Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting to the Heart of the Artichoke: Conversations with Chef David Tanis

Early November in Milwaukee is usually cold. However, if we're experiencing a particularly lovely stint of Indian Summer, it can also be amazingly comfortable.

Tuesday was one of those beautiful autumn days that you wish would repeat itself every single day from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. Bright sun, cool breeze. Just Perfect.

You might be wondering why, on Tuesday of all days, I took particular notice of this nice weather. Well, to be honest, the weather here has been great the entire week. But Tuesday was special, because I had the unique opportunity to to enjoy lunch at Roots Restaurant with Chef David Tanis of Chez Panisse.

We were privileged to be contacted by his book publicist a few weeks ago, and she wondered if Burp! would be interested in conducting an interview with Tanis while he was in town for another event. Of COURSE we were interested -- and so we decided to gather up a few of our other blogger friends and invite them to participate in a blogger junket of sorts. We contacted Roots to see if they'd be interested in hosting the luncheon, since their menu (based on local, seasonal produce) seemed to really capture the best of Milwaukee dining.

Tanis has been working at the infamous Chez Panisse Restaurant on and off since the 1980s. These days he acts as co-Chef of the restaurant, splitting the year with his colleague Jean-Pierre Moulle. When he isn't cooking up wonderful things at Chez Panisse, he can be found in Paris, where he hosts a private dining club.

Chef David was in Milwaukee to promote his new book, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys -- a lovely little tome, if I do say so myself. The book includes not only a collection of gorgeous photos and simple-but-delicious recipes, but it also contains memorable and entertaining anecdotes from Tanis' life & culinary adventures.

I arrived at Roots as the afternoon sun began to shine through the clear glass patio windows and glisten off of the bottles sitting along the bar on the back wall. I could hear the sounds of the meat grinder whirring in the background as the staff prepared for dinner service, and I wondered what Chef Paul had in mind for our lunch.

I needn't have worried -- the menu was brief, but fantastic.  It featured items like seasonal maple frisee salad, fried lake perch sandwiches, and a lovely grilled cheese with arugula, sliced pears and mushroom pate.
 As the bloggers wandered in -- first Otehlia from A World of Flavors, then Nicole from On My Table and Neil from Stream of Consciousness... and then Chef Tanis himself and Anna from Tallgrass Kitchen.

Tanis greeted each of us with jovial handshakes. He'd just spent his morning doing a cooking demonstration on Fox 6 News - making (of all things) a simple ham sandwich with a deliciously fresh baguette from La Reve. He mentioned that he was impressed by the high quality of the supermarkets in Milwaukee, and commented that we were fortunate to have access to such great produce & sundries.

We were seated along the southeastern windows of the restaurant -- a perfect place to catch a glance of the lovely Milwaukee city-scape while enjoying the warmth of the sun at our backs.

A few of us came prepared with questions to ask Chef David -- though the conversation flowed more naturally than I would have expected. Tanis seemed quite intrigued by the idea of food blogging, and the blogger culture as it has developed in Milwaukee, as well as across the country. And then, the food was delivered to our table... and everyone pulled out their cameras.
"What's with people taking pictures of their food?" Tanis laughed, "Everyone can't be blogging about their food all the time. Isn't there just a point where you want to unplug and enjoy the moment?"

It's difficult to capture the spirit of what happened at the table -- Our conversation was so casual -- and Chef Tanis so zen about the process of cooking -- we all felt as if we were among friends, rather than gleaning bits of wisdom from one of the great masters of seasonal cooking.

Here are a few highlights that really stuck with me:

"Dishes are public domain," Tanis said, "From there you simply extract the elements from the base and make it your own."

Seasonal cooking:
"It just makes sense. Why would you want asparagus from Peru in the middle of winter when it tastes so great in the early spring when grown locally?"

"There's good food to be found everywhere," Tanis commented. It just takes a bit of legwork to find the little shops -- the nooks and crannies that house local delicacies and homemade products.

The size of a kitchen:
"I like a small kitchen. Everything is within reach and you can't get lost." (Tanis' kitchen in Paris is a minute 6'x10')

Heart of the Artichoke

"The stories and the recipes are really inseparable. They're intertwined. The stories make the book less of a manual and more of an inspirational device for creative cooking."

Tanis also let on that he's contemplating the idea of starting his own blog -- possibly discussing the dinner parties he hosts at his home in France.

Wow. If he does, we're totally there.

Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys is available online through various retailers, though we'd encourage you to patronize your locally owned independent bookshop.

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  1. Such a great write-up of a lovely day! Thank you for including me!

  2. It was a lovely day - great company, great food, and the opportunity to meet an amazing chef.

  3. It sounds amazing. I always loved being able to interview chefs for work--to me, the food is enhanced by the stories that go into it.

  4. wow, he really nailed my feelings on seasonal cooking and resources as well. while i desperately miss things like peaches and cherries in the winter, i'd much rather wait until summer to eat them than buy some tasteless well traveled imitation in january. as for finding good food everywhere - so true! a little legwork can reveal the best local gems.


We're thrilled that you came to visit us here at BURP! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. We're not always able to respond to every comment, but we'll make every effort to answer questions in a timely fashion. We especially enjoy reading about what's going on in your own creative kitchens. So, don't be shy!

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