Continuing our Women’s History Month series on female leadership, we’re highlighting the work and influence of Tanya Holland, Executive Chef & Owner of the internationally renowned Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California.
Tanya is a celebrity chef who has authored many cookbooks, appeared in cooking shows like Bravo’s Top Chef, Food Network’s Melting Pot, and hosts Tanya’s Table, a critically acclaimed podcast and television show. A multiple Michelin Bib Gourmand award winner, she was appointed a Culinary Diplomat by the Foreign Service Department and her recipes are featured in dozens of publications including Food and Wine, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Essence, Wine Enthusiast and the Huffington Post.
Read our interview to learn about Tanya’s journey, how sustainability has opened doors for her career and why diversity creates better food.
IF: How did you come to be an award-winning chef, restaurateur, podcaster & author?
Tanya Holland: Growing up, my parents had a gourmet cooking club and would host dinner parties for their friends, so I was exposed to international cuisine from an early age. After college, I pursued a career in advertising but quickly discovered there was no future for me -- all the women in my class were getting jobs as administrative assistants. To put myself through school, I worked at various restaurants, including Mesa Grill with Bobby Flay.
I was inspired by his success and decided to move to France to attend culinary school. After I completed my degree, I worked in New York and then moved to Oakland where I opened my first restaurant. Along the way, I was able to participate in a lot of interesting projects, travel around the world to advocate for equity and inclusion in the food industry, and teach at numerous institutions.
My philosophy has always been to take every opportunity presented to me because I never know when it’s going to come around again.
How has your diverse background influenced your approach to leadership?
I have a lot of empathy because I have done it all...back of house, front of house, food styling, assisted cookbook authors, you name it. But I’ve also learned it’s important to set boundaries because my authority is constantly questioned, even by my own team. People project their beliefs of who I should be as a black woman, and that is frustrating because I’ve worked really hard and have a lot of expertise.
I’m ambitious, I have high standards, I want things a certain way, and I’ve seen a lot of men in leadership positions with the same expectations, but they aren’t questioned the way women are.
“Information was withheld from me throughout my career by people who didn’t want me to get ahead because of structural racism and misogyny. I’m really cognizant of that, and make sure I share my knowledge freely.”
What are the biggest challenges for women of color in this industry?
Representation is really hard to find -- I haven’t seen anyone looking like me doing what I want to do throughout my career. When you say the word ‘boss’, people think of a white male, not a woman of color, so my authority gets undermined & that really drains me. I’ve learned to have thick skin and create an environment that supports me by finding allies and building my tribe.
Access to capital is also a big issue. People have asked me for years to expand into product lines or open new restaurants, but it takes investment and those opportunities haven’t been available to me.
What excites you about the food industry?
Making delicious food accessible to everyone. When I opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, people thought I was crazy. But every night, my 50 seat restaurant was packed with every ethnicity, age group and persuasion. I showed the industry that this food is for everyone.
I also love using food as a means to connect with and understand other cultures. Before COVID-19, I traveled to Kazakhstan, Mexico, Hong Kong and Singapore to talk about the future of food and sustainability. Our food system is placing too much of a burden on our planet, and as a media personality, I have the opportunity to influence global audiences.
You also host a wildly successful podcast, Tanya’s Table. What are your guests talking about?
There is a lot of consciousness around how ingredients are sourced and their impact on health and the planet. Plant-based cooking is becoming much more prominent and customers want brands to be mindful and provide diverse options.
I won a contract with the Oakland Museum of Art because I proposed a plant-based forward menu, and we are going to be serving Impossible™ products. I love working with the product because it’s so delicious, and people get so excited when I add the Brown Sugar Kitchen flavor profile, whether in the Impossible Foods cookbook(opens in a new tab) or as a menu item.
"Customers are really excited about sustainable options. As chefs, we need to embrace the challenge and see it as an opportunity to be creative and make plant-based food accessible for everyone to eat."
Tanya Holland's Impossible™ Sloppy Joe's from the Impossible Foods Cookbook(opens in a new tab)
What advice would you give to new chefs who want to follow your footsteps?
Be open, don’t try to put your ego on the plate. Listen to your customers because they create the demand and your livelihood. Everyone wants to be creative, but sometimes it’s good to work within the trends & changes in eating styles.
This industry also requires tenacity & drive -- the ones who don’t give up are the ones who succeed. Get past the failures and look for the blessing in those lessons because they might have been put in your path to slow you down. I have had leases fall apart in locations that I was really excited about, but looking back, they wouldn’t have been right for me.
Keep going, have a vision and believe in yourself -- those values are underrated but make all the difference.
If you want to learn more about Tanya, check our her website(opens in a new tab).