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David Tanis on Writing, Restraint, and Leaving Chez Panisse

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The chef David Tanis first toyed with the notion of becoming a writer while in college. As you might figure, he chose cooking instead. But he's always engaged that realm, working on and off at Chez Panisse, traveling all over, and living between Paris, New York, and San Francisco — experiences that have informed both his cooking and his written work. He is the author of two successful cookbooks and is now preparing a third, and since June he has been writing a weekly column in the New York Times for urban home cooks.

Come November, he will formally say goodbye to Chez Panisse to pursue writing full-time. I had a chance to talk to Tanis about the decision to move on, his projects and philosophy, and Chez Panisse's legacy.

Where are you right now?
At the moment I'm in Berkeley, California, in the fog and cold.

People often refer to you as "a nomad," so I'm wondering if you could walk us through your work and travel routine these days.
Well, it's about to change. The last several years I've been doing six months working as a chef at Chez Panisse, and the other six months doing writing and traveling. At the end of November, I will be taking leave. Well, not really taking leave — I'll be saying "bye" to Chez Panisse, I should say, and moving to New York. Right now I'm doing about ten things at once, so I look forward to maybe having just two or three things to handle at a time.

You'll be concentrating on writing mostly?
Yes. I have a cookbook in the works, and then I have this weekly column in the New York Times, which is getting more and more interesting.

Before I ask you about the column, what can you tell me about the book?
It's going to be book number three, but it's still a secret. I can give you a little bit: in the Heart of the Artichoke, there's a section in the beginning called "Kitchen Rituals," which includes all of these quirky little things that I do and other people might do in the kitchen. That will be the slant of this book. I can tell you that much. It's not only a secret from you, as it remains very much a secret from me.

How did the column come about?
I guess how it came about was that my friend Christine Muhlke was talking to Pete Wells at The Times one day — this was before she moved to Bon Appétit — and I must have come up in conversation. Then Pete and I began talking, and it took about six months to get to the point where we could move forward.

The concept, for those that might not know?
The concept for the column is big city, small kitchen, busy cook. It's designed for people who want to and like to cook at home, like me. I love cooking in restaurants, but I'd prefer to cook at home for friends or family. It seems like every kitchen I work in is small and has limited equipment — and I like that. So, basically, I'm encouraging people to do something that so many don't even know or remember how to do: make something at home.

Are the recipes more Chez Panisse or more you? And, for lack of a better word, are they dumbed down?
I don't know that there's a way to dumb down a recipe. There's certainly a way to complicate it. My food is very simple, in any case. I wouldn't say the recipes are terribly Chez Panisse, but that restaurant is also known for its simplicity. My food tends to be a little bit more international, while Chez Panisse is strictly Mediterranean.

What do you mean by "international"?
Everywhere I've traveled and any kind of cooking I like to eat: Asia, North Africa, South America, and Mexico.

How is it getting more interesting?
I'm just six or so weeks into it, and what I'm concentrating on now is fairly simple summer dishes that have a lot of flavor and require a pretty short investment of time. But as we get into winter, I envision the dishes getting slightly more complex. Still, in all, many people try to do too much when they cook, which ends up making them unhappy. In a small kitchen, you need to streamline your approach.

One thing I am trying to maintain and encourage is for people to let themselves be open to finding things at the market. Most of the time, I don't know what I'm going to make until I go and see what's available. It's nice to sometimes throw out the plan when you're keeping your eyes open for other interesting, exciting things.

Back to Chez Panisse: what motivates this decision to leave permanently?
I've been there a very long time, off and on, over the space of thirty years. While it feels like home, sometimes it's good to leave home. I've come to enjoy writing more and more. In college, I thought I'd end up going in that direction, but instead chose cooking — or "me" or something. But I kept exploring that side here and there, and then based upon the success of the cookbooks, here we are.

Chez Panisse is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. This month, in fact. Having been there for most of those years, I wanted to make sure that I was around for that celebration. This is one of those places where you can run away and then come back, and Alice has sort of seen this coming. In the 90s I went away for a few years to New Mexico and opened a restaurant, then I came back for a few years, and then in 2001 I ran away to Paris. This last phase has lasted five or six years, and it has been lovely, but now it's time to run away again. It's just that this time I don't think I'll be coming back in any permanent way, despite Alice's persuasiveness.

Oh yes. We're a family and this is a place like no other.

Do you think Chez Panisse will remain a part of the conversation or, as it hits this landmark anniversary, does it go deeper and deeper into "institution" territory?
I'd say it's a little bit of both. It is without question an institution, as people make pilgrimages to get to the place where "something happened" once before. But the thing is that we have had a constantly changing staff over the years. Every new cook brings a new approach. So even though we are all working toward a similar goal and within the same historic place, it's kind of like handwriting: you give two people the same ingredients and recipe and you'll still end up with two different outcomes.

But it does remain current to the conversation. For one, the menu changes every day, and that I think speaks to the commitment to making something good. Also, especially in the last ten years, the restaurant has become involved with so many causes; great chefs these days are expected to respond to social needs.

But I don't think you'll see very modern cooking at Chez Panisse.

That sort of leads me to something David Kinch mentioned a few months ago in an interview we did. He obviously loves and admires Chez Panisse, but he said, "The Zuni Café, the Chez Panisse way of approaching food, is 20th century." What's your take on a statement like that?
I could talk about this for hours and hours. I met David Kinch at a food conference in France a couple of years ago, and we hung out. He's a lovely man. He's a classically trained cook, steeped in French technique. But he's also a proponent of new techniques and kinds of cooking that require lots of machines. It's just one kind of cooking.

Do you enjoy that?
I have an appreciation for every kind of cooking, but I think that food needs an anchor of some sort.

What do you mean by "anchor"?
It needs a cultural anchor. It needs to be attached, somehow, to a tradition. If you're making pasta, the anchor is some kind of Italian element. You may very well decide not to use it, but you know it's there.

Do I think it's a bad idea for you to take spaghetti and use all Asian ingredients? No, I don't think it's a bad thing at all, because there's a cultural anchor there in Asia, and it ends up making sense. My problem with some modern cooking is that some modern cooks show no restraint. Where seven ingredients might be perfect, seven more are added, and often not to the benefit of the dish.

It's a tendency to over-complicate that you take issue with?
"Complicate" is a funny word. I was in the middle of this whole "fig on a plate" debate, which was sparked by David Chang. Since my first book was called A Platter of Figs, it resonated with me [laughs]. I completely understand what he was suggesting. If I'm going to a restaurant, I don't necessarily want something I can make at home. I want something that is either more complicated or more interesting than what I can do myself.

So, there's complex and then there's complex. I guess I would say, "Go ahead and complicate. But don't get too complicated."

If I'm getting you right, you'd say he was onto something but that it wasn't totally fair?
You have to know how to pick the right figs. Your platter of figs can be just about the fig on the plate, but it can also have about a dozen other elements. And I would use them. I think there is a way to add interest to food without using a big hammer.

Before we wrap up, I have to ask if you're done cooking in restaurant kitchens for good.
I've had a fantasy of opening a little place.

Where? What kind of place?
The fantasy changes. Even though I don't like the word "pop-up," I'm glad that this phase is happening. My dream has been to have this restaurant in a box, kind of like the circus, and then close up at the end of the summer. But if that doesn't pan out, I wouldn't mind having a tiny little place somewhere.

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Chez Panisse

1517 Shattuck Avenue Berkeley, CA 94709

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