Z2C #13: David Tanis – A Cooking Case Study

Z2C #13: David Tanis – A Cooking Case Study

Frequently called “one of the greatest chefs you’ve never heard of,” David Tanis is a rare type of restaurant chef.

Tanis’ food is best described as simple, yet surprising. In a time when the molecular gastronomical creations of the Ferran Adrià’s of the world are making headlines, you have to wonder where such celebrated, yet simple cooking came from.

It certainly wasn’t cooking school.

A Unique Style

Even if his name is new to you, perhaps you are acquainted with the acclaimed restaurant where he has long served as co-Chef: Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.

Waters’ praise shows an almost maternal affection for Tanis, and why not? Few embody her vision of harmoniously simple cuisine better.

Describing Tanis’ cooking as having a “radical simplicity,” she says that “he understands that creating a meal means creating your own reality, and he embodies that principles, week after week.’

So Where Did He Come From?

Home. (basically)

As a child, he snuck into the kitchen to make snacks for his siblings. He experimented with baking with only the guidance of the New York Times. In college, he “gave up studying almost completely” to soak up morsels of kitchen wisdom from the school chef.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in anything, and Tanis has certainly put in his time. But unlike the Mario Batalis of the world, who find the most prestigious restaurants to apprentice in, Tanis was schooled in the world of everyday cooking.

Haute Home Cooking

When you cook for the same people everyday, “simple, yet surprising” is exactly what you need.

Tanis simply does “what needs to be done and nothing more.” It may sound old-fashioned, but this is what turns his dishes from raw ingredients to art.

Whether prepared by him personally or another following his recipes, Tanis’ dishes celebrate the individual taste of the ingredients, instead of altering, remixing, and renovating them.

A Perfect Fit

There could be no better home for the Tanis touch than Alice Water’s Chez Panisse.

Chez Panisse is in a category of its own. Before I even knew exactly what it was, I knew that “the birthplace of California cuisine” was something special.

Their own website tells the story beautifully: “from the beginning, Alice and her partners tried to do things the way they would like them done at a dinner party at home, with generosity and attention to detail.”  Every night, only one menu is served and it changes daily.

What could be more similar to home cooking?

A Restaurant Chef Who Still Cooks at Home

Perhaps because he didn’t go to culinary school, Tanis actually knows how to cook without a “team of sous-chefs backing [him] up.” And it sounds like that is what he prefers.

“Yes, I’m a restaurant chef, and I do enjoy cooking for strangers, but I don’t want to go to a restaurant on my days off…I’ve always preferred to cook at home for friends. Cooking at home is a different experience entirely from the stressful work of restaurant cooking.”

Tanis relates in the preface to his inspiring book, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes.

If even such highly acclaimed chefs treasure cooking at home for friends, we should be glad that we all have the same opportunity.

What We Can Learn from David Tanis

Often, the most impressive food is the most simple.

Presentation counts, but what the eaters of the world care about most is flavor. You don’t need to turn an asparagus in a flan or gel to make your guests or family happy (or impressed).

But most importantly, the experience of cooking and enjoying the fruits of your labor is the best thing you can share with your guests.

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