Q&A: Tanya Holland - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Tanya Holland

From the opening minutes of her podcast, it’s clear that Tanya Holland is the embodiment of hospitality—not just in the warmth and curiosity she conveys, but in her ability to create a sense of connection and community. Holland is the owner of Oakland restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen, she’s made recurring appearances on the Food Network, published two cookbooks, worked with other chefs across the country and abroad, and had June 5, 2012, designated as Tanya Holland Day in Oakland for her role in fostering community and establishing the city as a culinary destination. Here, Holland chats with us about the podcast, how she views her evolving role in the hospitality world, and why community matters now more than ever.

What inspired the podcast, “Tanya’s Table”?I was actually working on a television show treatment. I’d been wanting to get back on TV on a regular basis since doing Melting Pot. I’ve done a lot of guest spots, and I did Top Chef, but I still felt like a voice like mine was needed out there. A lot of people have been telling me over the years, “You should do radio,” and I had thought about a podcast, but I had no idea how to get started. But a friend of mine was working for MuddHouse Media, and they wanted to meet me. We had a Zoom meeting back in January, and then in February we finalized the deal and were making plans to record when COVID happened and everything locked down. It was like, “Well, now we have a captive audience so it really makes sense.” But I already had my wish list of guests. I just wanted it to be an organic conversation and not an interview.

Your first season had a lineup of guests from both food and drink and arts and entertainment; what did you see as the through line in those conversations? I went to people I’ve done events with, some sheroes and heroes of mine, then diversifying it through some friends of friends. Questlove was early on my list, I’ve done some events with him, and Samin [Nosrat] and Alice [Waters], and Danny Meyer, who I’ve always admired. Then I wanted to pull in some different points of view. Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson hosted the James Beard Foundation Awards last year, so I met him there. Gina Torres is a friend of a friend, Aisha Tyler—her mom and dad were regulars at my old restaurant space. So there’s a connection to everyone. But I find the common denominator in each conversation, while individual, is everybody has some interest in food or beverage. But, like, Danny went to Trinity College in Hartford, and I was born in Hartford, so we started talking about Hartford pizza. Samin and I are both cookbook authors, but we’re both also women of color who grew up in white neighborhoods, so we talked about that. Carla [Hall] and I have Southern roots and we both lived in France for a while. No two conversations have been remotely similar.

What is it about hospitality that continues to motivate you? Do you see your role evolving?
I’m striving for that perfect mix of providing a great experience where the food is good, the service is good, the room … it all comes together. I also want a sustainable business model so I can make a living, my employees feel comfortable with how we’re compensating them, my investors can get a return. But I also know that this industry really has a ways to go in terms of diversity and inclusion, and I’ve been discovering along the way that I have a voice that could potentially influence. It gets discouraging sometimes. It’s so physical, and it’s isolating, and you don’t have the same kind of life balance that other people have in their work. But I’m committed to it at this point, because I know that there are a lot of up-and-coming folks who would like to succeed, and I would like to be a role model. I feel like I’ve come so far that I have to get to that point of success so the generations after me can feel like they can make it there, too. I started on the Food Network in the early days, and they didn’t really reinvest in any African American chefs, but I was there with my hand held up high, waving. They had a couple of programs with people who were maybe not as tenured in the business as I was, but who knows why they were making certain decisions. I think there’s plenty of room for everybody, and we just want an opportunity to get there. I know and have worked with chefs who have built these brands and their personalities. And it’s not about my ego, but I’m just as smart—I can do that, I’m talented. But you have to be able to gain access to the capital and the real estate and the media.

Has the devastating impact of COVID-19 on restaurants and bars affected how you think about hospitality and what it brings to a community? I opened my first restaurant in a really desolate area, so I’ve been able to see how necessary it is to provide a space for people, and how it builds community. And it’s the hospitality that keeps everybody coming back—the thoughtfulness, the details, everything that we do. So this hasn’t really changed how I operate in terms of going that extra mile to provide something different for people. I love touching my guests, which just means personally greeting them when I can, even if I’m cooking. What’s interesting is that now every ticket has the person’s name on it, as opposed to a table number when they dine in, so I see who comes in often. Even if I don’t know them, I can still thank them for coming in every week. Or if it’s someone I know, I can run out and say hello. It’s interesting how that little shift has allowed me to stay connected to my guests.

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