Water, Fire, Knife: David Tanis Discusses the Pleasures of Basic Cooking

Chef David Tanis, author of the widely beloved cookbooks Heart of the Artichoke and A Platter of Figs met with PopMatters to discuss his third cookbook, the recently released One Good Dish. We met in Berkeley, California, next door to Chez Panisse, where he shared downstairs chef duty with Jean-Pierre Moullé for 25 years.

PopMatters: I like the book’s design (One Good Dish has no dust jacket). So many cookbooks seem destined for the coffee table rather than the kitchen.

David Tanis: Well, it was done for design reasons—the designs are moving away from dustcovers. In the old days, people added dustcovers to books. It was a cottage industry, back when books were important.

This one has a nice size and feel; the cut size is smaller. It’s shorter than the other two. Less verbiage. I wanted each recipe to fit on one page.

One Good Dish, with its emphasis on small plates, is a departure from your other two books.

Fig is menus for eight to ten, with rituals at the beginning for one to two eaters, with the end being feasts for a long table Artichoke is for four to six eaters. I wanted a departure. I wanted a change. You can’t keep singing the same song forever.

I noticed the change of photographers from Christopher Hirscheimer, who did the photography in the first two books, to Gentl and Hyers.

We had a small production window—eight days of photos, all shot in February. All of my book have been shot in winter, usually in February. I do all the food for the photos. There are no stylists, just me. The same for the New York Times (where Tanis writes a weekly column). The photographer comes to my house.

I don’t want the food to look “style-y”. I want it to look real and edible. The cookbook is supposed to be used. If it’s good reading, that’s good, too.

In Heart of the Artichoke you write “Pure and healthy ingredients are essential to good cooking. I encourage all cooks to do the best they can in this regard.” In One Good Dish, you advise cooks in remote areas to reach to the back of the fridge chest or ask for the most recently shipped items.

But we are literally sitting next door to Chez Panisse, where the sustainable eating movement began, where we have access to some of the best meat, fish, and produce in the country. What would you say to readers and cooks in the middle of the country who lack access to fresh, high-quality ingredients?

Access to good food is getting better. All supermarkets have organic sections now, though how they are maintained is another story. The vocabulary of what people eat has changed; twenty years ago you never heard about arugula. Now it’s entered the national vocabulary.

On that note, what advice would you give novice cooks? And by novices, I also mean those without much money, and with limited equipment and likely a crummy kitchen.

You mean people who are uncomfortable in the kitchen?


Get creative. Know your limitations. One hot dish is okay. A lot of vegetables taste good at room temperature.

When I first moved to New York City, there was a six month delay delivering my stove. I cooked on a two-burner hot plate and a toaster oven. I gave a lot of dinner parties that way.

Everything in this book is intentionally simple. I wanted it to serve many levels. But you know, they say the best way to learn French is to date a French person. Hook up with somebody who is comfortable in the kitchen and learn from them. The mystery lifts.

I was talking to a woman recently who had to have a recipe with her every time she went into the kitchen. asked her if she needed one to scramble eggs. No, she said. See? I told her. You can cook intuitively.

Food is normal. Cooking is a normal activity. You ought to eat at home. When I worked at Chez Panisse, I never had staff meal. I’d rather go home and put a pot of water on the stove and make spaghetti.

Cooking at home is faster than ordering Chinese take-out—it takes longer, it’s been sitting steaming in the bag for forty minutes.

It’s about pleasure. It’s fun to cook late at night. It’s fun to cook anyway.

One Good Dish is very nearly vegetarian—only one recipe calls for red meat, while there is a little pork and chicken. Could you discuss the turn away from meat-based eating?

I would more call it a celebration of vegetables. Most of the food I like has a vegetable component or is largely vegetables.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little meat. I wanted to do a collection of recipes on one page, and most people know how to make a steak. I’m more of a stew guy, anyway. Any of these dishes could accompany meat. Others could be served together or make a meal themselves. There are a lot of different ways to make a meal.

I have a friend in Sicily I cook with, and we always make a big midday meal and then have a siesta. At night, sometimes she’ll say, I’m not that hungry. I’m having a globe artichoke, or leftover lentil salad. We did a dinner last night at a restaurant, and they prepared several dishes from the book. The biggest hit was the Moroccan Carrot Salad. People are attracted to vegetables when they’re good.

You’ve always been stridently anti-technology in the kitchen, yet a few recipes in this new book actually call for a food processor! Do tell!

They did? Which ones? Well, I did buy a new blender, because mine was twenty years old, and it came with… (makes a small cupping motion).

A minichopper?

Yeah. I never use it. Too many parts! What a hassle to wash! When in doubt, use a mortar and pestle. It’s still water, fire, knife, cutting board…Though there’s not much fire in this.

Is that because of your experience living in New York?

No, I wanted to take away any intimidation that might exist. For some people, the three course meals (in the other two books) were like a fairy tale. Something to think about more than cook. Or to do on the weekend or for a special night. This is for every day of the week. I mean, the garlic soup just needs water. It takes ten minutes. One good dish is great. Two or three make a picnic.

I’m in the middle of Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves. What are your thoughts on the “extreme eating” movement?

There are serious people like Fergus Henderson and Jennifer McLagan trying to get people to appreciate organ meats. You yourself wrote an entry called “Bring Back Tongue” in Heart of the Artichoke, and have promoted tripe.

Then there are people who view these foods as the culinary equivalent of a mosh pit.

I don’t want to sound like a cranky old fart on this or anything else. The line is blurry. It’s great that there’s a whole new generation of young cooks excited about cooking, and people in their twenties and thirties are now way more interested in food. But if you’re going out to eat, food is theatre now.

There’s nothing wrong with pushing boundaries, that’s good… but revolutions, if that’s what we’re in, are always messy.

Finally, is there a question you always wished an interviewer would ask but never has?

No. There are questions I wish people wouldn’t ask, or questions I have a better answer for later, or not that question again. But never one I wish they’d ask.