A Black Chef’s Journey into California’s Soul

Tanya Holland’s New Cookbook

Review by Kristina Sepetys

Tanya Holland is justifiably famous for many reasons, including her much-loved (sadly, now closed) Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, where she cooked up delicious buttermilk fried chicken and waffles, bacon-cheddar-scallion biscuits, thick shrimp gumbo, rich macaroni and cheese, and other deeply satisfying soul food dishes. The chef, restaurateur, and podcaster is also the author of three cookbooks, New Soul Cooking: Updating a Cuisine Rich in Flavor and Tradition (Harry N. Abrams, 2003), Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2014), and the brand new Tanya Holland's California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West (Ten Speed Press, 2022), which spotlights the chef’s culinary heritage, makes use of California’s bountiful seasonal produce and local ingredients, and shows her support for sustainable food system values.

California Soul evolved somewhat unexpectedly and organically, according to Holland. “I was between writing a proposal for a lighter fare of soul food and also beginning to write my memoir. I always enjoy telling the story behind the inspiration for the recipes and then I get to my real love, which is learning more about those who came before me, related or not, and also discovering the stories and journeys of other like-minded creatives in my industry.”

The cookbook includes more than 80 recipes, organized by season, for which Holland draws on soul food, Creole, Cajun, and California cuisines, making liberal use of ingredients like collards, cornmeal, bacon, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and other ingredients local to California. She puts her soul-food spin on tabbouleh by introducing fresh chopped collards in place of parsley. She livens up her shakshuka, a North African egg and tomato dish, with a cornbread crumble. A rack of California lamb gets a collard-almond pesto, a spatchcocked chicken is brined in sweet tea and molasses, and her zucchini-scallion waffles get a topping of toasted pecan romesco.

Holland’s recipes are simple, straightforward, and use ingredients that are easily available at local markets, and there are ample options for everyone among the mix of meat and flavorful vegetarian dishes. Most recipes are practical enough to prepare on a busy weeknight, and many also work well for a holiday or celebratory table, like the wild rice pilaf with roasted celery root, red onions, pine nuts, and dried cranberries that I served for Thanksgiving. Photographs by Aubrie Pick capture Northern California at its sunny, bountiful finest, and include images of people and finished dishes to complement the narrative.


Tanya Holland's California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West by Tanya Holland (with Maria C. Hunt and Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz, forward by Alice Waters) Ten Speed Press, November 2022 


Photo by Aubrie Pick

As I started at the beginning of the book and cooked my way through most of the recipes, I found that spices are key to getting a deeply flavorful dish. Holland creates her own blends, but I relied on some mixes on my spice shelf for recipes like the Rancho Gordo Domingo Rojo Beans with poblano-onion relish over farro, which called for a Creole mix, as did a po’boy made with fried artichokes, and the chicken paillards with arugula and peas shoot salad. Oakland chef Wanda Blake's Creole Spice worked magic in these dishes.

Holland has interspersed a nice set of essays throughout the book, which are as interesting as the recipes. Her Historical Detours describe significant places and events that have shaped California soul food, like the continual westward migration of African Americans since 1850. Among the Maker Profiles are stories of Black Californian farmers and food artisans like Keba Konte of Red Bay Coffee in Oakland, Ashlee Johnson-Geisse of Brown Girl Farms in Hayward, and Kelly Carlisle of Acta Non Verba Youth Farm Project in Oakland, plus seven more around the state

Holland’s own parents and grandparents originated in the Deep South before migrating north to Upstate New York, where Holland spent much of her youth. But Holland considers herself thoroughly Californian. “[As] an African American woman,” Holland says in the cookbook’s Introduction, “the contribution that my ancestors made to what Americans eat and how we eat is significant. No matter where we migrated from or ended up, our food comes with us and tells our story.”

Fans might be surprised to learn that Holland majored in Russian Languages and Literature at the University of Virginia. “I really wanted to travel abroad and maybe become an ambassador,” she said. “But I learned that I'd have to spend years working my way up in the Foreign Service and that it wasn't a guarantee.” Instead, she found an alternative route into a wildly successful career in her own self-styled form of diplomacy that relies on food and cooking. “When I was invited to Kazakhstan as a Culinary Diplomat in 2015,” she said, “I called my dad and said, "the degree is finally paying off!"

For the first time in a long while, Holland doesn’t have any restaurants in operation, though she continues to be busy hosting Tanya’s Kitchen Table on the Oprah Winfrey Network and the podcast, Tanya’s Table.

As for what’s next, “We shall see!” Holland told me. “I'm a believer in the mystery of the universe...who knows what each day will bring, and I don't like to limit my expectations and thoughts. I'm always seeking out new opportunities to grow in my field.”

Come out to meet Tanya Holland at several upcoming book-signing events. She’ll be at Market Hall in Rockridge on Saturday, December 3, 12:30–2pm, where Holland's Braised Chicken Thighs and Gingerbread Cupcakes will be on the Market Hall deli menu through the week of the book event.

Holland will also appear at Rakestraw Books in Danville on December 3, 3pm, or you can catch up with her at Book Passage at the San Francisco Ferry Building on Saturday, December 10. Buy the book online through Indiebound.

TRY THESE RECIPES! Below are three sample recipes, reprinted with permission from Tanya Holland's California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West by Tanya Holland, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Text copyright © 2022 by Tanya Holland, photographs copyright © 2022 by Aubrie Pick

Braised Chicken Thighs with Barbecued White Beans and Scallions

Winter Chicory Salad with Blood Oranges, Pomegranates, and Creole Mustard Vinaigrette

Fresh Gingerbread Cupcakes with Molasses Buttercream