Tanya Holland's Brown Sugar Kitchen Captures West Oakland's Diversity

Chef Tanya Holland is all for diversity
Chef Tanya Holland is all for diversity
Photo by Lisa Keating

Chef Tanya Holland is the queen of the contemporary soul food movement. Her cooking is known for its incredible flavor, which can be credited to her Grande Diplôme from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy, France, her training with famed chefs, including Michel Sarran and Jean-Michel Bouvier, and her stints at various restaurants in both France and the US. Best known as the former host of Soul Kitchen segments for the Melting Pot series on Food Network, Holland's culinary style now reflects her Southern roots as she transforms West Oakland, California, into a dining destination through her restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, and latest cookbook, Brown Sugar Kitchen: New Style, Down-Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland.

Holland discusses the value of community, her fascination with West Oakland, and how she creates an inclusive environment in her restaurant.

New Times: Your first cookbook, New Soul Cooking, used global flavors to reinvent soul food. How does your new cookbook relate to West Oakland's culture?

Tanya Holland: I was shopping around for a concept Creole bistro and I couldn't find a space. Once I found a space in West Oakland, I wanted to develop a concept that would embrace the community. I came up with Brown Sugar Kitchen, and my graphic designer got excited. It's an incredibly diverse crowd, and the food is the common denominator. It turns out that people like Southern, soulful food, but they also like California cuisine. For that reason, I definitely had to do a healthier bent, and I have a lot of vegetarian items on the menu. Then I have customers who have their favorite items, and I could never take them off the menu, otherwise they would lose their minds. So that's how it happened. We started to get a lot of customers from the neighborhood, and then it became a dining destination as well.

The book is known for its rich visual storytelling. What scenes are depicted in the cookbook, along with the photos of food?

It depends on the recipe. Some might be a direct influence of the flavors I grew up with, while others might be a recipe that I discovered through travel. The book is also littered with profiles of our vendors, who influence the vibe at Brown Sugar, and then we talk about what their favorite dishes are.

Why did you want to open a soul food restaurant in West Oakland?

I moved to Oakland in 2003. I had an aunt here, and I had visited many times before. At first it wasn't on my radar, even while I was living in San Francisco. I didn't like San Francisco, because it was cold, and I didn't see the integrative diversity that I was thinking I might find. The neighborhoods were a little sleepy, and they didn't connect to one another. So, I went to Alameda for a year, and I got to know Oakland after passing through it so often. I just fell in love with it, because it has the best weather in the Bay, and it's right across the Bay. If there's no traffic, it takes ten minutes to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco. It's very diverse in terms of social class, economic class, sexual orientation, and age.

And West Oakland historically was a middle-class African American neighborhood. The railway ended here, so there were a lot of porters who settled here and built their families. There's still some remnants of those families in the neighborhood. As time went on, industry moved in, and now you'll see a lot of warehouses purposed by artists and creative people, as well as small businesses. They aren't necessarily retail businesses but they are small business owners that range the gamut, from a glass fixture maker to a contractor to a cleaning company. Now there's a chocolate company and an organic tofu company around the corner from the restaurant. I got to know a lot of my neighbors, and they're people who've been priced out of San Francisco, as well as people who just wanted a little bit slower pace of life. It's not as densely populated, but it doesn't feel suburban. It's an emerging city. There's some nice condos, there's people who have flipped houses, and then there's still some places that are kind of run-down with graffiti.

How has your work affected Oakland?

When I first got to Oakland, I saw that there was a lot of potential. I was telling people who were trying to support me that I was going to put Oakland on the map, and I did, in a positive way. Oakland is known for being crime-ridden and filled with gangs, but now people can look at the cookbook and think, "Wow, this is a special place," and come to the restaurant.

Brown Sugar Kitchen has 86 recipes. Is every recipe in the book also served at the restaurant, and does the menu change as the year goes on?

Yes, but a lot of our main dishes aren't dependent on seasons. We always do a composed salad and a veggie of the day, so a lot of the salads and sides will be based on the seasons. In the summer, we'll offer more fruit desserts.

What is your signature dish that is both in the cookbook and the restaurant?

The fried chicken and waffles is really what people hear about and often come for.

Give me a typical day at the restaurant. What is the overall vibe? Who do you see there?

Our restaurant is friendly. Our staff has gotten to know regular customers, and they are ambassadors for the customers who are there for destination dining. But it's also elegant. I come from some fine dining training, so good service is really important to me. I often see people interacting from different tables that didn't know each other before, asking questions like, "What's your favorite dish?" and, "Have you been here before?" I see the Burning Man creative person sitting next to the church lady, who is also sitting next to the four Asian ladies, and they're all getting fried chicken and waffles. Then I also see the police officer, business owner and personal trainer sitting all together. This happens everyday.

I love that I have a diverse staff as well, and I pride myself on the fact that everyone who works there gets to see someone else who looks like them in the dining room, and vice versa. I've worked at a lot of places where that doesn't happen. Brown Sugar Kitchen sends a message that everyone belongs there. It's not exclusive.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Serves 4 to 6

When I was growing up, my mother fried chicken at least three times a week. She cooked it in a cast-iron skillet and always used vegetable shortening. The seasoned flour went into a paper bag. She'd drop the chicken pieces in and give them a good shake before frying. I took her fried chicken for granted, assuming it was what everyone was eating. Only later did I learn most of my friends only knew fried chicken as fast food. Years later, when I was working at a restaurant in Manhattan, I discovered a buttermilk-soaked version of fried chicken that rocked my world. That's the way I've made it ever since. The buttermilk bath serves as a tenderizing brine that makes the chicken extra moist and flavorful. You'll notice that I cook the chicken just until crisp in the frying pan and then transfer it to the oven to finish cooking. The skin stays crisp and I know for certain that the meat is cooked through all the way to the bone.

  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tbsp. dried tarragon
  • 1 tbsp. onion powder
  • 1 tbsp. sweet paprika
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt, plus 1 tbsp.
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus 1 tbsp
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 3½ lbs/1.6 kg chicken, cut into 8 pieces
  • 1 cup/240 ml buttermilk
  • Canola or rice bran oil for deep-frying
  • 1½ cups/185 G all-purpose flour

Directions: In a large bowl, combine the parsley, tarragon, onion powder, paprika, 2 tsp. salt, garlic powder, cayenne, 1 tsp. black pepper, oregano, and thyme. Add the chicken pieces and toss to coat. Pour in the buttermilk, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 8 hours or up to overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. In a large cast-iron frying pan, add oil to a depth of 3/4 in/2 cm and heat the oil to 350°F/180°C over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels and set a wire rack on top.

In a large wide bowl, combine the flour, 1 tbsp. salt, and 1 tbsp. black pepper. One piece at a time and letting any excess buttermilk drip back into the bowl, transfer the chicken to the flour mixture. Dredge the chicken in the flour mixture, shaking off the excess.

Fry the chicken, a few pieces at a time, taking care not to crowd the pan and turning occasionally, until crisp and browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to the rack over the baking sheet to continue cooking in the oven until the internal temperature registers 165°F/75°C, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Serve immediately.

Gillian Speiser is a contributing writer for About.com's Cookbooks & Food Writing page. Follow Gillian Speiser on Twitter.


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