“Heart of the Artichoke”
By David Tanis. Artisan, 344 pages.
Part of the Restaurant Eugene Author Dinner Series. See www.restauranteugene.com for information on this occasional culinary celebration of writers and their books.
I like the idea of a dinner party David Tanis-style. You ask one friend to boil the pasta, the other to chop the onions. The first course might be served to all standing up in the kitchen.
Tanis, who is head chef at Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, knows a thing or two about putting on a performance for guests with high expectations. But then, around midnight, he goes home to cook supper for himself and his partner. It’s his way of unwinding and creating something comforting. Home entertaining, he proposed at a gathering of food bloggers and other foodie writers earlier this week, should be just as simple as his midnight suppers — all about enjoying an intimate atmosphere with friends and sitting down together to savor the food.
Tanis was in Atlanta to discuss his latest cookbook, “Heart of the Artichoke,” part of a brilliant new dinner series with authors recently initiated by top local chef Linton Hopkins at his esteemed Restaurant Eugene.
Prior to the evening event, Hopkins had arranged a kind of culinary salon, inviting a small group of food writers to his more casual eatery, Holeman & Finch Public House, to meet Tanis. As Tanis dished, Hopkins cooked a sumptuous lunch of crab-stuffed deviled eggs, crackling-gold roast chicken and jewel-colored root vegetables from recipes in “Heart of the Artichoke.” The book is a beautiful, personal rendition of the fresh, seasonal and wholesome American cuisine that Waters ignited a food revolution around in the 1970s.
Tanis, bearded and bespectacled, seems more professor than cook. His philosophy of casual entertaining was a welcome antidote to my last dinner party, for which I spent two days in the kitchen cooking curries, then seated everyone formally in my dining room and tended to them with the solicitous hostess persona of my mother circa 1975. Doing dinner Tanis’ laid-back California way has the appeal of a communal endeavor. It promises the hostess a chance to climb down from her pedestal as princess and conductor of the evening and breathe a sigh of relief.
So, the food writers wondered, what would Tanis cook for a group of friends? A stew or a braise, he immediately replied, and alluded to a lamb tagine in his book. I mentally nixed the idea, thinking I would need one of those conical Moroccan clay tagine pots that I don’t have. Later, at home, I checked in Tanis’ cookbook and realized that I’d need only a Dutch oven or deep baking dish.
“Heart of the Artichoke” is suffused with an earthiness that comes through in the images of fresh foods laid against dark-grained wooden boards and bowls. The recipes, equally down to earth, keep things uncomplicated, possible, genial, approachable.
But just about every dish shows a little oomph, too. Who would find the inspiration to cook without it? So, Asparagus-Scrambled Eggs isn’t just that — it has a kicker of fresh garlic, basil and mint. Roasted Beet Salad is scented with grated orange zest and fennel seeds. Lacking those elusive perfumes and essences, the food wouldn’t just be simple, it would be plain, bland, humdrum. But laden with too many trendy flavorings and spices, or even worse, with needlessly complicated techniques or vessels, chefs’ cookbooks are often lost on the home cook. Not this one, because Tanis, accustomed to a second wind behind the stove in the middle of the night, knows to go easy on you.
Just as delicious as any course put on the table is the gossip that gets passed around at a meal. Atlanta novelist Susan Rebecca White, whose fiction reveals her passion for gourmet cooking, inquired about Tanis’ friendship with humorist David Sedaris, which she’d just heard about across the table.
It prompted Tanis to recall a memorable, long-ago meal with friends. This was during a trip to Paris about 10 years ago, among a circle of American expats including Sedaris, his partner Hugh, and writer Diane Johnson of “Le Divorce” fame. Sedaris mentioned that he was giving up his Paris apartment and buying a place with the flood of money coming in from his books. He asked if Tanis would like to take over his lease, and that was how Tanis and his partner ended up becoming part-time Parisians. For the past decade, they’ve spent six months of every year in Sedaris’ former apartment near the Pantheon. (Tanis time-shares his job as chef at Chez Panisse with Jean-Pierre Moulle.) Sometimes, a dinner party can even change your life.