Brown Sugar Kitchen chef and onetime Top Chef contestant Tanya Holland just announced last week that her outpost at SF's Ferry Building is closing at the end of this week. But ahead of that closure, Mother Jones has just released a podcast interview with Holland in which she talks about the challenges of working in the white male-dominated world of high-end cuisine, and doing business in the Bay Area.
The interview is on the magazine's Bite podcast, and a condensed transcript is here if you don't want to download it.
Holland says she appreciates that places like the James Beard Foundation are making efforts to be more diverse, and for restaurateur peers like Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer to remember that "forgot to bring [her] along" initially. And she says that doing business in the Bay Area is especially hard right now because of the high cost of living, and competing for talent with tech companies who offer chefs cushy gigs with benefits and time off.
And there's no shortage of resentment in a comment that Holland makes about Bay Area customers and the pricing of her fried chicken and waffles. Brown Sugar Kitchen is not a rundown chicken shack, as fans should know, and Holland has been at the forefront of an "elevated Southern food" trend that has been going on for the last decade and a half.
"You know, people will go and pay $20 for fried chicken at Ad Hoc [Thomas Keller's casual French Laundry spinoff in Yountville], but they’ll sneer at paying $18 for my chicken and waffles," Holland says. "I’m sorry, but I know mine’s better, because I’ve had the Ad Hoc fried chicken. Thomas can do a foie gras torchon much better than I can, but I want to say, 'stay in your lane, Thomas!'" She has a sense of humor about this, of course.
Holland was trained in classical French cuisine and originally thought about opening a New Orleans-style French Creole bistro in the Bay Area in the early 2000s, but she says the investors weren't there for it and "I couldn't get a lease." She further explains that that the Brown Sugar Kitchen concept was a "happy accident" after she realized her elevated Creole idea was "too esoteric."
When it comes to white male chefs getting all the recognition when they're cooking other people's cuisines, Holland says, "I try to be diplomatic. But it's frustrating." And she says, "There's no simple answer" when it comes to who's doing it right or wrong, but she's happy to see more chefs of color finally getting recognition at the national, James Beard level.