Tanya Holland always knew she'd make an impact, it was the "how" of it that came later.
"I have this journal entry from when I was like 13 or 14 and I said I didn't know what I wanted to be, but either I wanted to be famous or change the world," she explains. "I had this awareness that that was my calling in life."
But had the cards been dealt differently, had gravity made the chips fall just slightly off kilter, the Tanya Holland in this story might have been a distinguished engineer (she originally intended to follow her father into the profession) or a brilliant translator of Russian literature, the subject in which she majored in college.
Instead, Holland headed to culinary school in Burgundy, France and honed her skills under the tutelage of French chefs Michel Sarran and Jean-Michel Bouvier. Instead, Holland became Tanya Holland, award winning chef, restaurateur, television personality, author and podcast host.
In the U.S., Holland initially put her talent to work in New York but, like so many culinary innovators, found herself drawn to the Bay Area. "I just found an openness to entrepreneurship here," she says. "People were willing to take a chance or to listen to someone who had a new fresh idea. I felt the East Coast was really closed in those terms."
So Holland, who'd grown up with a poster of Berkeley's Chez Panisse over her bed (she chose it because she liked the artwork and it matched her room, not because she knew the restaurant's legacy), packed her bags and headed for the city five miles down the road. She knew that like Brooklyn in the '80s, Oakland had potential, but when she first arrived, it was a culinary ghost town. "There was nothing that was a middle-of-the-road bistro you could eat at two or three times a week...so I decided to create that," she explains.
With no landlord willing to take a chance on her in more commercial areas of the city, Holland invested her talent into West Oakland. There, she created something that wouldn't have been in New York, something with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options and lighter dishes that fit the region's more mild climate.
Pretty much anyone who knows anything about food in the Bay Area knows what happened next: That first restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, quickly drew crowds that, in turn, drew the attention of the media which led to Top Chef and celebrity chef status. Since then, she has released two cookbooks—The Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook and New Soul Cooking—and earned multiple Michelin Bib Gourmand honors. She has been the host of the critically acclaimed podcast Tanya's Table, in which she interviews guests from the worlds of food, music, and entertainment including Samin Nosrat, Ayesha Curry, Bonnie Raitt, Questlove. In 2020, she filmed Tanya's Kitchen Table, a cooking series for the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Soon, in August 2021, Holland will be launching a new project, a restaurant in the Oakland Museum of California called Town Fare. The plant-forward restaurant will be a departure from what she's done in the past with the city's ethnic diversity in full bloom on its menu. "I know how to cook more than soul food and I finally have an outlet where I can do that," she says.
Not that she'll abandon Brown Sugar Kitchen. Though the restaurant has changed locations from West Oakland to Uptown, though COVID did its best to disrupt the business, it still remains her first Bay Area home. And people still keep coming back. One of the dishes they've cherished over the last year? Holland's spiced oxtails.
"I love braised meats and I love the North African spice," she says. "It's so fragrant and rich and it's a great foil against the rich fatty beef of the oxtail."
To complete the meal, Holland serves it with a vanilla-scented sweet potato. It's not just a well-balanced pairing, she says, it looks pretty too.
While you're in Oakland...
In August, the Oakland Museum of California will welcome the opening of Town Fare, a new restaurant by chef Tanya Holland that celebrates a local style of cuisine.
(Courtesy of OMCA)
The Bay Area is the second stop on our 2021 California Culinary Road Trip, a collaboration between 7x7 and The Spice Hunter. While you're in Oakland, visit the restaurants, museums, and sights recommended by 7x7 and Brown Sugar Kitchen's Tanya Holland.
Dig into incredible eats. Holland treats herself once a month to a meal from the famed Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) and loves the coastal-inspired Old Oakland cafe, The Cook and Her Farmer (510 9th St, Oakland). On the other side of the bay in San Francisco, Tony's Pizza Napoletana (1570 Stockton St., North Beach), is nothing short of masterful, she says.
Stroll, people watch, and picnic at Lake Merritt, the heart of Oakland. "Everybody's got to walk around Lake Merritt at least once," says Holland. "It's such a spectacle sometimes but it's a miracle because you'll see people of every shape, color, size, age, persuasion just hanging out together. It's just so refreshing, I love it."
Browse the galleries and exhibitions at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland), virtually for now and in person when it reopens in the coming months. Holland's new restaurant Town Fare, which will have a diverse, veggie-centric menu, is slated to open there in August.
Play tourist before the tourists return. As the Bay Area, and the country, slowly reopen to tourism, now's the time to hit up the famous San Francisco spots that are normally too busy to bother. Stop by Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman's Wharf, ride a cable car, and grab dim sum in Chinatown before the crowds bounce back to pre-pandemic proportions.
Recipe: Make Brown Sugar Kitchen's North African Spiced Oxtails with Vanilla Scented Sweet Potato Puree at Home
Nothing says comfort cooking like chef Tanya Holland's spiced, braised meat dish for Brown Sugar Kitchen.
North African Spice Mix
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cardamom (The Spice Hunter)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (The Spice Hunter)
3/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp dried thyme
3 to 4 lbs oxtails, fat trimmed to ¼-inch
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 yellow onions, cut into large dice
3 stalks celery, cut into large dice
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into large dice
4 peeled garlic cloves
3 cups beef broth
2 cups red wine
1 bay leaf (The Spice Hunter)
3 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 lbs)
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp vanilla extract (The Spice Hunter)
2 green onions, sliced
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine all of the spices and mix well.
Sprinkle oxtails generously with salt on both sides. Rub all of the spice mixture over both
sides of the oxtails. Heat vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear the
oxtails until golden brown on both sides, in batches if necessary, about 4 to 5 minutes per side.
Remove oxtails and set aside. Add in the onions, celery, carrots and garlic; saute, stirring
until starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Deglaze with the red wine, scraping the bottom of the
pan. Add in the beef broth and bay leaf and return the oxtails to the pan, along with any juices,
nestling them into the vegetables. Bring to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven. Braise
until meat easily pulls from the bone, about 2 ½ to 3 hours.
After 1 hour, place the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Roast until very
tender, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Remove from the oven and carefully remove the skins and place
the flesh in a food processor. Add butter and vanilla and process until smooth. Season with salt.
Remove the oxtails from the braising liquid. Strain the liquid and discard the solids. Skim off
excess fat from the liquid and season with salt, if necessary. Serve oxtails with the sweet potato
puree and strained cooking liquid. Garnish with green onions.
// Brown Sugar Kitchen is open for outdoor dining, takeout and delivery Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 7:30pm; 2295 Broadway (Uptown Oakland), brownsugarkitchen.com.
Thank you to our partners at The Spice Hunter.
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Look for the third stop on our California Culinary Road Trip this spring: On May 24th, we're sitting down with chef Ben Spungin at his breakout Monterey cafe and bakery, Alta.
Did you miss the first stop, at Healdsburg's SingleThread? Catch up, and get the recipe for the restaurant's fresh apple amazake aperitif, at 7x7.com.