'Top Chef's' Tanya Holland on That Tense Judges Table
Legendary Oakland Chef Tanya Holland was asked to pack her knives in a tense episode of Top Chef that found her attempting to strike the impossible balance between standing up for yourself as a chef, taking responsibility for your mistakes and refuting a teammate’s attempt to undermine you. Her refusal to address the claims made by her teammate surprised the judges and fellow contestants, and she was sent to Last Chance Kitchen in a controversial decision. Before arriving at Top Chef Tanya was already an icon in the food world, particularly as a prominent black female chef whose Oakland brunch hotspot Brown Sugar Kitchen recently earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Her creole heritage has informed her modern take on soul food, refined by time working for Michel Sarran and Jean-Michel Bouvier in France and years working at Mesa Grill. Holland emailed us about her time on Top Chef and some of the unique struggles a black woman faces both in the competition and the cooking world at large.
Food & Wine: You seemed pretty “over it” by the time you packed your knives. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened with Claudette during the elimination challenge?
Tanya Holland: I was over it the minute the teams were picked. For me, things didn’t begin at Judges Table. It began when the teams were formed and the three bears were all on one team. It’s the continuation of the bro culture. In my experience, in this world right now, white guys have an advantage. In their training, they’ve been given access and tools that I haven’t. White men get behind each other and empower themselves. Duh! Look at our president. But I’m not whining and I’m not a victim…I get up every day and attack the world face on and big smile first, but many can’t handle it.
Claudette wasn’t a team player at all. She’s pushy and I called her that to her face at Judges Table. She asked for my support, which I gave her, but refused to give any to me. And, unfortunately, Chris was of no use at all.
F&W: What dish would you have made for the speed challenge had that been assigned to you?
TH: I probably would have done a creole shrimp and grits.
F&W: You mentioned a couple times the stress of managing the egos of the other chefs, what were some of the problems in the household we don’t get to see?
TH: There was a lot of chest puffing and name dropping. I’ve just always believed that a little humility goes a long way. I could tell them every influential culinary contact I have on speed dial and all that I’ve accomplished…Tanya Holland Day…key to the City…CA Chef of the Year…blah, blah, blah, but what’s the point?
F&W: How did you adjust your cooking style for the competition?
TH: The biggest challenge for me is that I spend a lot of time with my proteins in my restaurant…marinating, smoking, braising, etc. and there’s no time to do that on Top Chef.
F&W: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
TH: I’m on a mission to inspire and make an impact in the industry for women of color. I didn’t have same gender/race mentors and so I feel it’s my duty to be this example. I’ve paid my dues and I need people who can get behind me who can recognize that and are also willing to pay their dues. But I’ve paid my dues as a black woman. #twiceaslong
F&W: Did you have a strategy coming into the show?
TH: Nope. I was just being my authentic self. And it wasn’t like I was going to acquire a new skill set in the amount of time between when I was cast and when I competed.
F&W: What were some unexpected things you had to deal with coming into the competition as a more seasoned chef?
TH: Sometimes the pantry wasn’t stocked as I would want, with basics. I also didn’t expect such immaturity from my colleagues.
F&W: What was your favorite dish you made on the show?
TH: I really liked my chicken and waffles…the flavor wasn’t announced, but they were cheddar chili and the syrup was blueberry…it was a great savory and sweet combo with the fried chicken.
F&W: Who are you rooting for to win the competition?
TH: I really like both of the Joes and think they’re both talented. And they’re nice guys and humble. I’m also rooting for Adrienne…have to support my sister women of color.
F&W: What was your favorite challenge on the competition?
TH: I liked cooking for the kids with the small equipment. That made me crack up and made the challenge fun in a silly way. Even though I don’t have my own kids, I enjoy them in small doses. Hehehe.
F&W: What was something you wish you could have shown the judges but didn’t get a chance to?
TH: I always wish there was more time to have with the proteins. I know that I’m really good at developing flavors over time and keeping them clean and delicious. I have a big repertoire, but with this amount of time…
F&W: Do you feel like you deserved to go home? If not, who?
TH: Of course not. I know that Claudette didn’t get everything on her plate so she really didn’t complete the challenge either and it was unfair that my teammates didn’t perform as a team.
F&W: Would you ever come back for another season? If so, what, if anything, would you do differently?
TH: Probably not. It’s not how I like to interact with food and I don’t really like to hang out with chefs all day.
F&W: Do you have a strategy going into Last Chance Kitchen?
TH: None at all.