holland: Oh, boy! Like from way back when, you mean?

Whatever jumps to your mind!

Oh, there’s just so many. I particularly remember moving to New York City and tasting a lot of things for the first time. There was a pasta shop not very far from where my apartment was and we’d always go there and get fresh pasta. There’s nothing like it! I’d only had dried pasta before, you know? It was just incredible. I remember the first time I had sugar snap peas at the farmer’s market. I was eating them raw; I just couldn’t believe the flavor and how simple they were. I really like simple things.

Why has food kept your creative attentions for this long?

I think it’s definitely the social aspect of it and the cultural aspect of it. It’s a place where I can learn about other cultures and communicate with people and connect with people in a way that you might not be able to do otherwise. I always loved just even going to a restaurant and dining at the bar alone and then ending up speaking to the person next to me and, you know, making a new contact. Things like that. Just the way it can open up your world and going to travel and discovering a new cuisine for something that might not even make it to our country.

You have a B.A. in Russian Language and Literature from the University of Virginia. That’s amazing. Why did you choose that route to study in college?

Well, I was studying math and sciences and was just not really inspired to excel. I had excelled in high school and then I got to college and it was just too competitive and not what I wanted. I took Russian as an elective and I ended up majoring in it because, you know, it came naturally to me. I got good grades in it and I enjoyed my instructors. I had been exposed to it a little bit in high school, my dad studied Russian as well, so I just knew about the language. And I just loved the literature. So, that’s it. But what I learned at college was how to be a student of life. [University of Virginia founder Thomas] Jefferson’s whole philosophy was that you’re always learning. So, now it informs just how I approach different foods from different cultures. Just knowing that there’s so many factors that dictate what people eat around the world. It could be agricultural resources, it could be whatever migration happened and whatever segregation happened. It’s just very interesting to me.

You seem like you know how to be so cheerful that it strikes me how also you’re interested in Russian culture, which is known for being so heavy and dreary.

I love the poets of the early 20th century and some of the playwrights like Chekov and I really like the character development and I also like the passion because these are people who are often oppressed and so they use their art form to exercise their passion. I just found that interesting. And it always depends on your instructor, right? I had good teachers.

You’ve spent time in Burgundy, France, Louisiana and New York City. All three are such beautiful, distinct places. Do they feel connected in any way or do they stand out individually in your mind today?

I went to cooking school in France but my mom is from northern Louisiana so I really hadn’t paid attention to creole food and the combination of the African diaspora and French cuisine in New Orleans. So, when I discovered that there was that overlap in this one city and it was a vibrant city like New York. It was a restaurant town like New York. I fell in love with that cuisine and that town and, of course, the French heritage there. You see it in the architecture. You see it in so many ways like the naming of the streets.

You’ve said that wherever a person goes, they should take a little bit from the things around them and then that collection, so to speak, is the accumulation of their own individual style. As an author of cookbooks, how did you take this philosophy into your writing?

Cookbooks are an arduous art form and they’re an expensive business card. They really take a lot of time and effort and they take a huge team. I learned that from a chef that I worked with early on in my career. He said when I first went to be the chef of a small restaurant in the east village; I didn’t have a big repertoire. I went there because I wasn’t finding management opportunities working for other people. So, he said, “Everything you’ve learned is now yours. You make it yours and you build on that.” So, that’s what I’ve done. It’s my parents’ gourmet club [when I was a kid], it’s my travels around the world and around the country, it’s my cooking and training in France. But I also took some cooking classes in New York. And living in New York and summers in Virginia, summers in Louisiana. It’s a combination of everything that I’ve learned over time.

You live and work today in California. And the state has a history of green juices and yoga and all that. But California is also huge and diverse. Given that, does the idea of “California food” mean anything specifically to you?

It does to a certain extent. You’re right - in Oakland there’s over 100 different languages spoken and there’s so many different cultures. I had Kurdish food at a friend’s house on Monday, you know? So, you never know what you’re going to get. But California, because we are here in the sun basket, so to speak, we just have so many great ingredients at our fingertips that are actually grown within minutes of where we purchase them. So, when I think of California cuisine, I think about cuisine that represents that. It represents the terroir of California, which is next to the ocean, obviously. So, we have access to great seafood. I also think of Californians as being a little bit ahead of the game when it comes to sustainability - you know, farm-to-table for lack of a better way of saying it.

I imagine when you open a restaurant, as you have in Oakland with Brown Sugar Kitchen, there is a great deal of pressure. What does it take physically and spiritually to undertake such an effort?

You have to let go of the judging piece pretty early on and not have a fragile ego because that’s just par for the course. One of the great pieces of advice that Leah Chase from Dookie Chase gave me when I first met her, after I returned from cooking school, she was like, “You know, you’re going to get a lot of criticism in this field. You just have to take it, accept it and just work with it.” But I think what people don’t realize is I didn’t just open my door and decide I’m going to open a restaurant. So much intention goes into creating this space, deciding on the light fixtures, deciding on the salt shakers, the glassware, everything. There is a lot involved. I think of it as an extension of myself, an extension of my home. And I welcome people into the space as if they’re my guests and in an ideal world, that’s how they behave, as guests. And that means employees, as well as customers. I guess I just grew up with, as the French say, politesse and being respectful of environments that I’m visiting. That’s why I think the culinary diplomacy work that I’ve done has been so successful and fulfilling at the same time. Because the people that I visit understand that I’m respecting their culture and their environment.

What led to you getting your own day in Oakland - and why June 5th?

I think the date is random, it just happened around that time. So, yeah, a friend proposed it and knew that it was a thing and I was recognized for creating a culinary scene here in Oakland. It was pretty crazy! Hard to believe!

What is your relationship with the James Beard Foundation and how can that organization help to continue to foster equity in the kitchen?

Yeah, so, I wrote an op-ed a couple years ago that they published and I got a lot of great response. The following year, I got more involved in some initiatives they have like women in the food business. I’m a graduate of their women entrepreneur leadership class. And last summer they invited me to be on their board of trustees, so that’s been a big deal. They haven’t done an official announcement, but last week was my first meeting as - I’m now the chair of the James Beard Awards.

That’s amazing! Congratulations!

Thank you. It’s pretty incredible. I’d always hoped to win an award, you know?

Now you’re doling them out!

Yeah! And we’re also looking at reinventing it. This year, there will not be any awards. We’re going to recognize people for their contributions to the industry in this crazy time and then there’s a full audit that’s happening with the awards to make sure they are accessible and that they represent the diversity that this industry actually has.

Being a chef is one set of skills. But interviewing people, hosting podcasts, giving speeches and doing television is another. Where do these charismatic talents come from?

I’ve been doing television since 2000. I had a show on the Food Network and they put me through media training, which I really needed. It was really helpful. But growing up, my parents, again, just gave me a great skillset. For instance, there was a scholarship offered at my church and I received, like, the largest amount. So, we all had to give speeches. Mine had to be really significant. So, my dad trained me in speech writing and constantly memorizing stuff. I had to go up there and try to be a dynamic speaker at the age of 18 in front of a congregation of a couple hundred people. So, it started there. I was always encouraged to be social. I like meeting people and learning things from people. So, it was just natural. And you have to forget about the camera and forget about yourself, to a certain extent. I’ve always been a good multi-tasker. I think the biggest thing is to approach everything you do with humility. Don’t bring the ego into the equation, which I think a lot of chefs do and that’s where they mess up.

You’ve worked all stations in a restaurant and done so in the most prestigious and homiest places. A restaurant is an important thing in society. What do you appreciate most when it comes to the idea of restaurants - is it the foundational aspect of feeding people?

That is the foundation, to a certain extent: feeding people. I tell people, you know, even if you came over and I just offered you cheese and crackers or nuts, that’s gratifying to me. But I love restaurants because I love space. At one point, I wanted to be an architect. I just love filling space, I love aesthetics, I love attention to detail. I just like putting places together. This comes from my childhood where when we moved into the first house that my parents bought when I was 5 and they said, “Okay, you get to decorate your room.” So, I just became very aware of selecting items to put in my environment. It just stayed with me throughout my life. I always look at spaces and aesthetics when I go to other restaurants. I’ll take notes, like, oh that’s interesting lighting they chose! Or their check presenter - I just love the details. I really do.

If you could wave a wand, what dish would you have in front of you right now? 

Oh, let’s see! It’s kind of a cold dreary day here in Oakland, so something delicious and hot would be good. I’m actually think I’m going to go to the store and get some mussels and make some steamed mussels because I love the broth. It just seems like the thing to do today.

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