A Force to Be Reckoned with in Food
Tanya Holland’s career of dedication and driveLenore T. Adkins
November 21, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners and Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program alumni. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Lenore T. Adkins unpacks the uphill battle of WEL alum Tanya Holland, who persevered in the culinary industry, achieving acclaim, a celebrity-packed eatery, and more despite literal and metaphorical doors slammed in her face.
Tanya Holland is exhausted.
The award-winning chef, Top Chef contestant, and alum of the first Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program says she’s fed up with explaining herself to the food establishment and tolerating people who don’t take her seriously as a black woman in the industry.
“I’m so tired of having to constantly prove myself over and over again. Physically, mentally exhausted,” Holland says.
So she’ll continue to forge a path to becoming a mogul the best way she knows how—alone.
Holland, 54, is the executive chef/owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen, an acclaimed restaurant serving down-home, contemporary soul food. The popular restaurant, known for its buttermilk biscuits, Creole barbecue, fried chicken and waffles, and more, dishes cuisine from a counter-service spot in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and from its flagship in Oakland.
Those locations, newly opened in 2019, replace the original Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, which Holland shuttered last August. She’s also on track to open another outpost of her restaurant next year inside Oakland International Airport.
When Holland first opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008, she wanted to be in Oakland because of its history as a haven for African Americans escaping the racist South during the Great Migration. She saw an underserved neighborhood without a selection of restaurants representing the community’s cuisine. But after a decade, the business and demand had outgrown the original restaurant, pushing her to expand.
Despite being born and raised in the Northeast, Holland chose to tackle the Bay Area because she never saw a soul food restaurant there that got the room, the food, and the service right. After a series of disappointments on the East Coast, she craved a fresh start.
Upon earning her grande diplôme from the La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy, France in the early 1990s, Holland wrote to dozens of chefs in the United States, asking for a job. When she was supposed to interview for a job at a top Manhattan restaurant, she remembers the chef looked at her as if she had two heads, assuming she’d be white because of her Anglo-sounding name.
“I never even got in the door,” Holland says. “It was very disheartening.”
She headed to Martha’s Vineyard to work as a seasonal line cook at the Oyster Bar, then to the now-closed Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston. She recalls quitting because the chef didn’t see her as a leader in his organization, and tried steering her to a pastry chef position, saying that was a better fit because it was easier.
“I’m not about easy—I’m about following my passion,” Holland says. “People don’t get me, I think in part because they underestimate my intelligence, they underestimate my ambition, and they underestimate that I’ll persevere. [When] one door closes, I pivot and say, ‘there’s one that’s got to open for me somewhere.’”
That somewhere was L’Etoile Restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, where she worked as a line cook. She returned to Manhattan in 1994 to work as a line cook under celebrity chef Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill.
“I only went for the stars,” Holland says. “I aspired to be a star chef. I was not aspiring to do down-home cuisine.”
In 1997, she became executive chef of Delux Café, a job she says led her down her current path. All the while, Holland yearned for someone to take her under their wing and help her develop her skills, but it never happened.
So, she fought for herself, landing on the Food Network’s Melting Pot Soul Kitchen as a host and later as a contestant on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.
Now Holland is in the position to lead and mentor, and left her time at WEL with new thinking around creating a company culture. It comes into play when she wants her employees to execute her vision.
Last year, Holland wrote an op-ed for the James Beard Foundation that slammed the restaurant industry for its racism and lack of diversity. She feels slightly differently now, especially in light of the foundation honoring so many people of color at its 2019 awards.
But white men still dominate the industry.
“There’s nobody of color that’s a peer of mine,” Holland says. “I am an expert in my field, I have paid my dues, and [there] is still no equality.”
In her kitchens, she makes it a point to hire and promote young women of color and to show you can make a way out of no way. And still, she rises.
“If I don’t get there, how are these other young black women going to feel like they can?” Holland says. “I have to set the path.”
Lenore T. Adkins is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her pieces have appeared in The Washington Post, Eater, DCist, The Afro-American Newspapers, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @lladkins.