What may be most interesting about Tanya Holland, chef and owner of Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ — two restaurants with solid new soul menus, featuring lip-smackers like chicken and waffles, oyster po’boys, and, of course, barbecue — is that down home country cooking wasn’t necessarily the direction she intended to go with either of her restaurants. Especially with Brown Sugar Kitchen, which she opened in 2008.
“Before opening, I’d been looking at other projects for a while,” says Holland, 46, who was trained classically in Burgundy at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine. “They were all different. The location and space ended up defining the concept.”
But Holland unintentionally found an itch that obviously needed scratching, and with Brown Sugar Kitchen, and more recently B-Bide BBQ, Oakland is enjoying a barbecue renaissance. Chalk it up to that classical training, says Holland, who mentions the sauce-making that was so heavily emphasized at La Varenne genuinely influenced her barbecue fixings.
We took time out to chat with Holland about sauces and other saucy topics. Here’s what the Hartford, Conn.–born chef — who worked in kitchens from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard to Boston before moving to the Bay Area some 10 years ago — had to say.
Q: Has dining out changed since, say, you were a line cook at Mesa Grill back in the ’90s?
A: There’s a wide range of experiences you can have. You see a lot more ethnic restaurants that are evolving into a more contemporary palate, even as far as atmosphere and ambiance. That’s definitely changed. When I was growing up, you either went to a really nice restaurant you got dressed up for, or you got fast food or something from a small mom-and-pop place. It’s definitely significantly changed.
Q: What do you think of some current food trends?
A: Some people watch things on television, and each restaurant is different, and I’m finding that people’s expectations are different now. It’s interesting to hear what customers have seen on TV, and it’s interesting for me to learn what they’re taking away from it. Definitely when I was younger, and there was no food television, you didn’t have conversations like this. People are much more educated now.
Q: What do you think of people who take photographs of their food? I mean, really. What do you think?
A: I guess they’re just trying to hold on to the experience. They want it to last, to share it with friends. It’s part of our world right now: People are taking photos and posting them. I think most of us chefs, we create our plates as if they’re going to be viewed. It’s flattering that they want to take a picture.
Q: What’s the best thing on your menu, and what’s not on your menu but should be?
A: I love the brisket at the barbecue place. It’s so yummy and smoky. It takes a lot of time and care to make it work. You can’t just get it anywhere, and you can’t just throw it together. What’s not on our menu but should be? Well, a lot of people (at BSK) have asked for sausage gravy. I think it’s really delicious. But we have a small operation. If we did that, we couldn’t keep up with our biscuit production.