Tanya Holland dreamed of becoming a star chef. Who knew she'd find the best kind of fame running Brown Sugar Kitchen in gritty West Oakland?
At 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, tractor-trailers from the port barrel down Mandela Parkway, a recently landscaped four-lane avenue in West Oakland, California, flanked by windowless brick and concrete warehouses. The sidewalks are almost empty except near one intersection, where a dozen people are lined up, waiting patiently for one of the 36 seats and 14 bar stools at the soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. Behind the diner-style counter, chef Tanya Holland ladles batter onto a waffle iron for airy, yeasty, cornmeal waffles to serve with tarragon-laced buttermilk fried chicken. The classic combination was allegedly created for jazz musicians who got off work so late, they couldn't decide between breakfast and dinner. Today Holland's signature dish draws an eclectic crowd from the neighborhood and beyond: art school students and elderly couples, graphic designers from nearby Pixar Animation Studios, and electric company workers still in their safety vests.
Before Brown Sugar Kitchen opened four years ago, West Oakland didn't have a destination restaurant nor a convivial gathering place for the community. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the neighborhood was one of the few places where Bay Area African-Americans could buy property, so shipyard workers and train porters populated the area. But thanks to discrimination and poor zoning, freeways and housing projects began to crowd out their stately Victorian homes. Over the decades, poverty, crime, and acute racial tension took their toll. "It reminded me of New York in the 1980s, when you didn't know anyone who hadn't been mugged," says Holland, 46, who moved here in 2005 with her husband, Phil Surkis. Recently, though, West Oakland has been showing signs of a revival, in part because Brown Sugar Kitchen draws more than 1,800 customers a week.
Just a few years ago, Holland says, "I did not see myself as a neighborhood pioneer." Growing up in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, she was exposed to a wide range of cultures and cuisines. In addition to fried chicken and cornbread, her Southern-born parents made dishes like matzo ball soup and chicken cacciatore in a cooking club with six other couples, three black and three white. "They helped me see that bringing people together over food was a way to break down barriers," Holland says, "and all that experimentation left me open-minded about trying new flavors."
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."
Holland treats the restaurant like her living room, introducing regulars to one another from the open kitchen. "I like to connect people. I'll see someone and say, 'Oh, you've gotta meet so-and-so.' Or they'll come to me and say, 'Do you know anyone who can paint?'" Customers and neighbors helped her improve the street lighting around the diner and install benches so people in line could sit. A regular before she became Oakland's mayor, Jean Quan recently stepped in to deal with a parking issue affecting Holland's second restaurant, B-Side BBQ, which she opened this past winter a few blocks away. "Where else would I be living and running a restaurant where the mayor calls me to say, 'What can we do to help?'"
Of course, West Oakland's problems are deeper than one restaurant can solve; Brown Sugar Kitchen is open only from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M., because the area is desolate after dark. But Holland is also doing what she can to support local businesses, purchasing everything from the apple cider to the doilies under the pastries from her neighbors.
Brown Sugar Kitchen's success has rewired her. "I always had a certain vision for my life, but it seems like destiny had another plan," she says. Now even her TV experience seems to have led her to this point: "Every time we open the door, first thing in the morning, it's like, Show time!"
Emily Kaiser Thelin, who writes often for Food & Wine and The Wall Street Journal, is based in Berkeley.