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Southern Cooking, Via Gujarat And Oakland «

Dan Pashman: I’ve heard you say that people don’t seem to balk when Thomas Keller, for instance, a very famous world renowned white chef, serves fried chicken at one of his restaurants, charging $30 more than what you were charging.

Tanya Holland: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: No one seems to blink at that.

Tanya Holland: No, it’s true. I mean, obviously he’s an amazing chef who I respect a lot. But you know, it’s also in Napa and wine country and when people look at that location versus West Oakland, they just have an idea in their mind of what they should be spending.

Dan Pashman: But who’s fried chicken’s better, Tanya?

Tanya Holland: Well, my fried chicken’s better, of course.



Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. And before we get to the show, you know how I’m always telling you about all the perks you get when you subscribe to our newsletter? Well, we’re about to do a live taping with a special guest for a very small audience, and you have to be subscribed to our newsletter to get first crack at tickets. So, sign up by October 30th, that way you won’t you don’t miss the invite! You can do it right, in fact. Go to sporkful.com/newsletter. Thanks.

Dan Pashman: Okay, onto the show. ‘Tis the season for cookbooks! As the holidays approach there are a bunch of exciting cookbooks coming out, so in a couple of episodes over this fall, we’re gonna be featuring the people behind several of them. Today, I’m talking with two chefs who are reinventing Southern food, each refusing to be pigeonholed in the process. Neither one is originally from the South — and they came to Southern food in very different ways.

Dan Pashman: Later on, I’ll talk with Tanya Holland, who you just heard, about bringing southern traditions to the west coast, to create what she calls “California soul”. 

Dan Pashman: My first guest, Vishwesh Bhatt, came to the South as a teenager, and over time embraced the region in his cooking, and his identity. Vishwesh, who goes by Vish, was born and raised in Gujarat, India. His father was a physicist, his mother was a stay at home parent. Growing up his father would take him food shopping at the market, where Vish met farmers and learned about where his food came from. He spent afternoons hanging out in the kitchen while his mom cooked. She’d have him peel potatoes to keep him busy. So food was a focal point, but Vish had no interest in pursuing it as a career. He thought he’d get a much more glamorous job in the government bureaucracy.

Vishwesh Bhatt: I thought that was the greatest job one could have. Right? Because when you grow up in a place where there’s a lot of bureaucracy, you know, those are the people you interact with the most. So if you want something done, you have to go meet somebody and then they will stamp a paper that then passes on to somebody else, who stamps another paper. And I thought, these people have some power. You know, you could sit in a chair all day, somebody would bring you tea and snacks and, you know, you just …

Dan Pashman: You just stamp things. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] 

Vishwesh Bhatt: It seemed like there was the thing to do.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]

Dan Pashman: In the mid 80s, after Vish finished high school, his family moved to Austin, Texas. Now, as you’d imagine, this was quite a change from Gujarat. Texas was spread out and big. Big roads, big houses, big supermarkets. But when it came to food, Vish found some unexpected similarities.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Things like okra and tomatoes, eggplant, beans of — you know, they were not the same variety of beans, but they were beans. I recognized them. Then dry stuff like lentils and black eye peas and chickpeas — seeing chilies, dry chilies, like all that stuff was very easy for me to make a connection to the foods I had grown up eating. That sort of made me think immediately about how much these foods were connected.

Dan Pashman: And I gather your mom adapted pretty well to cooking with the ingredients there and some of the dishes there.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Absolutely. We discovered tacos and she discovered refried beans. And so, she decided she was going to make tacos for one dinner party and have some friends over — their dad’s colleagues. And so she made this big pot of — it was a mix of black eye peas and chickpeas that she cooked and then mashed, and then sort of cooked in the style of making refried beans and seasoned with lots of cumin and chili and lime juice and a little bit of tomato. And it became, you know, something that everybody really enjoyed.

Dan Pashman: So Vish’s mother liked experimenting in the kitchen, mashing up ingredients and dishes in ways that she found worked well. Vish, meanwhile, left Texas and enrolled at the University of Kentucky. But he had a little too much fun there. His GPA was pretty low. He wanted to get a Master’s degree in public administration, for that government bureaucrat job. But with his bad grades, he didn’t have a lot of options. He got into the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, which is where his family had moved. His dad had gotten a job teaching there. 

Dan Pashman: But Vish did not want to go to Mississippi. The film Mississippi Burning had just come out, about three civil rights workers shot dead in the state. The film depicts Klan members burning crosses. Vish imagined this was what he’d encounter in Oxford. But if he wanted to go to grad school, he didn’t really have a choice. So he went.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Yeah, I mean I had every intention of leaving after a year. Or you know, even — you know, it’s like maybe a semester or two and then I’m outta here. I had gone in sort of, you know, already tensed, clenched, jaws thinking, oh, I’m going to Mississippi. They they’re going to, you know — there’s gonna be some sort of a dust up and there wasn’t. There was actually, “Hey, you must be new in town? Come to this party or come meet this people”, or you know, “Let’s show you around. Have you been here? You know, do you know …”, you know, that sort of — it was immediately very welcoming. And so it became, you know, two semesters became 30 years.

Dan Pashman: Pretty quickly after arriving, Vish had two realizations: He loved Oxford and he didn’t want to be a government bureaucrat. Which meant that he also didn’t want to finish his degree. 

Dan Pashman: So what do you do?

Vishwesh Bhatt: I mean, I — you know, I do what, you know, a lot of people do. I start being depressed and drinking. 


Vishwesh Bhatt: I mean, I laugh now, but yeah, it was a terrible time. You know? I didn’t know what to do, you know? I mean, the world had changed, I’d studied political science in an era where, you know, everything was black and white. You had Cold War, bad guys, good guys. Clearly, I was not enjoying what I thought was gonna be the greatest job that I was gonna do ever. And didn’t want any part of that. And so I’m essentially at this point a bum.

Dan Pashman: Vish was living with his parents, no longer in school, with no idea what he wanted to do with his life. And just like when he was a kid, when he didn’t have anything to do, his mom put him to work in the kitchen. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: So there was a vegetarian restaurant on the square in Oxford called The Harvest Cafe where my mother cooked once a week and she made thali, a Gujarati thali, which — you know, a thali is one of those … 

Dan Pashman: Big dishes.

Vishwesh Bhatt: A platter with several …

Dan Pashman: Little dishes. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Little dishes. Right. She would make 20 of those every Tuesday and they would sell out. 

Dan Pashman: Had she been a professional chef before?

Vishwesh Bhatt: Nope.

Dan Pashman: So how did she get into it?

Vishwesh Bhatt: Somebody came to eat at the house and they said, “Hey, would you do this at the restaurant?”, and she said okay.

Dan Pashman: So she’s doing this once a week at The Harvest Cafe, [Vishwesh Bhatt: Right.] making 20 thalis, which are selling out every week. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: And so she gets you in there?

Vishwesh Bhatt: She gets me in there because she and Dad are going on vacation for the summer. And the people that owned the restaurant, they’re like, “This Tuesday thing has become quite a thing. What are we gonna do about it?” And she said, “Oh, my son can come in, fill in while I’m out. He needs something to do.”

Dan Pashman: So what? So when she told you about this plan, what was your first thought?

Vishwesh Bhatt: I was like, “I don’t know how to, you know, cook all this stuff.”. and she’s like, “Well, you can figure it out. Plus, you know, you’re staying at the house for free. So the least you can do is, do something. Help me out here.”

Dan Pashman: Did your mother train you in any of these things? Did she like give you recipes or pointers?

Vishwesh Bhatt: No. No. She just, she just had confidence that I could do it. And I had full confidence that I was gonna suck at it.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Vishwesh Bhatt: And somehow I didn’t. 

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] 

Vishwesh Bhatt: So and happened — this is where the learning from my mother had come in — I could see stuff on the stove like, oh, that pot of beans needs more liquid, that rice is done. I’m gonna turn it off and move it. I mean, without having people having to tell me, I knew because I had watched my mother do these things, but I didn’t know I knew them. Right? The folks around me were noticing me doing that. And so they were like, “You wanna work a couple of more days here?” And I was like, “You want me to work a couple of more days? Yeah, sure.”

Dan Pashman: While Vish was working there, a chef from New Orleans, John Currence, had come to Oxford and opened a new restaurant next door, called City Grocery. Vish started going in for dinner, sometimes two or three nights a week. The food there seemed more creative, and everything was plated beautifully. He wanted to work there, but he didn’t think he had the experience for it. Bu then …

Vishwesh Bhatt: What happened is I ran up a bar tab.


Dan Pashman: Okay.

Vishwesh Bhatt: And, you know — and John and I have been friends and, you know, we’re becoming friends and he’s like, “Look, you know, we gotta talk about this bar tab. How about you just, you know, come a couple of days and work it off, and then we’ll be all square?” And I started learning very quickly, that same process again, where, like I knew — hey, that milk for the grit is about to boil over.

Dan Pashman: It came naturally to you.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Naturally. Those things came, you know … 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: And that, again, they would notice and I started having fun and I started learning. That’s when I decided this is what I wanna do for a living.


Dan Pashman: After a few years working for John Currence at City Grocery, Vish felt he needed to learn more if he was really going to pursue cooking as a career. He left Oxford, went to culinary school, and worked in Miami and Colorado. In 2002, he returned to Oxford, and to City Grocery. His relationship with John had changed. Now they saw each other as collaborators and potential partners. They wanted to expand, but weren’t sure in which direction.

Vishwesh Bhatt: We had these conversations about cooking Indian food and I’ve refused to do that. He was like, “Hey, you know, what if we had a small Indian restaurant?”, you know, I was like, “Nope. Not doing it.” I mean, there were several reasons. One, because I didn’t wanna be that guy in a small town that was doing Indian food. Two, I didn’t really know. And I still don’t know that much about Indian food. Right? I mean, I can cook five or six things that I learned, but they’re very regional. I mean, I grew up in Gujarat in a vegetarian family and I can cook those dishes. But you know, there’s so many other things that I know very little about.

Dan Pashman: You said you didn’t wanna be that one guy in a small town with the Indian restaurant. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Right. 

Dan Pashman: What is it about being in that position that you didn’t want?

Vishwesh Bhatt: Because I had this view of food that was a lot more than that. I like other flavors. I liked other techniques. I wanted to be able to do that. And I was afraid that if that’s what I started doing, that’s all I would do, and never be able to do the other stuff

Dan Pashman: So John and Vish decided to open Snackbar. Initially, it was supposed to be a New Orleans inspired French bistro, with classic dishes like trout almondine, steak frites, and duck confit. While they were preparing to open, Vish’s mom passed away. Soon after they opened their doors, Vish found himself experimenting in the kitchen.

Vishwesh Bhatt: At some point, I am not sure exactly why, but there was this slight turn towards starting to season things with spices I’d grown up with. So initially, it was just, hey, I’m going to make this beurre blanc, but I’m going to use some curry leaves in the reduction. And that turned into, hey, I’m gonna cook this collared greens, but I’m going to cook them with ginger and garlic and asafetida, like my mother used to.  

Dan Pashman: Vish was playing with local cuisines and dishes, but adding a taste of home, just like his mom had in Texas, when she made her black-eyed pea tacos. He was also obsessed with using the best produce from local farms, like his dad taught him when they went to the markets in Gujarat. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: I didn’t think it out. It wasn’t premeditated. It happened. I like the results. The folks who were coming in clearly loved the results. And so it became then more and more the thing that I would do.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Now looking back on it, it feels like, yes. I mean, subconsciously I was, you know, thinking about my mom and thinking about those flavors and thinking about the food I had grown up with and how — you know, how much fun it was being around that table and I wanted to share that.


Dan Pashman: One of the dishes that you shared the recipe for in your cookbook, which has become one of the most popular at Snack Bar, is the okra chaat. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Yes.

Dan Pashman: I know chaat is sort of a general name for Indian snacks. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Mm-hmm. Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Tell me about the okra chaat.

Vishwesh Bhatt: So .. [LAUGHS] A lot of the credit for that dish goes to a restaurant actually in New York, Devi, which Suvar Suran used to helm. It was the first time I saw okra that was fried without any batter, and I knew, you know, very well that fried okra is a big thing for folks in the south, and I wanted to make it with things that I already had. I didn’t want to have to special order stuff.  But peanuts are a good — you know, something we have on hand. Everybody around here knows what peanuts are. It’s a good Southern ingredient. So okra, peanuts, onions, chilies, like, how do we make this sweet and sour? Lime juice. And then sweet — well, sorghum, you know, has that. And then next thing we know everybody’s talking about it and it’s a dish that we do every summer now. I mean, people start asking about it by end of April, like, “Hey, when’s the okra chaat coming back?” 

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]

Vishwesh Bhatt: And the answer is: When the okra comes in.

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Well, you know …

Dan Pashman: Quick question on the okra chaat. If I don’t have sorghum, can I use maple syrup? 

Vishwesh Bhatt: Absolutely. You can use maple syrup. You can use molasses. You can use honey. So… yeah.

Dan Pashman: Yeah. It sounds so good. 

Dan Pashman: Since Vish opened Snackbar in 2009, the restaurant has become well known for its combinations of Southern fare, French bistro cooking, and Indian influences. It doesn’t fit neatly into any category, and that’s what Vish, and his many customers, like about it. In 2012, he received his first James Beard Nomination. He was actually nominated seven years in a row, until 2019, when he finally won, for Best Chef in the South. 

Dan Pashman: Back in August, he released his first cookbook, I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From A Southern Chef. As I said, it includes the recipe for that okra chaat alongside Gujarati black eyed peas, cornbread with Kashmiri chili and curry leaves, and green tomato pie with cinnamon and cloves. I asked him to read the beginning of the introduction …

Vishwesh Bhatt: I want people to see me as I see myself, an immigrant, a son of immigrants, who chose to make the South his home, and in doing so, became a Southern chef. I claim the American South and this is my story.

Dan Pashman: The title of your cookbook is I Am From Here

Vishwesh Bhatt: Yes. 

Dan Pashman: Why did you wanna call it that?

Vishwesh Bhatt: For several reasons, right? I mean, because I am an American. I am a citizen. I grew up here, I work here, and so … because you get this question, you know, a lot of times, “wWhere are you from?”, and then you say, “Oxford, Mississippi,” and followed by, “No, no. Where are you really from?”. So that’s one. The other is to say that, you know, food is not stagnant, that it changes. It evolves as people bring new ideas.

Vishwesh Bhatt: Now, if something is very good and then somebody’s tradition? Respect it. Right? But that doesn’t mean you can’t have another tradition and expand that. You know, so you can use the ingredients and certainly put your stamp on it and certainly make it yours.


Dan Pashman: That’s Vishwesh Bhatt. His cookbook is called I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From A Southern Chef, you can get it now wherever books are sold. 

Dan Pashman: Coming up, I’ll talk with chef Tanya Holland, who turned her West Oakland restaurant into a national destination by embracing her family’s Southern roots and pushing soul food forward in the process. Stick around.






Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman and I got some big news on the cascatelli front for you! Cascatelli is now at Whole Foods across the New York metro area, and it’s on sale there through the end of October! If it does well there, it’ll be coming to Whole Foods stores across the country. So please, if you’re in the New York metro area, head over to Whole Foods and stock up! Thanks. Okay. back to the show … 

Dan Pashman: Tanya Holland is a chef, cookbook author, and host of the cooking show Tanya’s Kitchen Table on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Her latest cookbook is California Soul: Recipes From A Culinary Journey West. In it she says she’s not from the South, but that’s really where her family’s story begins. Tanya was raised in Rochester, New York, near the Canadian border. But her parents were born and raised in the South. As a child, she spent summers visiting her grandparents in Virginia and Louisiana. 

Tanya Holland: My grandfather had built this sort of shack on the property and he had a little penny candy store. We sold pralines  and pickles. And you know, he knew everybody in the neighborhood. They had a fig tree. And I  remember playing with my cousin and the neighboring kid, Toby — leaned over the fence and he said, “Daphne, Tonya, give me some figs. Give me some figs.”


Tanya Holland: Like it was like, “Toby, leave us alone.” And you know, my grandmother at the stove frying fish was one other thing, shaking it in that flour in the bag before people were doing shake and bake. I remember my grandmother, on my paternal time, my grandmother Holland loved to bake cakes. They would mail stuff at the holidays. My grandmother would mail us her fruit nut cake. I remember my grandmother shipping my mom pecans and file powder and all these ingredients so she could make gumbo and things she was familiar with — pecan pie for the holidays and then inviting their new friends over to eat that food. And my mom became known for her gumbo, her chitlins, cornbread. But then they also formed this Gourmet Club when I was seven that lasted 20 years and …

Dan Pashman: 20 years? 

Tanya Holland: Yeah. 20 years. 

Dan Pashman: The Gourmet Club was a monthly dinner, usually organized around some culinary theme. Couples took turns hosting. Everyone would bring different dishes, and it was a way to try foods that they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to eat.

Tanya Holland: They cooked cuisines from around the world from the usual suspects of French and Spanish, Italian, but also like they did an Alsacian Rhine dinner, a Polynesian luau. I’m, at the time an only child, so I’m kinda like running around the house and, you know, trying to stay outta the way, but not really, right?

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Tanya Holland: Because I’m — I wanna know what’s going on. My parents are preparing the main dish. For instance, here’s a dish that stayed in my mom’s repertoire, was chicken cattitore. Oh my God, I actually wanna go make some now cause it’s so good. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Tanya Holland: My mouth just started watering. 

Dan Pashman: Right.

Tanya Holland: Everybody shows up with their dish. My parents set the table, so I learned about place settings and setting the table and candles …

Dan Pashman: I’m picturing a fairly formal place setting.

Tanya Holland: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Table cloth, cloth napkins, candlesticks … 

Tanya Holland: Absolutely. And that’s one of the few times that we would dine at the dining table in the dining room, not the kitchen table that’s in the kitchen. Back then I think people were able to live what you call “The American Dream”, right? And my parents didn’t come from much and this was their first home and they were very proud to have people over and to entertain in that way.

Tanya:  It was three Black couples and three white couples for 20 years. And so I just assumed like that’s how the world worked. People were gonna get along over food and things are gonna be integrated even though there was issues in our neighborhood, but my parents were just open to anyone.

Dan Pashman: Through the Gourmet Club, Tanya developed an early interest in cuisines of the world, and learned that food and hospitality can bring people together. These ideas would eventually form the foundation of her career — she just didn’t know it yet. 

Dan Pashman: She studied Russian language and literature at the University of Virginia, and wanted to be an ambassador, but she never took the foriegn service exam. She said she was intimidated by it. Instead, in 1988, she moved to New York and ended up waiting tables at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill.

Tanya Holland: Bobby was this new up and coming chef. Lot of celebrities, lot of other chefs came in there and dined. It was a very energetic, exciting time. And then I also was influenced by him and inspired.

Dan Pashman: Tanya told Bobby she wanted to do for soul food what he was doing with regional American food. 

Tanya Holland: So I had been taking some cooking classes on the Upper East Side and I told him I was thinking of going to cooking school. I wanted to be a restauranteur. 

Dan Pashman: Why restauranteur, not chef?

Tanya Holland: Well, I wanted to be around the people, the variety of people, you know, and guests. I mean, that’s really what I learned from my parents is hospitality. Back then, nobody was calling anyone. You just knock on the door, ring the doorbell, “Hey, I’m in the neighborhood.” And my mom would fix someone a plate and just welcome them. And that’s just where I saw myself.

Dan Pashman: Tanya went to culinary school in France, thinking that degree would be her ticket into New York’s restaurant scene. She got back and started looking for jobs at the top restaurants there. 

Tanya Holland: I didn’t get into the kitchens that I had hoped to. I was looking to get into these New York Times, four-star kitchens, and they were very patriarchal, you know? And a lot of women weren’t welcomed or if we were welcomed, it was desserts or salads. And my name reads pretty Anglo. You know, Tanya Holland. And I’d arrive and it was like, “Oh, nope. Sorry, position’s full.” Or I would maybe get in the kitchen and do a stage, which is where you work for free, and then, you know, not being offered a job or just not even get in the door. So that was really disappointing cause I was a hard worker. I am a hard worker and I just wanted to have the opportunity to learn from the best.

Dan Pashman: Tanya did manage to pick up cooking jobs here and there, but in 2000, the restaurant kitchen world had left her burnt out. She went back to waiting tables. Then a friend told her about a very different kind of opportunity.

Tanya Holland: “The Food Network is looking for an African American female chef. Are you interested?” I was like, I guess. I think so. 


Tanya Holland: Why not? I never thought of it. I never thought it was something I would do at that point in my career, cause the examples were like Julia Child and Jacque Pepin and … So I went there for the talent test in front of the camera and I was kinda like … [BLUBBERS] 


Tanya Holland: I didn’t know what I was doing. But then they put us through media training and I was hired.

Dan Pashman: The show was called Melting Pot, but there would be like Melting Pot: Nuevo Latino

Tanya Holland: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: And then there would be Melting Pot Eastern: European

Tanya Holland: Yeah. Yeah.

Dan Pashman: And then that episode would be hosted by a chef with that kind of expertise.

Tanya Holland: Yeah. And I did soul food and that’s really where I kind of became known for cooking soul food, modernizing it, elevating it.

Dan Pashman: What were you told about what your role on the show would be?

Tanya Holland: [LAUGHS] Well, not a lot. I mean, we were kind of really thrown to the wolves. I mean, they just kind of gave us this little script. Like, okay, from point — minute three to minute 10, you’re gonna put the eggs in the bowl and stir the milk. [LAUGHS] 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Tanya Holland: And you’re gonna smile and you’re gonna say, “Welcome to Melting Pot.” And then from minute, you know, 12 to 17, you’re gonna add the corn meal, and then maybe you and Cheryl will have some sassy conversation. [LAUGHS] It’s like, okay. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Tanya Holland: Yeah, it was kind of — it wasn’t authentic really. And then I was sent on the Today Show to do a meal on Kwanza, and I didn’t grow up celebrating Kwanza. They just kind of put me in a box and made all these assumptions and kind of had to act the part. But I’m grateful that I had that opportunity. It definitely opened doors for me. But you know, now I feel like I get to live my more authentic self.

Dan Pashman: Right. It feels like such a double edged sword because [Tanya Holland: Mm-hmm.] it opened doors, but when you walk through those doors, the hallways were pretty narrow.

Tanya Holland: [LAUGHS] Yes. Exactly.

Dan Pashman: One door this TV show opened led to a cookbook deal. In 2003, Tanya published New Soul Cooking. That same year, she moved to the Bay Area, worked as a restaurant manager for a few years. Colleagues started encouraging her to open her own place. She found a space in West Oakland, and in 2008 opened Brown Sugar Kitchen.

Tanya Holland: So I opened my doors with a menu of like, okay, I’m good at frying chicken and making biscuits and some pastries. And again, it was a community that was historically African American, but there weren’t a lot of African American centric restaurants there. So I thought, this is an opportunity to do this. I purchased one waffle maker. It was like, oh, I’ll just do this chicken waffle dish. We’ll see how that goes. And that was what I became known for …

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Tanya Holland: Which wasn’t my intention. I didn’t know that those machines were gonna become the bane of my existence.

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]

Tanya Holland: Cause they, they go in and out like used cars. They go in and out of service.

Dan Pashman: Those waffle makers might have driven Tanya crazy over the years, but the end result?

Tanya Holland: It was light and airy, yeast rise, made outta corn meal. I made my own compound butter with brown sugar and apple syrup, because I started off, you know, serving maple and it was a hundred dollars a gallon. So I looked for, you know, an alternative and we just reduced some apple juice with some butter and brown sugar and, you know, it was amazing. It is amazing … if I ever make them again, I don’t know. 


Tanya Holland: Kinda have P.T.S.D.

Dan Pashman: Right. Right.

Dan Pashman: Brown Sugar Kitchen started taking off, and began to get media attention. Tanya published her second cookbook, called Brown Sugar Kitchen. The New York Times wrote that her shrimp and grits, “seemed to be infused with concentric layers of flavor.” Tanya told The Times she wanted to open many locations. She said, “Shake Shack of soul food. That’s my vision.”

Dan Pashman: During this time she also got to pursue her passion for traveling the world, and using food to connect to different cultures. In 2015, she got an email from the State Department. It was regarding one of their Foriegn Service Officers, who was stationed in Kazakhstan. He was from Kentucky.

Tanya Holland: And he really missed soul food. So he said he got on the internet and he was looking for an African American chef for Juneteenth. And he brought me over. I have a degree in Russian language and literature, so I finally could call my father and say the degree is finally paying off. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Tanya Holland: Just, you know, 30 some years later.

Dan Pashman: Right. Right. 

Tanya Holland: There was a use for that. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Tanya Holland: And I cooked soul food for them. And I also cooked, for instance, with this chef who was from Uzbekistan and I cooked plov with him, which is sort of a rice and meat dish that’s delicious. Like the rice gets really crispy at the bottom of the pan and …

Dan Pashman: Oh, yes.

Tanya Holland: Yeah. And actually I was at a potluck a few weeks ago and there was someone there who — that was his heritage and he made plov and I was like, Oh my god. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]

Dan Pashman: In 2019, Tanya moved Brown Sugar Kitchen from West Oakland to a bigger location in Uptown Oakland, a more upscale neighborhood. She also opened a second location, at the famous San Francisco Ferry Building. It was the first Black woman-owned restaurant to open there. From the outside it looked like Tanya was becoming the restaurateur she always wanted to be. But behind the scenes, there were challenges.

Tanya Holland: So I basically opened two restaurants within a couple weeks of each other in the beginning of 2019. So the ferry building, by the beginning of 2020, even before covid, it just wasn’t working out. The rent was really high. It was a great place to be, but we were in the back of the building, so that location didn’t work. It was quick service, and I realized I’m a full service person, you know, and it was really hard to translate my hot food into quick service at that time. 

Dan Pashman: The Ferry Building location closed in January of 2020, after less than a year. As for the Uptown Oakland location, where she moved her original restaurant …

Tanya Holland: The place in Oakland was, you know, more than twice the size of the original location. And I had partnered with someone and the partnership wasn’t working out, and then covid hit.


Tanya Holland: So I tried the best I could, you know, we tried to pivot. We did a lot of takeout. Staffing became very challenging, people left the area. I wanted to keep it open for the community and the culture, but it really wasn’t serving me anymore. 


Dan Pashman: This past January, after 15 years, Tanya closed the Oakland Brown Sugar Kitchen.


Tanya Holland: So now, you know, I have that experience and you know, I’m trying to share that knowledge with people so, they can grow and not make some of the same mistakes, but also learn from what I learned.

Dan Pashman: But still, Tanya, 15 years?

Tanya Holland: Yeah. That was a good run.

Dan Pashman: I mean, that’s success in the restaurant business.

Tanya Holland: It is and I still have a reputation that follows me because that. I was walking down the street last week and this city of Oakland worker saw me. I didn’t know him. He’s like, “Where’s the fried chicken at?” 


Tanya Holland: It was like, “What?” I think people look at me like — remember those old cartoons — and they just see bones, like they see drumstick … 

Dan Pashman: Right, right. 

Tanya Holland: And a wing. They don’t even see me, you know? So… I was like, “Yeah. I don’t have any today.”

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] so am I right that for the first time in about 15 years, you don’t own any restaurants right now. 

Tanya Holland: That’s right. Yep.

Dan Pashman: How does that feel?

Tanya Holland: It actually feels good right now. I, I finally, um, am able to use the Do Not Disturb feature on my telephone. 


Dan Pashman: Right.

Tanya Holland: I had no — I was like, oh, wow. What a concept, you know? Now I have the opportunity to be more impactful in the industry because I’m not tethered to the stove or just confined to four walls and I’m really enjoying it.

Dan Pashman: Without a restaurant to run, Tanya’s been doing more traveling. She went to Mexico City and Oaxaca to work with culinary students. She’s traveled to Singapore, Hong Kong, Sweden, and Denmark to talk about food sustainability and climate change. Back in college, studying Russian, she imagined that she would be a government ambassador. Now, she’s become a culinary ambassador. 

Dan Pashman: Another thing Tanya’s been able to do is write more. Her latest cookbook is California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West. It pulls from her experience living in California, and pays homage to the many Black food producers, farmers, and suppliers, who make the state’s food so special. And there are plenty of examples of what Tanya means when she says California soul — like a fried artichoke po boy, corn and ricotta hushpuppies. 

Tanya Holland: I think it definitely, again, shows more of my diversity of influences of my travels and the different cuisines I’ve been exposed to, the different ingredients, and it’s not as restricted in like the soul food sort of confinement. There’s nods to like the grilled calamari, but it’s with … 

Dan Pashman: Salsa verde, right? 

Tanya Holland: Yeah. Yeah, but … 

Dan Pashman: That one looks so good! Oh my God, I wanna eat that right now.

Tanya Holland: [LAUGHS] But with mustard greens, you know? 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Tanya Holland: So they’re paying homage to the soul food. But yeah, that’s one of my favorites.

Dan Pashman: I asked Tanya about her plans for the future. Any more restaurants in the works?

Tanya Holland: it’s so hard because I love providing experience for people. I love creating the space. And like I would if I could still leave my phone on “Do not disturb,”You know? But I know the headaches that come with being a restauranteur, so I don’t think that’s in the cards.

Dan Pashman: Tanya says she’s okay with that. She has plenty to keep her busy. She’s also now the chair of the James Beard Awards, and has been instrumental in making those awards more equitable. Beyond that …

Tanya Holland: Well, I mean, I’m really proud of my heritage. I’m really — I feel more connected to it now than ever. I had this idea I wanted to be an ambassador and I just wanna continue to travel around the world, tell people about the cuisine of African Americans, but also learn other cuisines and just find that common denominator. 


Dan Pashman: That’s Tanya Holland. Her latest cookbook, California Soul, comes out tomorrow, October 25th, you can pre-order it or if you’re listening to this a day late, just get it now! And like we said earlier, Vishwesh Bhatt’s book, I Am From Here, is out right now. 

Dan Pashman: We’’re gonna give away a copy of each cookbook to a winner from our newsletter list. So now you really want to get on that list, cause you’ll be the first to know about this special limited capacity live taping and you’ll have a chance to win one of these two cookbooks. If you’re already on the list, you’re already in, nothing to worry about. If not, sign up by October 30th. You’ll have the chance to win all this cool stuff. Do it at sporkful.com/newsletter

Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I talk with the one and only, Nigella Lawson. She’ll talk about why cooking on TV didn’t always come naturally to her. And she explains  how she uses method acting to decide what to order in restaurants. Plus, she tells me the one condiment she keeps in her purse at all times. That’s next week. 

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