Friday, November 19, 2010

Dishing with David Tanis: The Heart of a Chef

What could I possibly have in common with David Tanis, co-chef at Chez Panisse? The chef that Michael Pollan so eloquently praises. “There are many chefs in America more famous than David Tanis,” Pollan says, “but there are few, if any, who are more gifted.”

Not much, I was certain. He's a “real” chef. I just cook for my blog, my family and a few cooking classes here and there. Chef Tanis spends half of each year in crunchy California whipping up dishes at Alice Waters' famous retaurant, and the other half in creamy-dreamy France throwing dinner parties, and tops it all with a healthy splash of traveling. I am a midwest girl; I grew up in Ohio, and now reside in Wisconsin. I spend time cleaning up after dinner for a family of four, and rack up most my travel miles driving to my kids' playdates and soccer games.

I had the great fortune of meeting David Tanis at Roots Restaurant and Cellar in Milwaukee, WI. Thanks to an invitation from Paul Fredrich of Burp!, I was among a few food bloggers who showed up to meet and talk to Chef Tanis at the blogger junket (or, as Chef Tanis said, the “jogger blunket.”), where he was promoting his new cookbook, Heart of the Artichoke. His cookbook features menus designed around each season, and are beautifully simple, while rich and elegant. The photography is stunning.

Our motley crew included Nicole from On My Table and Neil from Stream of Consciousness, Anna from Tallgrass Kitchen, as well as Paul, Chef Tanis and his publicist. We never did decide what a “junket” was, but had a great time chatting around Roots' large table and sampling food from their impromptu and glorious lunch menu. Many of us favored the delicious blue corn crusted perch sandwich with bacon relish. Both the maple-dressed frisee salad with cheddar dressing, and the breaded egg salad with greens and a biscuit were popular sides.

Chef Tanis acknowledged he has come along way since his meals of tater-tots and chicken nuggets as a youth in Ohio. Wait, did I say Ohio? Why, that's what we have in common!

When Chef Tanis mentioned that he grew up in Dayton, Ohio, I immediately wondered if he had spent time in my hometown, Yellow Springs, which is less than 30 minutes from Dayton. Indeed he had. Yellow Springs is known for many things, including hippies, vegans, artists, the Glen Helen, Antioch College, a sweater the townspeople knit for a tree, and it's liberal vibe—oh yeah, and another famous Dave(id), Dave Chappelle.

Within minutes we were fondly recalling nighttime tromps through the Glen, a small nature preserve, followed by midnight runs to Young's Dairy for 10-cent day-old donuts (yes, mom, it's time to confess that's what I did during my teen years). He remembered the Little Art Theater which shows wonderful foreign and art films, and the summer eco-camps at the Glen, where I had been a camp counselor, though not while he was there. It took me back to cherished days in a great town, and down the roads that led to the very table I shared with a great chef and other foodies and bloggers. Cool! It was inspiring to realize that Chef Tanis traveled some of those same roads.

During our casual conversation around the table, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions, and hear his words of wisdom as he casually, and with great humor, talked about cooking, the local food movement, traveling and life. Between the questions, the topic meandered from the importance of eating locally, to ways to get kids involved in healthy cooking and eating, to the food blogging craze—and whether Chef Tanis should start a food blog (yes! we all agreed).

Chef Tanis on France

He enjoys taking a breather from fast-paced restaurant cooking while away from Chez Panisse, but says he loves cooking for friends, family and the occasional dinner party at his private dining club, Aux Chiens Lunatiques, in France, cooking in his very small kitchen. “It would be sad to walk through the markets in Paris and not be able to buy or cook anything.” He admittedly enjoys the slower pace of life there. You mean the 2-hour lunch breaks? I might like that, too!

Chef Tanis on “fusion” food

He prefers to keep various culture's cuisine separate, and to exercise restraint in order to show off the distinct flavor of each cuisine. Drawing on his experience cooking around the world and in different regions of the U.S., his cookbook provides many wonderfully diverse recipes, while emphasizing seasonal menus, local ingredients and fresh flavors. Just to be sure, I made his Raviolone with Butternut Squash and Sage-Butter Sauce. Divine!

Chef Tanis on cookbooks and recipes

He says that recipes in his books are his “take on a traditional recipe. There's originality in the book. Dishes are public domain, but you extract from those recipes to make your own.” He wanted to write a cookbook that would inspire people to cook, rather than write a detailed how-to with specific step-by-step instructions. I'd say he succeeded. Very well.

Chef Tanis on cooking seasonally

It's natural, he says, 'We just forgot how.” He joined the bloggers in saying how glad he was that more stores were providing locally grown options. It just makes sense.

Chef Tanis' 5 essential ingredients

Salt, garlic, olive oil, chile and wine. I could live with that.

Chef Tanis on learning to cook

Everyone can cook, David says. “Except those people who don't have the gene.” Not to name names, Drummer Man, but I know a few of those!

Chef Tanis on food blogging

As each of us pulled out our cameras to snap a picture of our meal, he said, “Can't people just enjoy their meal? What happened to just eating without blogging and taking pictures?” Chef Tanis, you're so French!

His path and mine have crossed twice now (though I never met him in Ohio); what's to say I can't become a world renowned chef—if I want to? I guess we'll just have to see where this road takes me.


Neil F. said...

Great recap of a fun lunch. Glad I could be part of the motley crew!

Chow and Chatter said...

great post he seems like an amazing chef and person

Dan said...

It sounds like it was a great event. I wish I could have come.

Lo said...

So fun to read your recap -- especially since I couldn't make it to lunch that day! Glad you were able to join Paul & the gang. Sounds like it was a positively delicious experience!