When talking with Tanya Holland, her hard work, creativity, conscientiousness, and community engagement shines through. As head chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen, food is a powerful medium through which she expresses herself, her care for others, and the planet. Growing up, Tanya’s parents “had a lot of different kinds of people over at their house” and she would help them “deliver food to the sick and shut-ins.” As Tanya grew older she continued to use food to feed and connect with people by cooking for them at dinner parties which led to her working in the restaurant industry and eventually founding her own business. At Brown Sugar Kitchen Tanya continues to be mindful about food, especially in terms of how it serves those who make and consume each meal: “there’s a lot of importance of being in a third space and receiving hospitality, and giving hospitality, and being served. And not everything should be fast and convenient.”
Tanya’s early appreciation of food helped shape her restaurant’s dishes and palette which she says is “very developed from years of eating exotic foods that my parents prepared and foods that I tasted during my travels and my training in France.” She notes how her comprehensive education and exploration regarding food impact her cooking. “I bring all that to every dish,” she says, speaking to the flavors of her upbringing and professional learning. Subsequently, she explains “I might not be cooking what people think is the traditional flavors of soul food of the South. It’s more of my interpretation based on my life experience.”
Tanya creates food which is made delicious by virtue of her experience in the kitchen as well as the high quality ingredients she uses. She notes that it is important to “choose the best ingredients possible” and how she uses “organic and local when I can.” Tanya describes how she decided to join the Conscious Kitchen, which has long voiced the benefits of choosing local and organic produce, for the benefit dinner because of chef Alice Waters, who asked her to participate. Tanya even considers Alice her “she-ro” and feels “inspired by how devoted she is to sustainability; in educating children and families and everybody about cooking and eating and growing their own food and supporting local businesses.” Overall, Tanya says that “when we take the time to source quality ingredients” the effect is tangible – “it just makes a big difference.”
Tanya’s restaurant is a place where innovative cooking takes place. It is also a site for challenge and change. As a restaurant owner, especially at a time where many businesses are facing the impact of COVID-19, Tanya expresses that she really wants “everyone, people who are in the industry and people who aren’t, to really value what restaurants contribute to communities and to understand how fragile we are.” However, during the pandemic she has also been able to find some positive outcomes, such as being able to reshape her company culture which involved “getting everybody to get on the same page of what we want to accomplish here. To be more mindful about our footprint on this earth, sort of being mindful of recycling, being mindful of our hospitality. How we really can’t take for granted what we have here.”
The topic of mindfulness is of great importance right now as protests and conversations about long-standing social, racial, and economic issues are taking place and shaping businesses on a local and national level. One of Tanya’s current hopes is “that everybody will make an effort to strive to create diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations. And in their communities, in their worlds, in their lives.” In terms of food and food justice, Tanya expresses “there’s so much to think about with food that I’ve actually been thinking about for years. I think all these issues that are coming up, they’re not new..” She further explains how “I feel like people are finally listening to what I’ve been saying for decades….And I no longer feel like the lone wolf and pioneer and the only one who’s experienced this. And it feels like there might be some positive change because of the general public awareness of, again, the lack of equality, the unfair treatment of African-Americans, especially men…” While cognizant of the current issues society is collectively facing, Tanya maintains a sense of mindful optimism and hope. Looking forward, she senses “there’s just a lot more awareness now. So I feel hopeful that change will come.”
Watch a beautiful video of Tanya here!