Chez Panisse Chef David Tanis Talks Dinner Parties

Expert Interview

We've talked about David Tanis' small kitchen rituals, and reviewed the new book from this Chez Panisse chef. But since David's books focus on entertaining at home and feeding people at a long, convivial table (something I'm deeply interested in too) I didn't want to leave it there. I had a few questions for David on cooking for a crowd, the best dishes for winter, and the secrets of relaxing instead of seizing up when you have ten to dinner.

Here are a few questions David was kind enough to answer. Even after a long month of touring for his book, he was warm and full of good humor!

How often do you feed a crowd (outside of the restaurant!)?
Oh, at least once a week, on my day off, we'll have 6 to 10 people over. But even when I'm working I like to cook at home at night, after work. I'll go home and cook a little something.

What do you dread about dinner parties, and what do you look forward to?
I really don't dread anything; I just find it to be completely pleasurable always, unless it's like an obligatory dinner. Even the cleaning up — it just happens. Clean as you go, stay organized, all those things.

Having people over to dinner is a normal part of life. I've been trying to just say, in my books, the key really is simplicity. Everyone always tries to do too much. You have to design a simple meal you're capable of making, and that's doable. And not try to do something that's impossible to do.

And the other part is there's nothing wrong with getting a little help in the kitchen. Leave a few things till the last minute that your friends can help you with. People say, Oh, isn't that rude, to not have everything ready? I feel uncomfortable... But I say, hey! Everyone wants to be in the kitchen anyway! Don't wait to have anything ready, but leave a few things — there's always someone who wants to help. For me, that's part of the whole process.

Another thing is you can have the sit-down course be the main course. The first course can be stand-up appetizers in the kitchen!

What's the best dinner party dish for a blizzard?
Ha, well, if it's a real blizzard — whatever there is at home. And it would just be neighbors at the table...

Usually I am always somewhat cooking on a whim. So, for really cold winter weather, anything hearty and warming. If there can be a little fire going that's nice too. I am such a big fan of braises — stews and braised meats — especially in winter. One dish I point to this time of year is the Fragrant Lamb because it's got quite a lot of depth of flavor and interest. It's easy to do and hearty and satisfying.

And speaking of stews, those are ideal for entertaining. All stews and braises are better the next day — make a braise the day before, refrigerate it, degrease, warm up. You'll find that the flavors actually get better. Make a salad and you're done.

Are there any particularly helpful tips or techniques you've pulled over from restaurants into your home cooking — especially for dinner parties?
Well, braises — making them the day before is pretty much a restaurant trick. It just happens to be true that braises taste better the second day.

What are your favorite platters and serving dishes?
I'm big on platters and family-style serving. I think it's more beautiful that way, and more generous. The nice thing about platters is the communal aspect — people have to share, and pass the platter from guest to guest. That's a lovely thing to do. People can take as much or as little as they like. Food always looks beautiful on a platter. Much more convivial.

I have a pile of earthenware dishes from Spain, like different sizes of cazuelas. These just get better-looking with wear, they're not very expensive, and they go straight from oven to table. They last a long time. I really love cooking and serving in earthenware.

We see a lot of people who seem to get completely freaked out by dinner parties and cooking for a group. Any tips to help relax cooks before a party?
There's nothing wrong with a shot of something stiff. Once you get all your prep done, take a shower — nothing wrong with a little nip before the guests arrive. Mainly, having people over doesn't have to be difficult. You just have to address your attitude somehow. Relax and take a chill pill.

How do you like to end a dinner party?
Every party is a little bit different. The nice thing about courses is you can have the main course, dessert... then people can linger, or not. If I'm serving a dessert, then later on I might bring out the tangerines and the candied ginger. It really depends on the group. Years ago I got into the habit of putting on a certain song by Ray Charles — Every Time We Say Goodbye. [He chuckles.]

Thanks David!

Find David's new book: Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys by David Tanis. Published by Artisan (November 1, 2010). $23.10 at Amazon.

More on David Tanis
David Tanis' Wild Mushroom Ragout with Ziti
Kitchen Rituals from David Tanis
Book Review: A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes - A review of David's first book.

(Images: Courtesy of Artisan Books)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.