Just the name–Brown Sugar Kitchen–conjures up images of scrumptious food. The Oakland, Calif., restaurant dishes up soul food meals such as Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Cornmeal Wafﬂe with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup; Creole BBQ Shrimp with steamed basmati rice and baby spinach; and blackened catfish with a roasted-red-pepper sauce. It is owned by Tanya Holland, who is also the executive chef. She opened Brown Sugar Kitchen on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2008.
Holland created a soul food menu with a twist. Formally trained at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in France, she reinterpreted soul food as we know it. Brown Sugar Kitchen cooks with locally grown, organic and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Its cuisine has become not only a local favorite, but known worldwide. In fact, Holland has penned Brown Sugar Kitchen: New-Style Down Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland (Chronicle Books); hosted and was a soul food expert on the “Melting Pot” series on Food Network, which ran from 2002 to 2003; and was a featured judge on the kitchen competition series “My Momma Throws Down,” a series that aired some three years ago.
Holland takes all the attention in stride. “Success is all in perspective. I still have a lot farther to go and I closed one restaurant this year after a 3-year run. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible…it’s similar to any entrepreneurial venture,” she says. “I’ve wanted to be a restaurateur for about 25 years and finally the opportunity presented itself.” And of her take on soul food, she adds, “I think any cook’s approach is unique…we all bring our own experience and taste and vision to the execution of our ideas.”
Still, the restaurant business can be a tough one that’s full of challenges. “[There are] too many to count. I think putting together the best team possible is the biggest challenge,” says Holland. “It has been challenging for me to find access to capital and real estate to carry out my vision, yet I have the media exposure of someone who has access. I’m fortunate that journalists can see what I’m doing and hope that the investors will soon catch on.”
Holland has many goals for the future, but she is taking things as they come. “Oh, my goals are very big, and they are the culmination of years of work and vision. Some things are starting to come together, but we’ll see,” she says. For now, she’s enjoying what she’s built. Holland shares, “I like feeding people and creating an environment through music, food, vibe, decor and a collection of people.”
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