Oakland Chef Tanya Holland's 5 Essentials for Home Cooks

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Folks in my Oakland, CA, neighborhood know about chef Tanya Holland because of her popular restaurants Brown Sugar Kitchen and B Side BBQ but her fame has spread much wider than our shared city. Maybe you recognize her from her appearances on The Talk and The Chew, or perhaps you're a diehard Food & Wine fan like Ms. Holland herself, in which case you probably saw her Thanksgiving spread last November.

Regardless of how you know her, don't miss her five essential recommendations for home cooks.

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Chef Tanya Holland is known for her modern interpretation of soul food, such as her famous chicken and waffles which are updated with free-range chicken, crispy cornmeal waffles, and organic apple syrup. Classically trained in France, she worked at a number of restaurants in the New York area before settling in Oakland, CA and perfecting her fresh take on comfort food at her restaurants and on TV.

Tanya's parents started a gourmet club in their neighborhood where they would gather together and explore a new cuisine every month. Growing up with this example taught Tanya about the importance of food and community, which continues to be an important value for her. She is very excited to share her philosophy, food, and cooking in her soon-to-be released cookbook Brown Sugar Kitchen (Chronicle Books, 2014).

1. Recipes are guidelines.

Recipe are great but they're really only guidelines and don't have to be rigidly followed every time. Sometimes home cooks get uptight when they don't have an ingredient or a recipe looks very complicated. It's not like you're on Top Chef — it's not a competition! Relax! Use the recipe as a guideline, and make substitutes and adjustments as needed.

Where do you go for recipes? I love food magazines! I have a library full of food magazines going back to the 90s. At Thanksgiving I'll pull out all of my November issues, especially if I want to do something different. Or I'll gather together all my July issues if I want some new summer dishes. A great recipe never really goes out of style. I mean sure, things evolve and there's new gadgets and popular ingredients but you can always return to your tried and true.

Any favorites? My favorites are Australian Vogue Living and Donna Hay, also from Australia. Even though the seasons are different, it's pretty easy to figure out since they're exactly the opposite. I have a lot of old Gourmet, a lot of Food & Wine. One issue from 1994 is barely holding together. It has all the chocolate recipes that I still use, it has my go-to brownie recipe. I've been meaning to organize them into 3-ring binders but, well … you can imagine how well that's going (she laughs).

2. Don't forget about your small utensils.

I'm always amazed when I go to cook at friend's houses and I see them trying to get things done with outdated or poorly made equipment. People always think about the sexy stuff like fancy pots and pans (which is great) but then they ignore the smaller implements. Tongs, whisks, pepper mills. Don't forget to keep them in good shape and up-to-date. It's the small tools that we use the most.

3. Make your own spice blends.

I'm a big proponent of making your own spice blends so you can have all the flavors integrated and on hand: Creole spice, blackened spice, jerk spice. It's great to have them around because then you don't have to think too much about it about when you're cooking — you just reach into your spice drawer and pull it out. They're more versatile than people think. Yes, you can buy premixed but it's much nicer to make your own so you can customize them, adding more or less of each spice according to your taste.

Any favorites? Definitely herbs de Provence. Oh, and Ras el Hanout! I love making Ras al Hanout — that's a project in itself because it calls for something like 16 spices. But it's so flavorful. I've coated short ribs and braised them, I've made hummus with it, and sprinkled it on sautéed vegetables. It's so versatile. I recommend Paula Wolfert's version as a starting point.

4. Clean as you go.

A chaotic and messy kitchen really adds to the feeling of being overwhelmed and its really important for home cooks not to get overwhelmed. So cleaning up as you go is a great way to manage that. It's a simple habit. When you use the milk, just put the carton back in the fridge; when you take out your butter, measure it and then immediately put it back.

5. Repeat a recipe often.

You don't always have to move on to something new after you've made a recipe once or twice. Stay with it for a while — perfect it! That's the best way to advance your skills. It's how restaurant cooks get so good — you work a station for a year or two before you move on to the next station. You make hundreds of this one salad, you make aioli fifty times and then suddenly you're really good at it.

I studied Russian language and literature and there's a saying 'repetition is the mother of learning' (povtoreniye mat' ucheniya). This is definitely key for home cooks. Practice a recipe over and over.

What are you excited about these days? I've got a new cookbook coming out this September from Chronicle Books. It's called Brown Sugar Kitchen Cookbook and it's all the recipes from BSK plus some specials and a few things from BSide. Seasonal things. I am so happy to be working with Chronicle. At the restaurants we source locally, hire locally, and now we even have a local publisher! A lot of people who work at Chronicle live in Oakland so they can actually come to the restaurant. They understand it.

This book is about Oakland: Oakland customer profiles, vendor profiles. The foreward is from Michael Chabon. He's an Oakland resident and a great customer — he had his book party for Telegraph Ave at BSK and we shot a Thanksgiving spread for Food & Wine mag at his house. There's over 85 recipes in the book and its full of these amazing photographs.

What are you cooking these days? I'm still a little burnt after the holidays like everyone else. So its mostly one pot stuff with beans and vegetables. Lots of soups. There's this one yam soup that's just great with the Ras al Hanout blend I mentioned. You can puree it into a smooth soup or keep the yams in chunks and add some chickpeas.

Yum! Thank you, Tanya!

More from Tanya Holland

→ Visit her restaurants: Brown Sugar Kitchen and B Side BBQ

→ See last November's Food & Wine spread at Michael Chabon's house


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(Image credits: Tanya Holland)

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