Mistakes Can Teach You So Much, Says Star Chef Tanya Holland
Soul and comfort food queen Tanya Holland has perfected fried chicken and slow-cooked meats at her Oakland, California, restaurants B-Side BBQ and Brown Sugar Kitchen. Here, she dishes with Food & Wine why ambitious women shouldn’t fear making mistakes.
F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. Follow the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine). Soul and comfort food queen Tanya Holland has perfected fried chicken and slow-cooked meats at her Oakland, California, restaurants B-Side BBQ and Brown Sugar Kitchen. Here, she dishes with Food & Wine why ambitious women shouldn’t fear making mistakes.
It all depends how you look at it. Sometimes I think I should have gotten that business degree when I thought about it, but I focused on the creativity of the business, and that’s become valuable to me. Business mistakes are hard.
1. Being an overachiever and taking on too much at once, especially when first opening the business and not realizing how much help you need. You realize you can’t cook, keep books, manage facilities or run HR. The first year I got burned out and let go of balance, even exercising. That’s something I continue to tell people: Stretch now! When you’re young, stretch. I’m so glad I was a gym rat in my 20s, or I wouldn’t be able to walk now.
2. Leaving a position too soon. You have to follow your intuition. I've been in places where there was still something else I could have learned, but I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting promoted. You can learn from every move.
3. And also, staying in a job too long. There’s a chef, Patrick Clark, who told me the best chefs are the ones who have worked for many people instead of staying in one place, because you develop your own style. He also told me to leave New York… He said, “As a woman, you will probably have more success leaving the city.” I think he was right, too. This was in 1995-1996. I was looking for a sous chef position. I wasn’t being empowered at Mesa Grill and wanted a kitchen to work in where I could be seen as a potential leader. I was determined to make it in NYC. I really didn’t want to leave, but ultimately I had no choice as I couldn’t grow there working for other people who put limitations on me and my work based on what they were comfortable with. I have always been passionate with a great work ethic, and I love to learn as much as I can about this industry and have worked in so many capacities, but this has proven to be threatening to many of my male counterparts. Especially on the East Coast, I think because of Alice, Mary Sue and Susan, Judy Rodgers, Joyce Goldstein, Barbara Tropp, Traci Des Jardins, Nancy Oakes, etc. out here, women leaders in the kitchen were just more known and accepted. Times have clearly changed. I think things are a bit more open now, but yes, then. There were a number of women chef owners in San Francisco, Boston, LA, Seattle, etc. but still only a handful in NYC. But now, there are more. Although times have changed, I still think it’s easier outside of NYC…It’s a really expensive market to get into. I don’t think I could have been as successful had I stayed in New York—my career really blossomed when I left. I had some media success and opportunities in Boston, but it was really when I moved to the Bay Area that I found my lane. In NYC, I was on the Food Network and no one really cared...I wasn't able to get any investor's attention…Again, those were the early days. But in the Bay, I was a big fish in a smaller pond, and there's a history of pioneering and entrepreneurship out here…Think Alice Waters and California cuisine, whereas in NYC, there's innovation, but there's a lot of importing of cuisines from other places. Alice (and her contemporaries) created something. I know there are great pioneers and entrepreneurs in NYC like Danny Meyer and Drew Nieporent, both of whom I greatly admired, but it's different out here.
4. Being undercapitalized. This was an unfortunate mistake, but we made it through. Not having systems in place—you can never anticipate [everything that could go wrong].
5. Getting bogged down by the unexpected. It’s not even a question of making mistakes…You just don’t know. You can ask as many people as you want, but not every duck will be lined up. You have to look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn.