Photo: Aya Brackett
After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1987, she wound up waitressing at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in New York City, where she got to know Flay and his rising-star chef friends like Mario Batali. Holland was hooked. "I said to Bobby, 'I want to do for soul food what you've done for regional American and Mario has for Italian.'" All she needed, she decided, was a culinary degree and a mentor.
She got the degree from the French cooking school La Varenne, then traveled to New Orleans in the hopes of working with Leah Chase, the famed African-American chef at the legendary Creole restaurant Dooky Chase. "She looked at my résumé and said, 'I'm so proud of you,'" Holland recalls, '''but you already know everything I can teach you. Go up North and work for those white people.'" Holland took Chase's advice, spending the next eight years cooking at various restaurants, including Mesa Grill—and in 2000 got her big break as cohost of a new Food Network show, Melting Pot. A cookbook, New Soul Cooking, soon followed.
Yet what looked like success felt empty. "The TV show and book were great," Holland says, "but it was all very isolating. I missed feeding people and seeing their faces when they ate my food." She started wondering if opening her own restaurant might be the answer.
By now living in the Bay Area, Holland began scouring downtown Oakland for a restaurant space. When a tiny diner became available a few blocks from her West Oakland home, she took the lease, telling herself it would be just a casual café, something to keep her busy until she set up her real place. She wrote the menu almost as an afterthought, only a few days before opening on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, January 15, 2008.
The ideas for dishes flowed easily from her past and present. The fried chicken was a more potent riff on the dish she'd watched her mother make three times a week when she was a child. The shrimp and grits were inspired by Holland family vacations in Louisiana, the sauce brightened with lemon juice and refined with her French technique. The waffle she adapted from California legend Marion Cunningham. All the flavors were intense. "I wanted to be known as the flavor queen," she says. "Ingredients are super-important, but you've got to know how to embellish them."
Holland's food found fans quickly. "We had 49 customers the first day," recalls Surkis, who co-owns the restaurant. "By that Saturday we had the crowds and the line. And then it just grew and grew."
Next: How her restaurant is helping the community
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