Chef Tanya Holland sits at a booth with a glass of wine at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. Photo: Smeeta Mahanti
Chef Tanya Holland at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. Photo: Smeeta Mahanti

It’s not surprising to learn chef Tanya Holland keeps a running list of things she wants to accomplish, as she’s already done so much.

In addition to being the chef-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Holland has authored two cookbooks and competed on “Top Chef.” She was recognized twice — in 2010 and 2018 — by Michelin’s Bib Gourmand guide. In 2012, former Mayor of Oakland Jean Quan named June 5 as Tanya Holland Day and gave her a key to the city. The same year, the California Travel Association named her California Restaurateur of the Year. And just recently, Holland was voted on the Board of Trustees of the James Beard Foundation.

And now, after what she says has been 16 years in the making, Holland is reaching another goal on her list: a show of her own. In partnership with MuddHouse Media, Holland is hosting a podcast series called “Tanya’s Table,” which will air on major podcast platforms from July 28 to November 3. The show marries her lifelong love of tableside conversation with her interest in the lives and experiences of high-profile public figures.

Many of her guests, like Alice Waters and Samin Nosrat, are chefs, but others, like musicians Goapele and Questlove, are not. That’s because while food is the main theme, Holland views the show as a platform for her to elicit overlooked or untold stories from her celebrated interviewees. In the show’s second episode (airing Aug. 4), for example, Holland and Nosrat delve into their shared experience of growing up as women of color in predominantly white communities before jumping into a less serious, but still fascinating topic — their most bizarre culinary indulgences.

The show “gives me an opportunity to have some intellectual stimulation outside of the restaurant,” Holland said. “As a small business owner, you don’t always get to talk to everyone.” Especially these days.

Like every other restaurant, COVID-19 has hit Brown Sugar Kitchen hard. Holland says the restaurant is just hanging on. In response to new dining restrictions, Brown Sugar Kitchen is currently offering a limited take-out menu, and unfortunately, her most popular dish — chicken and waffles — isn’t included on it, as waffles get too soggy in take-out boxes. Holland is preparing the restaurant to open for outdoor dining, which may help business, but despite the hardships, Holland has continued to work with nonprofits and programs like East Bay Feed ER through the pandemic to provide food to people in need.

Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen. Photo: Smeeta Mahanti
Photo: Smeeta Mahanti

The pandemic — and Brown Sugar Kitchen’s brief stint at the San Francisco Ferry Building — underscored for Holland that she is no longer is interested in building a Brown Sugar Kitchen empire of multiple restaurants locales. “I turned 55 two days ago and I can only do so much more physically in this business,” she said.

While she will still helm Town Fare, the upcoming café at the Oakland Museum of California, Holland said she’s starting to pivot away from cooking to wade deeper into media and to cultivate a business model more akin to Martha Stewart — as a public food figure independent of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“Every American household can probably name a dozen white male chefs… It’s still a way off that Black women, women of color, any women and people of color, are going to have that same kind of level of financial success.”

Tanya Holland

Holland feels that now is the time for that change. Whereas in the past, she found a chronic lack of diversity in food shows and producers who didn’t recognize her value, now, she reports experiencing something new: “an acknowledgment and recognition of what I’ve been doing all along, what I’ve been saying all along, and what Black people have contributed to this industry,” she said. “Now it seems like everyone wants to make sure I’m included whereas there were years where I just wasn’t included.”

Holland is careful to emphasize some crucial caveats to her newfound feeling of possibility.

“Every American household can probably name a dozen white male chefs – Emeril [Lagasse], Gordon [Ramsay], Tyler [Florence], Bobby [Flay], Mario [Batali],” Holland said. “It’s still a way off that Black women, women of color, any women and people of color, are going to have that same kind of level of financial success that they did and to be able to leverage that media presence into what they’ve leveraged it into.”

Holland also laments the fact that it took so long for people to pay attention to the lack of diversity in food media. “It could’ve been so easily remedied if people had just paid attention, listened,” she said.

Now that Holland has attained her goal of hosting her own podcast, what she most looks forward to is being herself.

“I actually am allowed to have fun and goof off,” she said. “I take my work seriously; I don’t take myself seriously.”

“Tanya’s Table” episodes are released weekly, from July 28-Nov. 3; Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2295 Broadway (at 23rd Street), Oakland 

Amalya Dubrovsky is a reporter in the East Bay, where she grew up and calls home. Follow her on Twitter @amalyadubrovsky.