Soul Food Steps Up

Chef Tanya Holland, restaurateur and author, on why it’s time for soul food to gain recognition.


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I’ve found that most people have a strong opinion about soul food. I hear a lot of, “now, I know soul food!” That’s fine, as I think it’s great when anyone is passionate about food, and soul food in particular seems to elicit excitement across all ethnicities and age groups. Some professional food critics, however, have yet to recognize the importance of this original and creative cuisine.

Why isn’t soul food treated on the same level as French or Italian? I have strong thoughts on this subject. But why listen to me? Soul food is truly the cuisine of my heritage, not something I’ve adopted because it’s trendy. I busted my butt training in France, but I’ve always had a vision of bringing great soul food to the masses.

One cool thing about soul food is that it’s multiregional. Soul food differs from Chicago to Los Angeles. Some African-Americans identify with Caribbean roots, others with Creole, African or Native American, while some connect with good ole’ Southern food, which has a rich history of influences. The diversity and sophistication of this cuisine must be appreciated!Even my Louisianan mother and her sisters cook different versions of gumbo; I suspect they were somewhat influenced by their mothers-in-law, whether they liked it or not.

I don’t believe that soul food equals caloric pots of overcooked vegetables and fatty meats. Why can’t we have a broader repertoire? Why not sweet potato blinis? I’ll admit that I was once super ambitious as I emulated Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, working to create high-end interpretations of my food. I got over that and decided to focus on the best versions of the food we all know and love. This means using the freshest and best quality ingredients along with straightforward techniques.

Years ago, I exclaimed to Bobby Flay (my boss back then) that I wanted to do for soul food what he was doing for Southwestern cuisine and what Mario Batali was doing for Italian. This may have been after a night of drinking at the Blue Ribbon, but what I meant was that I wanted to make soul food accessible to all and see this genre recognized by the James Beard Foundation.

I didn’t grow up eating chicken and waffles. I know, it’s a shocker, but I wanted to create what I think is the best version of this classic soulful combination, and my diners at Brown Sugar Kitchen will back me up on that. We buy Fulton Valley Fryers and dip them in creamy Clover buttermilk, then rub them with our seasoned DiGuisto’s organic flour and fry them to crisp perfection in pristine rice bran oil. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I just want to represent this rich culture and heritage cuisine the best way and I can. And trust me, I know soul food!

Soul food and wine

“I love sparkling wines with our spicier food and gumbo...we like Luis Pato Costa Baga Brut, a Portuguese sparkling wine, very reasonably priced, dry and bright. I also love Côtes du Rhône blends and varietals, especially when prominently Grenache, to pair with our food. We enjoy local producer Urban Legends’ Lolapalooza (from winemaker Marilee Shaffer) which is 94% Grenache, 2% Mourvèdre and 4% Syrah—it’s lovely. This goes great with our smoked meats.”

Chef Tanya Holland is the author of New Soul Cooking: Updating a Cuisine Rich in Flavor and Tradition (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 2003) and owns and operates the successful Brown Sugar Kitchen Oakland, as well as upcoming ventures, Brown Sugar Kitchen Bayview and B-Sides BBQ in Oakland. Follow her on twitter: @BrownSugarKitch.


Try this soul food recipe crafted by Chef Tanya Holland.

Gumbo Z’herbes

Recipe courtesy of Tanya Holland from New Soul Cooking (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 2003)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
2 shallots, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeño chili, seeded and finely chopped
8 ounces fresh spinach
1 pound fresh kale
2 cups vegetable stock
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1½ cups water
1 pound fresh or frozen okra, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 tablespoon file powder
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 pound Yukon gold or other yellow potato, diced small
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot over medium heat, cook onions, shallots, garlic and chili in vegetable oil until soft, about five minutes. Add spinach, kale, stock, coconut milk and water, and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove greens and 1 cup of the broth and place in a blender or food processor and purée until smooth. Return mixture to the pot and add okra, file powder, thyme and potatoes. Continue cooking for 20 minutes and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serves 4. 

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