When chef Tanya Holland moved to West Oakland in 2003, she discovered a Bay Area neighborhood in flux.
“It was like the wild, wild West,” she recalled, with new condominiums under construction next to boarded-up commercial spaces. Even in the midst of all that chaos, she added, “I really saw the potential” of the place.
These days, Holland is considered one of West Oakland’s culinary superstars, serving up contemporary soul food as the executive chef and co-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ.
She’ll share her zest for Southern cuisine at Sunset Savor the Central Coast, a four-day food, wine and lifestyle festival co-sponsored by Sunset magazine and Visit San Luis Obispo County, the county visitors and conference bureau.
Never miss a local story.
Holland’s visit coincides with the release of her cookbook “Brown Sugar Kitchen: New-Style, Down-Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland,” published Sept. 9 by Chronicle Books.
“I call it a love letter to Oakland,” Holland said, adding that she’s eager to show the city in a positive light. “We have a great little oasis here.”
Born in Hartford, Conn., and raised in Rochester, N.Y., Holland inherited a taste for Southern cooking and hospitality from her father, who is from Virginia, and her mother, a Louisiana native.
“The way they maintained their social life was hosting dinner parties,” Holland explained. “I always had this sense that people would come together over food, that it was a great unifier.”
Although Holland enjoyed cooking — her favorite toy as a child was a miniature kitchen set with a refrigerator, stove and sink — her career didn’t follow a culinary path at first. Instead, her parents encouraged her to go to engineering school.
Holland, who graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in Russian language and literature, ended up entering the restaurant business, working as an office manager, winetasting assistant, server and food stylist.
Then she was lured into the kitchen. “I just kept reading about these chefs that were running their own restaurants and interpreting traditional cuisines in their own way. I really wanted to do that,” Holland recalled, but she needed more culinary expertise. “I really felt I had to know the food to execute my vision.”
She first trained at what is now the Institute at Culinary Education in New York City, then La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy, France.
Back in the states, Holland worked at a string of prestigious restaurants in Martha’s Vineyard, Boston and New York City before being selected as the soul food expert on the Food Network show “Melting Pot.”
But her stint on television didn’t give her the career boost she wanted. So Holland headed west — first to San Francisco, then to Alameda, where she spent a year working on her 2003 cookbook “New Soul Cooking: Updating a Cuisine Rich in Flavor and Tradition.”
Then she discovered West Oakland. Although the neighborhood boasted its share of high-end restaurants and ethnic eateries, “There was no place like that neighborhood restaurant or bistro that you could just pop into,” she said. “I felt like, ‘There’s definitely an underserved market (here).’”
At the same time, the chef sought a balance between Oakland’s past and its present.
“There were existing residents that I didn’t want to alienate,” she said. “I also knew there was this up-and-coming population of young professionals thathad this more discerning palate.”
She designed Brown Sugar Kitchen, which opened in 2007, to be accessible to both groups.
“People from all walks of life enjoy this food,” she said. “You’ll see the little Chinese lady asking the thug with the tattoos to pass the saltnext to the cop, next to the EMT, next to the church lady.”
Holland opened a second eatery, B-Side BBQ, in 2011 just a few blocks away. (Her husband, Phil Surkis, co-owns both restaurants.)
Holland includes favorites from both eateries in her new cookbook. “Brown Sugar Kitchen,” which Holland co-wrote with Jan Newberry, serves up downhome dishes such as beignets, fried oyster po’ boy sandwiches and summer squash succotash as well as Creole-inspired riffs on international classics including gazpacho and gougères.
The cookbook also offers unexpected spins on soul food — braised smoked tofu with roasted eggplant, anyone?
“We definitely have a ‘greatest hits’ list” of recipes, Holland said, including Creole shrimp paired with white cheddar grits and buttermilk fried chicken served with cornmeal waffles and apple cider syrup.
Recipes are interspersed with photos by Jody Horton and profiles of some of Brown Sugar Kitchen’s regular customers and suppliers.
In fact, the cookbook features a foreword by one of Holland’s staunchest fans, novelist Michael Chabon.
“I had no idea who he was,” acknowledged Holland, before an employee pointed out the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
A couple months later, Chabon held the launch party for his 2012 novel “Telegraph Avenue” at the restaurant.
The following year, Holland prepared a Thanksgiving meal at his Berkeley home. “He’s very devoted to Oakland,” Holland said of Chabon. So is Holland, who has been credited with helping revive a neighborhood once beset by crime, poverty and urban blight. In 2012, the city of Oakland celebrated Tanya Holland Day in recognition of her “significant role in creating community and establishing Oakland as a culinary center.”
Holland considers herself and her staffers “ambassadors to Oakland.” “It’s an exciting place to be,” she said.