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Tanya Holland Aims for Impact

The Oakland chef has achieved her life goal of building community — through her storied (but now-closed) restaurant, her media work, and her newest book, “California Soul.” But she’s just getting started. 

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California Soul is the most beautiful cookbook I’ve ever read. Or seen,” Alice Walker writes in her forward to Tanya Holland’s new cookbook. It’s hard to disagree with the award-winning novelist. With its warm-hued pages and richly textured photographs by Aubrie Pick, the book is a tangible golden hour, its palette an enticement to follow Holland deep into her tour of soulful California cooking.

“I’m honestly really proud of this book,” Holland says. “And just the way it looks, how it represents me and my taste, my style, and my palate.”

With her impressive, decades-spanning career, Holland is no stranger to public life or soul food. For 14 years, she was the owner, chef, and face of Brown Sugar Kitchen, an Oakland restaurant that was as beloved as it was influential. But in many ways, California Soul feels like a formal introduction. It’s a synthesis of knowledge — familial, professional, historical, and agricultural — all rooted in Holland’s gentle, unwavering confidence. Where another chef could swing into pretension, Holland pulls up a chair to her table and invites you to take a bite of the place that shaped her. She offers up healthy servings of history, including her own, along with a glimpse at the future of Black cuisine.

California is where Holland’s parents met and where the Great Migration brought other family members. In the early 19th century, waves of African Americans made their way west from the South, often settling in California. We tend to think of these migrations with respect to the Midwest or Northeast, but California, as Holland shows in California Soul, is steeped in Black history.

“I live in California and I am Californian,” Holland writes in the introduction. “[A]s an African American woman, the contribution that my ancestors made to what Americans eat and how we eat is significant. No matter where we migrated from or ended up, our food comes with us and tells our story. I am contributing and this is my story. I have a California Soul.”

Cover of “Tanya Holland’s California Soul” featuring a smiling woman holding two plates of food.
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This is Holland’s third cookbook; she published her first, New Soul Cooking, in 2003. A straightforward look at modern soul food and African American cuisine, it came out shortly after Holland’s three-season run as the host of the Food Network show Melting Pot. Although she says the book became “a calling card” for her, she considers it a rushed project that capitalized on her rising fame.

Her break on the show came after she’d spent several years working as a line cook in various restaurant kitchens. Being a chef had not been Holland’s original plan: Raised in Rochester, New York, by parents who exposed her to a variety of cultures and cuisines through the supper club they held with five other racially diverse couples, Holland graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Russian Language and Literature. After graduation, she moved to New York and worked as a waitress at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. As she later told O magazine, the experience lit a spark: “I said to Bobby, ‘I want to do for soul food what you’ve done for regional American and Mario [Batali] has for Italian.’”

Holland went on to earn a culinary degree from La Varenne École de Cuisine in Burgundy. In all of her cookbooks, she has shown a knack for making French technique accessible to home cooks, with recipes that treat it and African American cuisine with the same reverence. Not long after the start of the new millennium, she followed California’s clarion call to Berkeley, where she began to fuse her training and influences as the head chef of a restaurant called Le Theatre. As one local publication noted approvingly, “she is taking classic French fare and creolizing it with American and North African twists.”

Holland would eventually follow up New Soul Cooking with the Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook in 2014. The book was based on the food the chef served at her acclaimed West Oakland restaurant, which she had opened on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2008.

Born in a recession, the restaurant thrived for nearly 15 years. Its hearty dishes — including legendary chicken and waffles — nourished tourists and locals alike, including Black Panther co-founder Ericka Huggins. With a menu that was all at once elevated yet grounded, it was a place that broke down class barriers until all that was left was a community drawn together as Black people have done across the diaspora. “This gathering and creating our own community was really important because you might go to work in an all-white environment where you’re not supported,” Holland says about this recurring phenomenon that’s touched the restaurant, her parents’ dinners, and the ubiquitous Black church dinner.

But Brown Sugar Kitchen ultimately couldn’t survive the pandemic and the tech industry-fueled gentrification of the Bay Area. Its final years saw a move to Uptown Oakland and a new outpost in San Francisco’s Ferry Building; although the latter closed after less than a year, it made Holland the first Black woman to own a restaurant in the iconic location.

“I really was trying more to keep the restaurant open for the culture and the community,” Holland says of the tough decision to close. “I had this goal and dream when I first started cooking of creating this soul food restaurant that was achieving excellence and also inclusive and accessible to everyone. I achieved my life goal, but then it just wasn’t sustainable in this economy.”

Holland still had hope for Brown Sugar Kitchen up until California Soul was nearing the finish line, expecting to sell copies out of the restaurant. But if the restaurant had stayed open, the cookbook might have surprised customers expecting something more along the lines of Holland’s previous work.

“This book probably feels the most personal to me because it’s things that I really, really want to cook,” Holland says. These aren’t your grandmother’s soul food recipes — and they aren’t Holland’s grandmother’s either.

“It’s important to preserve something from your culture, no matter who you are,” she adds, walking back her initial contempt for those who ask if she’s simply printing her grandmother’s recipes. [I would like to state for the record that I did not nor would ever ask anyone this.] “And so [evolving the classics] is a way of preserving it as well.”

Out of the gate, she puts the Cajun Trinity in the spotlight in a grilled salad, and before you know it, you’re crumbling cornbread over shakshuka and seasoning oxtail with North African spices. From desserts to entrees to cocktails, each recipe blends comfort with bright, fresh ingredients. You can intuit that each dish will provide a healthy dose of dopamine without the involuntary nap we often associate with soul food.

The seasonal recipes are one part of the time-traveling magic trick that Holland performs with California Soul. Written with the deft assistance of journalist Maria Hunt and scholar Kelley Fanto Deetz, the book provides plenty of historical context that lets the reader look to the past, along with profiles of contemporary Black makers in the food and beverage world that let us see the future.

Hunt, who also worked as an editor on the project, brought in the seasonal structure. Holland tapped her to help out with the book’s “Maker Profile” pieces because of her journalistic experience.

Hunt and Holland have known each other for at least two decades; Deetz’s work was serendipitously recommended to Holland by a bartender. As a historian with a professional cooking background, Deetz was able to weave in the impact of Black people’s culinary contributions while skillfully avoiding the density of a textbook.

“It kind of just birthed itself,” says Deetz, the author of Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine. “It was this organic, beautiful sort of collaboration.”

As a result, California Soul moves naturally between recipes and broader cultural context. A “Historical Detour” about the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program is followed by a West African take on congee; a recipe for grilled shrimp and corn with a curveball white barbecue sauce precedes a “Maker Profile” of Oddette Augustus, the owner of the Paso Robles-based Miss Oddette’s Barbecue Sauce.

Woman wearing orange chef coat stands next to plates.
Tanya Holland at Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2014.
Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Many of the book’s profile subjects are farmers connecting with the land from Compton to the Bay Area. “[There’s] a really huge resurgence of Black people across the country, moving back to the land,” says Hunt. “There is some of that in California, but not as much as in other places because of the land — it’s so expensive here.”

Hunt had hoped to find at least one Black farmer in Guinda. Founded in 1858 by Green Berry Logan, the son of an enslaved woman, the rural community became a safe haven for formerly enslaved people who wanted to work the land. But as of 2017, the small rural community has no Black population.

The people highlighted in California Soul are a beacon of hope, showing that the legacy of African Americans’ connection with farming and foodways is far from over. Sam Cobb, a date farmer profiled in the book, remarked that his dreams felt like a step backward to his family, but his proprietary Black Gold dates — described as “dark-skinned on the outside and golden-fleshed inside with two textures” and “the flavors of caramel, dark chocolate, and cherry” — are a glimpse at the future.

“It’s a good cross section of different kinds of makers,” Holland says, noting some are better known than others. “I just thought it’d be a great opportunity to highlight them.”

Holland’s choice of makers reflects her own attitudes about sustainability and cooking with fresh ingredients. Though bittersweetly untethered to any restaurant, Holland is still excited to be a free agent: “I can do more of what my original goal was, which was to be really impactful in my industry.”

It’s not as though she hasn’t already been impactful; a list of her accomplishments would read longer than this article. But now she has more time for her fifty-leven jobs, from being on the board of trustees at the James Beard Foundation to jetting around with economic development nonprofit, Global:SF, on an international tour looking at ways to innovate for climate-minded food production. Her gears are turning so much, we might even finally get the memoir she’s toyed with writing for some time.

For now, she’s hoping people can connect with California Soul — not only as a cookbook, but as a valuable text for those seeking a deeper appreciation of Black people’s contributions to American cooking.

“The California migration is just a really important story for African Americans — and Americans in general — to know that we’ve been out here for a few generations,” Holland says. “And [we] definitely played a role, a positive role, in the foodways.”

J. Fergus is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle writer who’s somehow best known for shaking things up on TikTok.
Jeff Enlow is an artist/photographer, editor, curator, and sometimes writer in San Fransisco and Los Angeles.
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