The chef behind Bay Area institution Brown Sugar Kitchen dishes on diversity, cooking in the time of COVID, and Alice Waters’ guilty pleasures.

Chef Holland with a Cocktail
Smeeta Mahanti

Chef, restaurateur, and all-around culinary powerhouse Tanya Holland is adding podcast host to her extensive resume with the debut of Tanya’s Table. The chef-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen, frequent TV food personality, and cookbook author has assembled an impressive and diverse roster of guests such as Samin Nosrat, Questlove, Alice Waters, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and others with varying degrees of connection to the food world. Conceived before COVID and produced during the crisis, the show is an organic extension of Holland’s career, which has always centered around the table, and all it stands for: hospitality, community, conversation, and nourishment of body and spirit. 

How are you holding up considering how challenged restaurants are these days? 

It’s hard. Look, restaurants have always been hard. Right now we’re doing all the work with a skeletal staff, we’re doing takeout, and we’re hoping to add outdoor dining when it’s safe and with the right permits. Of course we want it to be safe for the staff and customers. I always keep moving forward. To anybody who’s never had adversity or challenge this is scary. I’ve had enough in my life and have always been able to pivot.

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How did the podcast come to be?

In January a friend approached me about possibly doing a podcast.  I already had a television treatment called Tanya’s Table that was about food and culture and conversations with my restaurant guests. The name and concept worked perfectly for a podcast.

How was it working in the podcast format for the first time?

It came naturally to me. I’ve always hosted and brought different types of people together. When I’ve done conferences I tend to be the glue that brings people together. I’m not cliquey. I don’t like having one pod or only hanging out with the chefs. 

So it was a convergence of things you were doing?

Yes. It also comes from past experience. It was hard growing up as one of the only black kids in white suburbia. I also lived in France, being a foreigner for a year and a half. I’m comfortable disarming people including celebrities who like to be treated like normal people. Everybody has a journey and they want to tell it. This show gives people an opportunity to show a different side of themselves. it ‘s not an interview show per se. I want to hear their story and want them to lighten up and have a little fun. The show also gives me a chance to truly be myself in the media because people often want to squeeze me into a box. So often it’s: “Tanya, give us a Thanksgiving recipe!” Or worse: “Tanya, we need a recipe for Kwanzaa!” And I’m like, “Really?  I didn’t grow up celebrating Kwanzaa!”

Did you get any scoops or get people to say anything they never shared before?

I got Alice Waters and Samin Nosrat to talk about what they’re embarrassed to say they eat when nobody’s looking. 

And what did they say?

You’re going to have to listen to find out!

How did COVID and the protests impact the content of the show?

We wanted the shows to be somewhat evergreen but I just let it flow. We really wanted to see what was on people’s minds. So many people wanted to talk about the movement. Some were self conscious talking to me and said things like “we gotta do something!” And I was like: “What do you think I’ve been saying for a couple of decades? Everybody is from such different backgrounds and generations. I’ve always embraced diversity, not just in work but in my own life. I want to hang out with all kinds of people, not just black women. Or chefs. I want to talk to people who went to different schools, and have experiences that aren’t similar to mine. Over the years people have said to me: “You know so many people. You should put their photos up on the wall.” This podcast is an opportunity to put those photos up on the wall!