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One of the greatest chefs you've never heard of

 
VANCOUVER � "Do you really need a recipe for a platter of figs?" David Tanis asks on the opening page of his new cookbook, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes.

"No," he writes. "Is that the point? Yes. Does it have to be more complicated than that? Not really."

So who is this Tanis fellow? And how did he score a publishing deal to write about piling fresh fruit on a platter?

The passionate bohemian is probably one of the greatest chefs you've never heard of. For six months a year, he is the head chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., one of the most famous restaurants in North America.



You may be more familiar with restaurant founder Alice Waters, who is widely revered as the American godmother of all things organic, local and sustainable. But she doesn't actually cook. It is Mr. Tanis and his co-chef who run the kitchen and make it hum.

Mr. Tanis, originally a small-town boy from Dayton, Ohio, has been working alongside her at Chez Panisse on and off since the early seventies, when he hitchhiked to San Francisco and talked his way into a dishwashing shift.

As chef of the upstairs caf� through most of the eighties and the downstairs restaurant since 1997, he has helped define the restaurant's wildly influential style of cooking simple dishes with pure flavours made from the freshest possible seasonal ingredients supplied by local farmers and foragers.

So, yes, Mr. Tanis does have a certain expertise when it comes to serving fresh fruit (with or without a recipe). And his new book, a collection of seasonal dinner-party menus that celebrate the joys of eating and sharing "real" food simply served, embraces much more than figs.

But I'm still not sure whether he covets more recognition.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" he booms out laughing when I asked what it's like to work in the shadow of Alice Waters.

"Well, it's a big shadow, but it's not a bad shadow to be in," he says, still chuckling.

"Of course she gets the multitude of the credit. She's more telegenic, photogenic, all those things," he continues, while gearing up for a cooking demonstration in Vancouver.

He admits to being slightly "restaurant-phobic" and advises groups of more than six to eat at home: "It's more relaxed. It's cheaper. The schedule is flexible. You can have the table all night."

He doesn't seem too comfortable in the spotlight. (At a dinner in his honour later that night, he put off doing his rounds at the other tables for as long as possible.) And he's so laid back he often drifts off mid-thought. "I like it when other people..."

"Finish your sentences?" I offer.

"Exactly," he says, smiling wryly.

At Chez Panisse, Mr. Tanis has carte blanche in the kitchen; Ms. Waters is the official taster.

"Alice's role, a lot, is to be an honest critic about what she sees. It's useful," he says, pausing hesitantly.

"Oh, it's annoying," he adds jokingly (I think). "But don't write that."

Don't feel sorry for Mr. Tanis. For the other six months of the year, he lives in Paris in a 17th-century building that stands in the shadow of the Parthenon.

He and his partner Randal Breski, a long-time ma�tre d'hotel at Chez Panisse, moved on a whim in 2001, after visiting Paris on holiday.

Ms. Waters, reluctant to see him go again (he left for about six years in the nineties to open his own restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M.) came up with a novel solution. He and Jean-Pierre Moull�, who has a summer home in Bordeaux, France, had already been sharing head-chef duties. Instead of splitting the workweek, she suggested they split up the year.

When in France, he and Mr. Breski host a private dining club, Aux Chiens Lunatiques, where they cook simple but sophisticated dinners for 12 in their closet-sized galley kitchen, with only two gas burners, a tiny sink and a fireplace in the living room for grilling.

The hours are occasional. "We open when the mood strikes, or when we get requests. Sometimes it's once a month, sometimes twice, sometimes more."

The original book proposal, tentatively titled Paris Dinners, was based on menus from the dinner salon. But then the freedom fries protest erupted in the United States in response to France's stance on the Iraq war, and his publisher said forget it.

Thus, the book evolved more broadly to include all sorts of three- and four-course menus (six for each season) geared to dinner for eight to 10 people. The New York Times recently hailed it as the "most alluring and useful" cookbook in a heavy crop of books by restaurant cooks published this fall.

Each menu is accompanied by intimate anecdotes, from a breakfast of crusty bread and olive oil wolfed down with little glasses of fiery liquor after a night of dancing in Seville, Spain, to a parsnip epiphany experienced at the table of an American farm wife he met as a young vagabond in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the recipes are as simple as the title suggests - roasted figs tossed with thyme, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, pears with a hunk of parmesan. Others are more challenging. (You'll need to find good spice shops and markets for many of the dishes.)

But it's chock full of practical tips for teasing the natural flavours out of ripe foods in the right season and taking the fuss out of the kitchen.

"A fine meal doesn't have to be elaborate. And a dinner party doesn't have to be exhausting," says Mr. Tanis, who suggests that every menu be served on platters. "There's an abundance and a generosity about platters. You bring them to the table and you share. It has to be passed from person to person and that makes everyone part of the process.

"Most people try to do too much or do things that are too complicated. These menus are about not having to do that. They're as much about eating as cooking. Mainly, they're about getting your work done so you can join the party

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Tags: Alice Waters , Chefs Jobs , Chez Panisse , French Chefs , Tanis
 


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