David Tanis has always described himself as a restaurant chef who prefers to cook at home. Tanis spent 25 years on and off with farm-to-table/sustainability pioneer Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., before leaving six years ago to write. Simplicity, he says, is key, and it’s the recurring theme of his cookbooks (starting with A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes) and his weekly New York Times column, City Kitchen.
Tanis was in Philadelphia last week to host a dinner at Dizengoff, where chef Henry Morgan used Tanis’ latest cookbook, David Tanis Market Cooking, as inspiration. The book takes the approach of simple serendipity — buy fresh ingredients that strike your fancy and base your meals on that. Before the Diz dinner, we sat down at Reading Terminal Market.
What inspired this book?
I really wanted to focus on vegetables and I really wanted to focus on the market. The market-cooking concept is so old but so forgotten — you go to the market, see what looks good, you buy it, and you take it home. You didn’t necessarily go with the idea, “I’m going down to get a leg of lamb and some green beans.” You go down and you say, “Let me go see what looks good at the market and I’m going to get what looks the best and take it home and that will be the meal.” We’ll make the menu once we get there. Or we’ll throw out that other menu plan because suddenly it’s going to be turnips instead because the turnips are so beautiful.
What is market cooking?
It’s just all about how you shop. The choices that you make. Like, do you want to get in your big car and go to the big-box store and buy a big load of groceries, and take it back and put it in your great big refrigerator, and then do it again the next week? And some people do that, because it makes sense, you know, for their life and their lifestyle and, you know, all the things they need to take care of, and so on and so forth. But let me just use my mind here for a minute. I think it’s more enjoyable to do it in small sessions. But maybe there’s no farmer’s market in your neighborhood or even in your town. There might be a farm stand somewhere, but there might be a little store that sells really beautiful lettuce that’s a lot better looking than the lettuce you can get in your supermarket. You can make a little swing around there, and they might also have really great eggs. That’s market cooking, too.
And the new book?
I wanted to make a book that was really user-friendly. I didn’t want to make a very cheffy book that had beautiful pictures that you would need a crew of five to produce … or it would just sit on the coffee table somewhere looking beautiful. And so I think actually none of the recipes in this book are very complicated. It’s the kind of book that you could give to a beginner cook and they would learn a lot and the recipes wouldn’t be too difficult to master. But you could also give it to a more advanced cook and they’d find inspiration because, well, there’s a whole gamut of vegetables in there. I don’t want to have a food stylist. I want to make the food myself and I want it to taste right because I think when it tastes right, it looks better. But I also want it to look real. I want it to look edible. I want it to look natural. I don’t want it to be handled too much and prettied up too much. But I want it to look gorgeous and attractive and a feeling. Because I want the book to be inspirational, my fantasy is that people will open the book and flip through, a beautiful photograph will catch their eye, and they’ll say, “My gosh, that looks delicious.” And then they’ll look at the recipe and say, “Huh, that doesn’t look so complicated: I think I can make that.”
I suppose a simple kitchen setup is perfectly acceptable.
When I lived in Paris, the kitchen was about as big as this table. And we really did a lot of cooking there. One year, we had 45 people for Thanksgiving, and that supports my idea that you don’t need all the bells and whistles. You need some fire and you need some surface to work on and you need a sharp knife. And everything else is kind of extra.
Are there any food causes near and dear to your heart?
Anything that falls under the sustainability umbrella, those things are important to me. I think my main mission, really, is to get people to cook at home. And that’s my food cause. Because more and more people don’t cook at home. Where I live in New York, people don’t cook at home. They go out for every meal. Or they order in for every meal. And mostly they order in for every meal. You know, so they’re taking a bag of something on the way with the coffee and then they order in for lunch and sit at their desk so they can have some more screen time, and then they go home and turn on the television and order in a pizza. On the other hand, there are some great restaurants in New York, and there’s a lot of people that are really interested in the food scene and want to go out and experience it, but there’s something different about eating at home and cooking at home and cooking. … You go to a restaurant and you’re going to be a little bit on the passive side. And when you’re involved in cooking and feeding people, it’s more active. And sometimes more nurturing.