David Tanis — one of the storied chefs in the history of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse who, more than any other, helped define that restaurant’s cooking style — has a giant reputation. In reality, he’s of short stature, incredibly reserved, with a humility that is always a surprise when you compare him to chefs of his age with far fewer accolades.
In 1981, he started at Chez Panisse baking bread, then, a year later, became the chef of the restaurant’s upstairs cafe. In 1991, he moved to Santa Fe, N.M., to be the head chef at Cafe Escalera, which he ran for seven years before returning to California in 1998 to share head chef duties in the main downstairs restaurant with Jean-Pierre Moullé. In 2001, Tanis moved to Paris, and in 2005, he began the most enviable job for a cook: working and living for six months in Paris and working the other half of the year at Chez Panisse (Moullé had the same arrangement, although he opted for Bordeaux during his six months in France.)
In 2011, Tanis retired from Chez Panisse and moved to New York, where he began writing a weekly cooking column for the New York Times called “City Kitchen,” which ran until 2019. Now, he writes a monthly seasonal-menu column for the newspaper and has under his belt four cookbooks, the most recent being 2017’s “David Tanis Market Cooking.”
But as experienced a chef as he is, Tanis is still eager to learn. A student-like excitement comes through in how he talks with farmers market vendors, or when he asks questions about how other people cook a dish similar to one he’s cooked dozens of times. It’s in his nature to create a constant student-teacher dynamic in the way he cooks, by himself and with others. And it’s a rapport he hopes comes through with diners as he starts another chapter of his life at Lulu, his and Waters’ new restaurant at the Hammer Museum in Westwood — Waters’ first new restaurant since Chez Panisse opened in 1971.
“Chez Panisse proved there are other ways — more human ways, collaborative ways — to run a restaurant,” Tanis says. “There should always be some degree of learning going on in a restaurant. And so coming into Lulu, I don’t have a system in mind. I have a few notions of what I want the food to be and the experience of working in other places to pull from, but I approach this as an experiment in how to run a restaurant.”
Lulu is named after Waters’ and his mentor, Lucie “Lulu” Peyraud, an influential figure among many chefs and writers, such as Richard Olney, with whom she wrote a cookbook, “Lulu’s Provençal Table,” in 1994. Peyraud entertained and cooked at Domaine Tempier, her family’s wine estate outside of Toulon, in Provence, until she died in 2020 at the age of 102.
To open Lulu, Tanis moved to Los Angeles. He’s been here since June, after living for decades in Berkeley, Santa Fe, New York City, upstate New York and Paris. When we meet up, I’m curious about how L.A. will leave its imprint on his legendary cooking style.
So, we get together and do the only thing we can to find out: Go shopping and get cooking.
Chef and author David Tanis picks up turnips at Hollywood Farmers Market.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Tanis and I make a …….