Epicure: David Tanis, simple elegant cooking | January 30, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Living - January 30, 2009

Epicure: David Tanis, simple elegant cooking

by Jacqui Love Marshall

David Tanis' latest cookbook, "A Platter of Figs," opens with a pointed question: "Do you really need a recipe for figs?"

"No," he answers, and explains: "Is that the point? Yes."

Tanis adds to his rhetorical remarks: "Does it have to be more complicated than that? Not really. Yet to serve figs, you need to know about ripeness and seasonality and you need to know your figs."

Tanis builds his cookbook on the premise that each meal should be created as its own small masterpiece - simple, tasteful and built upon the freshest ingredients available.

In the Bay Area and, in fact, throughout North America, Chez Panisse is a top-of-mind gourmet restaurant, and Alice Waters is a culinary icon of all things sustainable, local and organic. Yet few people, even foodies, know David Tanis as creative chef extraordinaire. Tanis spent many years at Chez Panisse, first as chef of the upstairs cafe, then as chef of the downstairs restaurant.

Now, for six months of the year, Tanis lives in Paris, playing in his own kitchen and generating private dinners for 12 as the mood strikes in his 6-by-10-foot galley. For the other half of the year, he is head chef at Chez Panisse, creating its consistently delectable menus of three to five unique courses daily. During his half-yearly tour of duty, Tanis has complete run of the Chez Panisse kitchen while Waters serves as taster/tester.

Waters says of Tanis: "David is a cook, but an artist, and there are so few of them in the world. I can count them on one hand."

Tanis is the kind of chef I aim to be, creating unpretentious yet elegant dishes. Tanis says it plainly: "Most people try to do too much or things that are too complicated. These menus are ... as much about eating as cooking." Amen.

The recipe below is my adaptation of one of Tanis' dishes, simplified even more than his own. Bon appetit!

Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.


Jacqui's Adapted Wild Salmon with Spicy Vietnamese Cucumbers (serves 4-5)

2 pounds wild salmon

Olive oil

Mint, cilantro, basil sprigs

Lime wedges

Salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place at-room-temperature salmon on a baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Rub a little oil into the fish.

2. Bake 20-25 minutes, until juices rise to surface and barely cooked through the thickest part. Transfer to a platter and let rest for about five minutes. Garnish with line wedges and herbs. Serve with the cucumbers, which are to be spooned over the fish.

Spicy Vietnamese Cucumbers

2 large cucumbers

Fish sauce (Nuoc mam or Nam Pla)

1/2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thin slices

1-3 Tbsp palm sugar (available at Asian or Indian grocers, or use raw brown sugar)

1-2 limes

1-2 Fresh Thai chilies (or serranos or jalapenos), finely chopped

A few mint sprigs

A few basil sprigs

1-2 thinly sliced scallions

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Peel cucumbers, cutting them in half lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop out any seeds. Slice cucumbers into thick half-moon pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle lightly with fish sauce, add ginger and a tablespoon of palm sugar. Toss well and let cucumbers sit for about 5 minutes.

2. Add a teaspoonful of the chopped chilies; add juice from one lime. Toss again, cover and refrigerate until serving.

3. Before serving, add a handful of torn or chopped mint and basil leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional lime juice, salt and pepper.

Note: If you prefer a non-spicy version, eliminate the chilies and substitute various minced herbs, e.g., parsley, dill, basil, mint, chives to toss with cucumbers.