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David Tanis

The un-chef.

In today’s era of star chefs, David Tanis is definitely under the radar. The author of three cookbooks and the “City Kitchen” column for The New York Times, Tanis made his name working alongside Alice Waters as chef de cuisine at the California restaurant Chez Panisse. The currently New York–based Tanis has legions of fans, yet most today are home cooks.

Though the majority of chef cookbooks seem destined for the coffee table as opposed to the kitchen counter, Tanis’s A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys are filled with refreshingly simple recipes for dishes that you want to—and will—cook. His style is Mediterranean meets Middle Eastern, with the ingredient-focused drive of California cuisine as its foundation and the occasional French bistro dish added for good measure.

“My food isn’t dumbed-down chef’s cuisine,” says Tanis during a visit to Montreal to promote his latest cookbook, One Good Dish: The Pleasures of a Simple Meal. “Every recipe is very simple. I don’t mess up a dish by doing too much to it. It’s not that I want to dissuade enthusiasm as a cook. But I’d rather have a good green salad that’s properly dressed with the leaves picked recently than something overly complicated. So often in restaurants, the job of salad making is given to a beginner who has no idea what a good salad should taste like.”

Tanis admits he’s confused by the direction that restaurant food is headed of late. “I see it going two ways—the first offering a natural presentation, the idea being to more or less leave the ingredient to speak for itself,” he says. “Then on the other end of the spectrum, you see decorative plates, deconstructed food, and reinvented dishes, with many hits and misses and a lot of copycatting. When you take a plate of, say, strawberries presented three ways, one is sure to stand above the others.” On the other hand, Tanis says, “Don’t think that because you bought that strawberry at the market and didn’t do much with it, it will necessarily turn out well either.”

In One Good Dish, Tanis begins with a list of “a few good ingredients”: bread, anchovies, garlic, olives, olive oil, salad greens, salt, fruits, vegetables, and even water. From there he takes us in several directions with dishes like radishes à la crème, clams with fennel and parsley, Mexican corn and squash blossom soup, and persimmon and orange salad with a side of brown-butter financiers, all of which so well represent the pure Chez Panisse aesthetic for which this chef is renowned.

Despite his chef credentials, Tanis is happy at present to be removed from the bustle of the professional kitchen. “I like to reinvent myself every 10 years,” he says. “For now, writing is enjoyable. I’m testing recipes, running around using measuring spoons.” But the idea of cooking professionally once again lingers. Tanis admits that he has been pondering the possibility of opening a restaurant. “My fantasy is to open something small by the water,” he says. “Maybe in Sicily.”

Photos by Gentl & Hyers, excerpted from One Good Dish by David Tanis (Artisan Books) ©2013.