Oakland, California (CNN) — Out in Oakland, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, inside Chef Tanya Holland's first Brown Sugar Kitchen outpost, it's damp -- until the biscuits and Holland herself arrive.
Armed with a large silver tray of fresh-from-the-oven beauties, Holland's first priority is to feed us. Accompaniments for the plain buttermilk biscuits -- sweet cream butter and homemade jam -- are set down next. The scallion, cheddar and bacon variety need no additional adornment.
Eat, Holland instructs, and no one needs to be told a second time. Buttermilk biscuits may not be Brown Sugar's signature menu item -- that honor belongs to Holland's waffles (more on that later) -- but they're a fine place to start understanding her ethos.
Holland, who worked under the likes of Bobby Flay and had a show on The Food Network called "Melting Pot Soul Kitchen," studied cooking at France's La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine. Learning classical French techniques and gaining knowledge in regional cuisine, Holland fell in love with Provencal cooking.
Toughing it out
Tanya Holland joins some of San Francisco's finest chefs to talk about the evolving industry and women's place in it.
In 2003, fresh from her TV stint in The Food Network's "Melting Pot," Holland thought she might work as an executive chef in New York City or find investors who'd back her in opening her own concept restaurant, featuring French classics and soul-food favorites.
But New York being a notoriously tough city led to Holland rethinking her vision and future in food.
Holland's ambition wasn't the problem, but she recalls stiff competition. "If you think you're one in a million in New York, there's 10 other m*therf**kers just like you," Holland remembers her father telling her as she struggled to nail down industry support.
Dirty fried rice is the dish Holland brings to Family Meal at Alice Waters' house.
Courtesy Alice Yu
With career advancement in New York seemingly stunted, Holland had to rethink her next move.
Friends had been talking up Oakland. Holland, who's from upstate New York but had family in the Bay area, made a decision to go west.
With visions of a French-influenced African bistro named Patois, Holland's NYC struggles initially repeated themselves in progressive California. Despite having a resume that included a cooking program and a cookbook, the chef says she's convinced gender and racial biases were at play for her inability to get a lease to open a restaurant.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Designing a waffle
Tanya Holland didn't set out to become famous for her waffles, but it's an accolade she posesses, nonetheless.
Courtesy Jody Horton
Holland's perseverance ultimately led her to West Oakland with modified plans for a restaurant. The French-African bistro, though not fine dining, wouldn't work in this industrial area, she quickly realized.
But maybe waffles would.
"I bought one waffle maker, and I thought oh, maybe somebody will want a waffle," Holland says, explaining her change of course.
"And it turns out they wanted lots of waffles," Holland recalls, referring to her now-famous cornmeal specialty.
At the recently reopened Brown Sugar Kitchen, in its new more-bustling Oakland location, guests can choose Just the Cornmeal Waffle, which comes with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup, or they can do it up chicken-and-waffles style, adding Holland's buttermilk fried chicken.
The recently reopened Brown Sugar Kitchen is in a new, more bustling Oakland location. Yes, waffles are on the menu.
Courtesy of Cesar Rubio
It's a home run either way, and a fine introduction to Holland's talents as a chef -- though her skills and interests stretch far beyond the waffle iron.
In some ways, Holland's Brown Sugar Kitchen belies her rich and diverse culinary talents. She still loves French food and has brought her techniques and discipline from French kitchens to the Southern soul food featured in her Oakland spot. Holland also gives a nod to California's stellar produce as a cooking influence.
Pioneering Oakland's cuisine
Tanya Holland's Brown Sugar Kitchen has impacted the Oakland food scene in a delicious way.
The chef is also now in a position to help young women with similar goals.
Holland indirectly credits all the white men who didn't invest in her.
"They couldn't see me in a leadership role ... and so it has been my mission, my goal, to be there for young women who are aspiring in different areas of the hospitality industry."
In spite of her early Oakland obstacles, Holland views the Bay area generously.
"Warmer for women in food" than New York City is how she describes San Francisco, the city that gave us Alice Waters, whom Holland name-checks as one who "clearly started the whole California cuisine movement."
The iconic Chez Panisse put Waters on the map as "the pioneer in Berkeley cuisine," says Holland, adding, without a beat: "I'm sort of a pioneer in Oakland cuisine."