David Tanis on moving on from Chez Panisse

What does the former chef of a place people practically worship think of home cooking? David Tanis was raised in the house of Chez Panisse: Tanis went from humble fill-in baker to heading the restaurant's kitchens on and off for more than 25 years.

Alice Waters' Chez Panisse opened its doors in 1971. The restaurant focused on honest food made from seasonal ingredients produced sustainably and locally long before "Eat local" became a national movement.

Tanis, who is passionate about home cooking, left Chez Panisse to write, among other things, the City Kitchen column for The New York Times. He is the author of One Good Dish.

On Chez Panisse

JJ Goode: I think it’s hard for a lot of us who got into food 10 or 20 years ago to imagine how novel a restaurant like Chez Panisse was when you worked there. Today so many restaurants embrace the Chez Panisse ethos. What made it so different when you started working there?

David Tanis
David Tanis (Photo: Andrea Gentl)

David Tanis: Back in the dark ages?

JJG: Back in the dark ages. How long ago was it?

DT: This is still the dark ages. I think I began working there in the '80s, but the restaurant opened in the early '70s, at which point I was already friends with Alice and a lot of people who worked there.

There weren’t any restaurants like that at that point. There wasn’t any great produce to be had. There were good home cooks; there were some high-end "continental" restaurants; then there was the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf-type restaurant. But as far as honest cooking and something that wasn’t high French, it was peasant French and run by a bunch of really smart college dropouts.

JJG: Was it?

DT: Essentially. They weren’t all dropouts, but they were essentially people whose parents imagined they would go on to careers as lawyers and doctors. They said, "Let’s open a restaurant."

JJG: So you found your way there. Had you been cooking beforehand in restaurants?

DT: Yes. I had some restaurant experience before I worked at Chez Panisse. At the point when I began working there, I was working as a bread baker. That’s the way I got in actually. I had known Alice for years, but she wasn’t that interested in hiring me for whatever reason. But when their bread baker went on vacation -- at that point they were making all their own bread in-house -- I substituted for him while he was gone.

Then I stayed. Then over the course of 25 years or more, I would have stints at Chez Panisse for short periods, then go off to New Mexico for a period, then come back, then go to Paris for a period and come back.

JJG: That’s how it was the whole time -- you asking Alice for a little leave?

DT: It’s just the way things worked out. But when you talk about Chez Panisse as being a novel restaurant, it still is because of that kind of flexibility. I asked for a raise one year and they said, "No, we’re going to send you to Europe for 3 months." It was an eye-opening experience for me. That kind of flexibility is something that’s part of the culture there.

JJG: At some point you developed a really interesting arrangement with Alice and the restaurant.

DT: In the last few years. Now that arrangement has sadly finished because I’m now beginning to figure out what I should be when I grow up. I decided to leave Chez Panisse and move onward.

But for a number of years, I would split the job of the downstairs chef -- downstairs being the slightly fancier restaurant, upstairs being the cafe -- with Jean-Pierre Moullé who also had worked there. Actually, he started before I did. I was living in Paris at the time, so I would come from Paris to California and spend 6 months. When I was there he would go -- he’s French so he would go to Bordeaux and spend the summer at Arcachon -- so we would flip that way.

The whole idea of having two chefs is something that Alice was always interested in. For one thing it meant that there were more voices in the conversation essentially. I actually completely believe in that because you end up with a better product. I’m all for somebody having a better idea than me. Or we bat it back and forth and suddenly from a good dish it becomes a great dish.

JJG: Do you remember any dishes that took shape that way -- or are there too many to count?

DT: Too many to count.

On home cooking

JJG: At some point you finally decided to leave altogether, as you said, "to figure out what you wanted to be when you grew up." What do you want to be when you grow up?

DT: I don’t know, but I thought a little break from the professional kitchen would be good. I’m really passionate about home cooking. In the past several years I’ve been writing cookbooks. But the cookbooks are meant for home cooks -- they’re not fancy, chef-y cookbooks at all.

I really think that one of the saddest things about modern times is that people don’t know how to cook anymore. People don’t cook at home. That’s a broad generalization, but I think it could be said to be true especially in the U.S. It’s important; things begin to unravel when people don’t cook at home. I don’t know why.

Scorched Sweet Peppers and Onions
Tanis' recipe: Scorched Sweet Peppers and Onions (Photo: Gentl & Hyers)

JJG: I noticed in your new book there are several recipes that call for only three or four ingredients: a radish salad with crème fraîche, garlic-wrapped toast. Is there a challenge in writing recipes that are that simple?

DT: Actually everything in the book is a simple recipe. It’s pretty much one recipe, one page, and they’re short. That’s the kind of cooking that I think people can be doing at home -- every meal doesn’t have to be a big orchestra. There can just be a little tune that you sing at home at night when you’re cooking for yourself.

Even when I was working in restaurants, I would always come home and make something for myself after a shift. I didn’t like eating during work, so I’d come home at 11:30 p.m. or midnight and make a really delicious bowl of pasta.

Those are the kinds of things that are in this book. This book is saying, "Maybe you don’t have time to do a three-course meal, but you certainly have time to make one good dish." The process isn’t difficult. You smell the olive oil, you smell the garlic, you make it taste right and you sit down and you eat it whether it’s yourself, yourself and a friend, or a few people. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

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