Stories / Opinion, Impact, Awards

Y’all Weren’t Ready For Me

A personal look back at the 2018 James Beard Awards

Tanya Holland

June 07, 2018

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Tanya Holland
Photo: Smeeta Mahanti

In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.  

Our latest piece comes from Tanya Holland, chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California, and an alumna of the first JBF Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership program. Below, Holland takes a moment after the recent Beard Awards to reflect on the difficulties she faced pursuing a career in fine dining as a woman of color, and her hopes for a different road for those coming up in the industry today.

Editors' Note: we are currently reviewing our programs, our awards procedures, and our internal structures, and will be announcing some updates in the coming months and in advance of October 2018, when the 2019 Beard Awards season kicks off with our annual open call for entries. We are engaging different stakeholders in this process, listening to and taking to heart what everyone from our biggest supporters to our harshest critics are telling us, and focusing on what we can do as an organization to help create positive, lasting change in our industry. Read more.

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I’m back from from the James Beard Awards in Chicago. And I’m pumped! I’m energized and inspired.

The last and only other time I attended the Awards was in 2002. I was a presenter during my Melting Pot stint, and I was blonde and bloated. I had been ignoring my health and wellness as I tried to leverage my new platform, but even though I was the darkest person in many rooms, I often felt invisible. The conversations about the opportunities never came my way. I asked almost every celebrity chef on the Food Network what I needed to do to take it to the next level, but all I heard was crickets.

My experience presenting at the Beard Awards in 2002 was one of intense intimidation. Appearing on television was one thing, but on stage at the Awards you’re just naked in front of your peers—even more so for me, as I looked into the eyes of so many who had rejected me.

I applied to all of the Eurocentric-kitchens of the Le and the La restaurants of the 80s and early 90s, but to no avail. Before I left France, I wrote to several chefs and asked to be considered for a position. I was able to stage in a couple kitchens, but as usual, I was the only African-American person in the establishment. It was a lonely position. I wasn’t offered many jobs, and the one I was offered only paid $3.25/hour. One place had an ad out saying that they were hiring, but they wouldn’t even open the door when I arrived to apply—someone peeked through a crack in the door and said that the position had been filled.

In 2002, there weren’t many women nominated at the Beard Awards, and even fewer chefs of color. And those who were often had similar résumés and cooked in European-centric kitchens with a little Latin American thrown in here and there.

I left the 2018 James Beard Awards with a bittersweet feeling. Most of me feels like a proud auntie to Edouardo Jordan, Mashama Bailey, and Nina Compton and a proud niece of Dolester Miles. I finally saw what I wanted to see all along: diversity and inclusion. I was overjoyed at the number of brown presenters, nominees, and winners this year, many of whom I know!

The theme of this year’s Awards was “rise,” and I rise for diversity—I have every day of my life. I’ve been talking about this for years, and even have been criticized for “playing the race card” by a well-known chef who was one of my former bosses. Oh, to be mentored and empowered instead. There are several chefs, restaurateurs, investors, and food writers who could have made a difference a lot sooner, and neglected to do so.

When I discovered the James Beard Foundation and the Awards so many years ago, I hoped to be recognized by them—by my peers—before I hit age 75,  as I had seen for Edna Lewis and later Leah Chase. To me, it is the pinnacle of prestige in our industry. And from all the proud beaming faces on Monday, you can tell that I’m not alone.

But, if I’m being honest, I’m also sad. I moved to New York City in 1988 and I fell head-over-heels in love with the restaurant industry, but I’ve realized over the years that they weren’t ready for me. I was too early. I was a pioneer, and it was very lonely. I went to cooking school in France in 1991 and worked for free at some of the top restaurants there. I returned to New York in 1992, excited to cook with the nation’s best. I saw the niche in my industry that needed to be filled: the upscale African-American diaspora concept. I wanted to create that perfect, seamless combination of good food, good environment, good vibe, and most importantly, diversity.

I also wanted to cook food that was award-worthy in a space that I imagined would be designed and sophisticated. I’m cooking where I’m cooking and how I’m cooking now because I was marginalized on many levels. It’s okay, I’m not mad, it’s been a happy accident, but it was a detour for sure.

Now I’m focused on continuing to speak out about the importance of diversity and inclusion. I’m focused on being a businesswoman instead of being a chef. I no longer have the desire to innovate and create with food, after the obstacles I’ve been through. I want to make sure those obstacles don’t exist for those who come after me.

I couldn’t get into the kitchens and restaurants to get the education and training that I needed to build the skills and team that I wanted. I couldn’t make the connections to the gatekeepers of the brand- and empire-building gurus I wanted to know. I kept hitting walls and having doors literally slammed in my face. It was so frustrating and disappointing. But I believe I’m seeing real change in front of me right now and it makes me so happy.

In the prime of my cooking career I was laughed at and mocked for my ambition and curiosity. And I was mocked again in my late 40s as I tried to open a business. A landlord developer laughed when I brought my attorney to a meeting to help me negotiate the lease. I went out on my own so much sooner than I wanted, but it was like I was an orphan—I had no choice. I only had what I was born with: crazy ambition, African-American culture, and an insatiable desire to learn and connect with people of other cultures.

Here, I need to emphasize the difference between anger and frustration. I’m tearing up as I write this because I’m so passionate and convicted about my viewpoint. But I’m also incredibly frustrated, and I hate unrealized potential in myself and in others. It’s a crime. Everyone should have the opportunity to realize his or her full potential.

There are many things to strive for, beyond the Beard Awards. At my beloved little West Oakland restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, my favorite thing about my business is the environment of diversity that I’ve created. I will mentor anyone who asks me to. I will work to become the role model for anyone who shares a passion for this industry and I will continue to support my colleagues and be inspired by them.

I’m still here in this crazy industry trying to make changes happen and move things forward that have always been important to me.  I’ve been wanting to see what I saw at the awards this year for a long time: different voices, different faces, some that look like me and some that don’t, but ultimately all of us coming together to celebrate the marks we are leaving on the American food landscape.

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Tanya Holland is the executive chef/owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen. She is also the author of the Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook and New Soul Cooking; was the host and soul food expert on the television series Melting Pot; and competed on the fifteenth season of Top Chef. Learn more at tanyaholland.com.