David Tanis has the best of both worlds. For six months of the year, he's the head chef Chez Panisse, the groundbreaking restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. The other half of the year he lives in Paris, where he hosts dinner parties of international renown in a galley kitchen with a rickety stove, small sink and a half-dozen well-used pans.
His new cookbook, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, is a collection of seasonal menus for private meals for one, medium-sized dinner parties and large feasts. Setting down in Vancouver last week, he shared tips on avoiding some of the trickier holiday-hosting thistles and finding the sweet spot of entertaining.
The last time we talked, you pulled a jalapeno out of your pocket. I thought you were just happy to meet me, so to speak. But it wasn't a joke. You write about this ritual of travelling with provisions in the book. Please explain.
No, I wasn't joking. I always travel with jalapenos. Good food on the road is hard to find and what there is often needs a little help. I like to use chilies in everything, but often in a restrained way. People think chili peppers are just hot, but they're much more. They have a vegetal sweetness, a richness. A little bit of chili will perk up a dish just enough, even delicate egg or pasta dishes.
You're an earthy guy. You like to cook with cast iron and serve on stoneware platters. How do you reconcile this traditional side of your personality with a love of Ziploc freezer bags? In the book you call them a "genius invention."
I am a romantic, rustic, old-fashioned type of cook. But there are certain modern conveniences I appreciate. I mean we all have refrigerators and freezers. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with home canning. It's a beautiful thing to do. And I would never cook in plastic. But in a busy world, Ziploc freezing is a good way to go. It's great for stock, or ripe summer tomatoes.
What is the Society for the Protection of Long-Cooked Stews?
It's a little club I'm forming. Because people don't realize that long-simmered meat braises and stews are really the most delicious. They're great for a dinner party because most stews can be prepared the day before and the flavours improve overnight
Let's talk more about dinner parties. In the feast section of your book, you say it's 'unnecessarily complicated to serve a first course of a soup or a salad with all the attendant bowls and plates.' But isn't it more awkward, or perhaps even rude, to have your guests nibble on their appetizers while standing up, as you suggest?
Everyone has to develop their own style of entertaining. I tend to favour a more casual style. It's sometimes nice to nibble in the kitchen with a drink and then retire to the table for the main course. Most people try to do too much. They tend to overcomplicate things.
Any other hosting tips?
Keep it seasonal. I would never serve asparagus in November. It doesn't taste good. Don't try to make a complicated restaurant dish at home. Home cooking needs to be doable. You want to be relaxed. I would also recommend getting friends to help you. Everyone loves to help and it makes it more fun. There's no shame in saying, 'Can you give me a hand here? Can you chop the parsley?'
What's the No. 1 mistake to make at a dinner party?
Don't try a dish you've never cooked before. You should be familiar with what you're cooking. Cook what you're comfortable with and try not to overcomplicate things. Keep it simple.
Are there any fail-safe dishes in the book you could recommend?
The technique I give for [deconstructed]turkey is a really good technique. It is pretty fail-safe. With turkey you always have the problem of a dry breast and stringy legs because they don't really cook at the same rate. Although it's nice to see a whole bird on the table, it's not the best way to cook it. What I do is braise the legs and make the gravy around the legs. And then roast the breast separately to keep it moist. If you're queasy about taking a turkey apart, go find a nice butcher and make friends.
What are the essential tools for every kitchen?
A sharp knife, a mortar and pestle. Some people like food processors. I just don't like processing food. I don't even like the way it sounds. If I have to use an electrical appliance, I'll use an electric blender, which is useful for soups and salsas. But, generally speaking, I like to use my hands.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Start with sweet, ripe garden tomatoes that actually taste like something. Put whole tomatoes, skin and all, into a Ziploc freezer bag. Squash the tomatoes in the bag to release the air and make the bag flat. When you thaw your tomatoes, the skin will come off easily, and you'll have peeled tomatoes all year long, fresher tasting than from a can. And always ready for a quick tomato sauce, a soup or a stew.
From David Tanis's Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, published by Thomas Allen & Son Ltd.
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