A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes


By David Tanis

Foreword by Alice Waters

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Forget about getting back to the land, David Tanis just wants you to get back to the kitchen

For six months a year, David Tanis is the head chef at Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California, restaurant where he has worked alongside Alice Waters since the 1980s in creating a revolution in sustainable American cuisine. The other six months, Tanis lives in Paris in a seventeenth-century apartment, where he hosts intimate dinners for friends and paying guests, and prepares the food in a small kitchen equipped with nothing more than an old stove, a little counter space, and a handful of wellused pots and pans.

This is the book for anyone who wants to gather and feed friends around a table and nurture their conversation. It’s not about showing off with complicated techniques and obscure ingredients. Worlds away from the showy Food Network personalities, Tanis believes that the most satisfying meals—for both the cook and the guest—are invariably the simplest.

Home cooks can easily re-create any of his 24 seasonal, market-driven menus, from spring’s Supper of the Lamb (Warm Asparagus Vinaigrette; Shoulder of Spring Lamb with Flageolet Beans and Olive Relish; Rum Baba with Cardamom) to winter’s North African Comfort Food (Carrot and Coriander Salad; Chicken Tagine with Pumpkin and Chickpeas). Best of all, Tanis is an engaging guide with a genuine gift for words, whose soulful approach to food will make any kitchen, big or small, a warm and compelling place to spend time.


Do you really need a recipe for a platter of figs? No. Is that the point? Yes. Does it have to be more complicated than that? Not really. Yet to serve the figs, you need to know about ripeness and seasonality—the seasons of the garden—and you need to know your figs. By this I mean, are they sun-ripened and bursting with jammy sweetness? Are they succulent enough to eat as is, or do they want a sprinkling of salt, a drizzle of good olive oil, perhaps a thin slice of prosciutto? A dab of fresh ricotta and honey to heighten the flavor? Or should you roast the figs with onions and thyme and serve them warm with rare-grilled duck breasts? This will determine their place in the menu—that is, as a first course, a main-course accompaniment, or a simple dessert.

The platter of figs perfectly illustrates the idea of eating with the seasons. Fresh figs are available for only a few weeks in the summer. The first figs are in June, but June figs usually pale in comparison to the late-summer crop, which benefits from warm August days. As with good tomatoes, you wait all year for the best figs to arrive. The reward is heavy, juicy fruit with oozing centers—sweet figs to swoon for. Above all, the platter of figs is a metaphor for the food I like. Fresh ripe figs are voluptuous and generous, luxurious and fleeting. And beautiful.


FOREWORD by Alice Waters

There are two or three things I love about David Tanis that are not in this book. His hands, for one thing. There is a still picture on page 123, but when his hands are working, which is often, they are beautiful to watch: the fingers move with a practiced and graceful rhythm that reminds me of a great dancer at the bar. And I love David’s habit of galvanizing himself by bursting into song in his big baritone. He has an impressive memory for words and music from a startlingly eclectic sampling of the twentieth-century songbook; and his delivery is … compelling.

What you will learn about David in this book is why he is one of the most important reasons our restaurant Chez Panisse remains a relevant enterprise well into the twenty-first century: He understands that creating a meal means creating your own reality, and he embodies that principle, week after week. We have always operated Chez Panisse on a rather archaic table d’hôte model: Every day we prepare and serve one menu, and one menu only, of three or four or five courses. The composition of a menu requires both tactical mastery and a well-tuned sense of taste; and its execution has to reconcile imagination with practicality. In these regards, David’s menus are incomparable. Whatever the occasion, they all share a certain quality of harmonious simplicity uniquely his. And this book contains twenty-four of them, each a little masterpiece, and not least because not one of them requires heroic effort on the part of the partygiver.

When David started his career as chef at Chez Panisse, I asked him to make an impromptu lunch for me one day. It was that lunch’s radical simplicity that won me over completely: He served me a piece of salmon on a little cutting board, with a bowl of salt alongside and a little lightly dressed pile of tiny greens. That was all. But it turned out to be exactly what I wanted. The salmon was exquisitely cooked; the greens were perfect. All the details were both intriguing and satisfying, with an underlying current of serious whimsy. For example, where had that board come from? We had plates, after all. Over the many years that have followed, David’s sense of proportion and surprise has never failed him.

Now he has given us a very happy book, gloriously illustrated by Christopher Hirsheimer, who is just about the only food photographer I know who fully sees the beauty in simple food. And I can attest that David’s food does, indeed, look—and taste—exactly as you would imagine from a close inspection of these images.

David’s food reminds me so much of my ideal of what Chez Panisse should be, but this book is not a tribute to any restaurant or to any particular place and time—this book is really a love letter to you the reader, to whom David addresses himself with understanding, candor, and real wit. May you read it with pleasure!


This is a book about eating as much as it is about cooking. About eating with friends—and cooking for friends—and why that matters so much. Let me paint you a picture. The scene is Venice, Italy, in the autumn. The sun sets early in a gray sky. Bright orange persimmons hang on dark leafless branches. It’s the cold-weather version of Venice, with rainy days and flooded walkways. (If this example sounds too rarified, imagine us in Baja, or Brooklyn.)

As it happens, it’s Bob’s birthday, which provides an excuse for a party. Instead of going to a restaurant, we’d rather cook together. Always. Of all the places we are staying, Alice’s apartment has the best kitchen and biggest dining table, so we’ll have dinner there. We rendezvous in the morning at the old, old market by the Rialto Bridge. As we stand upon a history of wet stone, the party has already begun.

Our favorite stop for espresso is tiny and outdoors, near the vegetable side of the market. You get a perfect coffee there, and a little panino of rucola and speck with a dab of garlicky pesto. It’s necessary to fortify yourself before moving on.

The cheese shop next door, not much bigger and hospital clean, displays oils, egg pasta, and ravioli, but more to the point: real ricotta, spanking fresh mozzarella, irresistible pale white quivering cheeses. We don’t resist. Our cheese is wrapped in paper, and we buy sliced prosciutto and mortadella, necessary for the aperitivo, hours hence.

Next, the vegetable stands—an autumn palette for the palate. Piles of green feathery fennel, purple grapes in boxes of straw, chicories in every color of burgundy. Honey-colored long-necked pears wrapped in pale tissue. Blushing pomegranates. Wild mushrooms, chestnuts. Now the fun starts in earnest. For me, this is the way the best meals begin: ogling vegetables, seeing what’s at the market, what looks good, what feels right. Dinner for eight, maybe ten. Spur of the moment. Spread out and conquer.

Beneath the portico of the pescheria, the ancient fish market, miraculous creatures sparkle under bare bulbs. One lanky fishmonger is playing a rumba on the radio and dancing among the tuna and salt cod and the baskets of tiny live crabs. We see cuttlefish in every size from miniscule to giant, and wiggling gray shrimp from the lagoon. Another guy has the front half of a swordfish, including the sword. As soon as the marketing is finished, we schlep all our shopping bags to the nearby Cantina Do Mori, the best little wine bar in all Italy, for a stand-up glass of prosecco and a little prosciutto. Maybe a crostino of artichoke or porcini. Maybe another glass of something. Then we drag the shopping bags back to the refrigerator at Alice’s place, and everyone goes their own way for the rest of the day.

We meet again at the cocktail hour—in the kitchen. Someone has brought flowers and candles. Someone else has popped around the corner to buy local wine straight from the spigot. Tonight’s dinner for Bob: first, a frittura of tiny fish, quickly fried and devoured as we’re peeling garlic, chopping parsley (and drinking prosecco). I make a Catalan fideus for the first course because I know Bob loves it—a spicy, saucy dish of noodles and shellfish that tastes of the sea. Then Tony’s roast rabbit with porcini and Alice’s salad of Treviso with fennel and anchovy dressing. Dessert is Randal’s apple pie. And a platter of autumn fruits. We are at the table all night.

the case against restaurants

Yes, I’m a restaurant chef, and I do enjoy cooking for strangers, but I don’t want to go to a restaurant on my days off. Okay, I’ll admit to being slightly restaurant-phobic. I’ve always preferred to cook at home for friends. Cooking at home is a different experience entirely from the stressful world of restaurant cooking. To me, it doesn’t feel like work. And even if it’s not a perfect meal, the overriding mood of friends at the table still trumps a bad—or just okay—restaurant meal. Sound funny, coming from a chef?

We all long for a familial experience, even if it’s not with our “real” family. The restaurants we love are those that make us feel as if we are part of a family. Of course, there are all kinds of good reasons to go to a restaurant: the rituals, the feeling of being spoiled, being waited on, being surprised. And, to be sure, there are all sorts of wonderful restaurants. I have my favorites. But a meal is an ethereal thing that requires a certain orchestration, and a lot of planets must be correctly aligned for it to succeed. The question is, will you be a happy captive with a positive experience or the unfortunate victim of a restaurant meal that has somehow gone very, very wrong?

Most restaurants are geared to serve only two or four at a time, six at most, and it is nice to dine à deux, or in an intimate foursome. But to get all the food up, ready, and cooked with care is difficult for most restaurants to pull off for a table of eight or ten. If there are more than six of you, stay home. It’s more relaxed. It’s cheaper. The schedule is flexible. You can have the table all night.

Who knows what they do back there in those restaurant kitchens? Then there’s the harried waiter who is saddled with you, and vice versa. If I’m channeling a restaurant-wary grandmother for the moment, it’s not so much fear of physical sickening as anxiety about what will arrive at the table. These days (now I really sound like a cranky old fart), so many restaurants are into the “wow!” factor. Eager ingredients-of-the-moment are doused with truffle oil (a synthetic product in vogue for all the wrong reasons), tasting menus offer an endless parade of clever food puns. I fret about salads: Will I get a decent one or something thrown together by a novice? Most restaurants mistakenly give the least-experienced cooks the job of dressing a salad, a skill that takes practice. The place is so crowded you can’t hear a word, the décor is painfully trendy—or inauthentically old-time Euro. But what about the food? There’s something really galling about going to a place that’s supposed to be good and being served slapdash fare, or dolled up, manipulated architectural creations topped with foam. A bad meal can be so depressing.

We presume there’s a chef back there in the kitchen somewhere, but more often than not there’s a twenty-two-year-old culinary school graduate whose worldview, or whatever, is (understandably) undercultivated. I’d rather go to a diner and get a couple of eggs correctly fried than sample some chef’s misguided fusion experiments. I’d rather go to a friend’s house for dinner. But, really, I’d rather eat at home.

what makes a meal?

This book is a collection of menus: meals of simple food, simply served. I’ve observed that many people don’t know how to make a menu, or how to design a meal. Most standard cookbooks list recipes by category: soup, salad, poultry, fish. What’s often lacking is a way to think about them that turns them into a cohesive meal.

Simplicity is key. People who cook fussy food for their friends seem to have the least fun. I say leave that fussy food to those with a staff and a paid dishwasher. I’ve found that a three-course meal is the most doable—doable is everything—allowing the most pleasure for the cook as well as for his guests. As in music or poetry, a well-composed menu must have a pleasant sequence—something sprightly to begin, then a main course with more depth, and something refreshing to finish.

A meal needn’t be fancy, nor should it take all day to make. But, that said, most of the menus in this book are not those 30-minute-specials-with-only-3-ingredients whose intent seems to be to keep you out of the kitchen. What’s wrong with spending a little time in the kitchen? I like peeling the carrots, I like washing the lettuces. I like building a meal. I believe there’s joy and amusement inherent in the cooking process, in putting the food into companionable serving vessels, in gathering in the kitchen and at the table, and in all the many little and big aesthetic decisions along the way.

How are we programmed to think about what we eat and what we want to eat? Society may have its ideas, but a thinking cook may want to decide for him/herself. To my mind, the best menus are simply conceived, simply prepared, and simply served: a toast, a roast, a vegetable, a salad, cheese, fruit.

Start with a few slices of raw fennel and a plate of olives. Then bring me a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta with garlic and oil. For dessert, a just-ripe pear and some aged Parmigiano. There. A simple menu. Early autumn.

For breakfast, I don’t crave pancakes, I want tomatoes and fresh white cheese splashed with olive oil. My preference is that of a salt-inclined palate over a sweet-craving one, but also one developed through reading, travel, and temperament. I do like a little something sweet after a meal, but I always prefer light, fresh, elemental, fruit-based desserts and that’s what you’ll find in this book.

who am I and how did I get this way?

What makes a boy from Ohio, born in the wrong century, raised on Tater Tots and Birds Eye, end up wanting to eat like a Greek peasant for breakfast, a French peasant for lunch, and a Moroccan peasant for dinner? Those who admire my cooking say I have a knack for making it all seem easy, that there’s something about the way I serve food that is appealing, or exciting, or intriguing. How did this all begin?

Here is what I remember: I’m five years old, or a little younger. I awaken one early morning and determine to make breakfast for our little family. The sun has not yet risen. In the kitchen of our brick cookie-cutter, look-alike, two-bedroom cottage on Rutland Drive, on a mid-twentieth-century day, I set the table. It’s a chrome-legged, speckled, and shiny red-top dinette table. My mother used to tell a story about my grandmother being born on a kitchen table in the olden days, and I imagine she was born on just such a table.

I put the spoons, the juice glasses, the folded paper napkins, the cereal bowls in their places. I put cereal in the bowls and pour on the milk. I fill the juice glasses. I toast the bread and spread the margarine. Everything is ready now, but no one is showing up. It must be early. It must be Sunday. I go back to bed. It is the first private kitchen moment I remember, and perhaps the first time I consciously prepared food for others.

Then I went underground. In my mother’s world, children weren’t really allowed in the kitchen. We had a housekeeper who was a very good cook and she, too, was strict about kitchen access. But sometimes she’d let us help her. When the grown-ups were away, I’d organize clandestine cooking forays for my siblings. My older sister did not have the knack, and my younger sister was too small. It was I who made the grilled bologna sandwiches, the popcorn, the James Cagney eggs.

I had already noticed that food at other people’s houses was not like ours. Some houses had real butter. We were margarine-only, except for company. Company dinners (I soon learned to recognize my mother’s six-dish company food repertoire) also featured cheese puffs and mixed nuts and brown-and-serve dinner rolls, spinach rice, lemon meringue pie. Weekday cooking was humble fare: beef brisket, broiled chicken thighs, meat loaf stretched with oatmeal, all invariably accompanied by a medley of frozen vegetables and some kind of starch, maybe noodle kugel. Salad was, of course, a wedge of iceberg. Exotic foods were found in other homes: Aunt Ruth made salad dressing from scratch, Aunt Edith cooked zucchini.

My adolescent undercover cooking led to experiments with baking. Teaching myself to make Cuban bread from the New York Times. And pies. In those days, I intended to be an artist, not a cook, but food and art were intertwined. I went everywhere with a sketch pad under my arm, and a few edibles in a knapsack. I would prepare private al fresco picnics. Those meals were my first still-life displays—an assortment of sardines, saltine crackers, tangerines, and cigarettes and magazines—first sketched in pen and ink, then photographed, then consumed.

At eighteen, I left home to go to a remote little college in the California desert, and to discover new foods. At school, I found myself more often in the kitchen than the library. While others were up late cramming for exams, I’d be in the pantry mixing up a big batch of dough. I began to bake bread in quantity. When the school hired a European chef for a semester, I gave up studying almost completely and made myself his apprentice. I learned how to make a proper omelette and how to butcher meat. But I was also out there training a mule to pull a wagon, experimenting with tanning hides and learning to grow vegetables. And there was still that canvas stretched in my room waiting for paint.

When I left school, still yearning for a rural experience and not ready for the real world by any means, I headed to the Pacific Northwest to join friends on a commune near Puget Sound. Called Cold Comfort Farm, after the 1930s novel, a British parody of farm life by Stella Gibbons, it was intended to be an artists’ colony and self-sufficient. We milked a herd of goats and fattened two pigs named Ozzie and Harriet. We harvested everything in the garden and cooked dinner every night on an electric stove in an abandoned trailer. All around the farm, residents were constructing domes and teepees. The annual harvest ball was bacchanalian, an all-night feast under the stars.

Then I got on a Greyhound bus going south. A chef friend had asked me to join his team at a Southern California resort. I was barely twenty-one. With no restaurant experience at all, I was hired as pastry chef and handed index cards with the four recipes I would need. I was expected to use up all the cake mixes left behind by the previous regime. That was fine with me. The Chalet, with waitresses in skimpy red dirndls, served “continental food” like veal Oscar. We were all let go at the end of the season, but by then I was hooked.

I hitchhiked to San Francisco to try my luck at faking my way into another restaurant. It was a heady time (a loaded phrase). All around me, people were dropping out of school to pursue dreams. Being a chef was not on the list of acceptable professions for a nice boy from Dayton, Ohio, but what did I care?

Chez Panisse had just opened. It seemed to me a fantasy world, peopled by the coolest folks. I had a friend who cooked there. Aside from letting me work an occasional prep or dishwashing shift, Alice paid me little attention. But, still, I hung around. The whole place felt Euro and special. There were parties nearly every night. From time to time, I would ask Alice for a job, but she always seemed not to hear. I took jobs in kitchens around the Bay Area. When I applied for work (I looked a bit Rasputin-like in those days) at the Bay Wolf restaurant in Oakland, Michael Wild, the chef, looked at me and said, “So, what are you, a poet?” “Not really,” said I, “but I like to cook.” He gave me two dishwashing shifts and three nights steaming vegetables. When he found out I really could cook, he gave me carte blanche.

Finally, the Chez Panisse bread baker left to marry and take a honeymoon. I covered his shifts and got more than a big toe in the door. Soon I was making pizzas and salads. One day, Alice hired me to run the café upstairs, the ultimate learn-on-the-job opportunity, exciting but intimidating. I submitted menus weekly for scrutiny, and Alice watched over me as I figured out how to be chef and manager. She would come up and taste the food before lunch, offer feedback freely, then race off. If other restaurants were dog-and-pony shows, this one was a three-ring circus. Two restaurants in one. Cooks came and went, everyone had a personality (some had two), lunch was busy, dinner was busier. Bastille Day, New Year’s Eve.

Tom Guernesey, the exuberant maitre d’, would breeze through the kitchen and cackle. Peggy Smith, already a cowgirl at heart, wore pointy-toed boots and played Dolly Parton full blast while chopping parsley with two big knives at rapid-fire pace. Paul Bertolli was the chef downstairs, and he was so tall they had to raise the vent above the stove so he wouldn’t bump his head. Paul was in a period of inspired creativity, making beautiful food. He always seemed serene and in control, while I was flying by the seat of my pants. Eventually I found my groove, and seven years passed quickly. I would happily have continued. Chez Panisse is a restaurant like no other. You’re spoiled by its particular combination of purity and chaos and can’t work anywhere else unless you open your own place. In the early 1990s, such an opportunity arose for me in Santa Fe.

When I moved to Santa Fe, everyone was doing either traditional Southwest menus (green chile stew, pozole, pupusas, sopaipillas, carne adovada) or New Wave, squirt-bottle East-meets-Southwest fusion (black bean wontons with jicama-habanero crema and mango-ginger dipping sauce—that sort of thing). The prevailing idea was that any hot chile dish, wherever it came from, could find a home—and perhaps an unusual partner—on a Santa Fe menu.

Mark Miller was way out in front at Coyote Café doing glitzy neo-Southwestern cowboy cuisine. Up the street, Katherine Kagel was serving huevos motuleños and café au lait for breakfast at Pasqual’s, with a line around the block. Our idea at Café Escalera was to do a San Francisco Bay Area–style restaurant based on fresh ingredients. When people asked what sort of restaurant we were, we would say, “Mediterranean-inspired, market-driven, simple seasonal cooking.” The response was usually, “So what is it, French, Italian?” We’d say our menu changed daily, “based on the availability of the best …” “Oh,” they’d reply. “We were looking for Southwestern—do you have pasta?”

Still, we persevered. During the short growing season—it could snow in June and we could have first frost by September—we bought all our fresh produce from local farmers. We became known as a place you could get a good salad or a properly grilled piece of fish. We even baked our own bread. We made mayonnaise by hand, got famous for our skinny pommes frites. The menu was small, and we really did change it every day, twice a day. Business was another story. Santa Fe was in a descent from the boom of the late eighties. Something called the hantavirus scared off tourists for a while. And we were one of more than two hundred restaurants in a very small town.

We were always full for lunch, and we turned people away in June and July, but there were many winter nights when we simply sent staff home. We were voted Best Restaurant in New Mexico by Zagat, our wine list won awards. But the gods had decided otherwise, and finally the place closed.

I returned home. To Chez Panisse. Alice found plenty for me to do—working on the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, catering, filling in for cooks on holiday. I began sharing the downstairs restaurant chef job with long-time chef Jean-Pierre Moullé. We would split the week, each running the kitchen half-time. All was well until 2001, when I made a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment decision to move to Paris. (Jean-Pierre was inclined to spend long summers at his house in Bordeaux.) What to do? Alice, ever practical, ever unconventional, proposed the perfect solution: divide the year, not the week. We could each work six months straight, full-time, then have six months to recover, replenish, return to Paris, go off to Buenos Aires, whatever. We both agreed it was a lovely plan. Evidently, you can go home again.

the job of the cookbook

What can you learn from this book? That a party can be any gathering of eaters at a table. That a fine meal doesn’t have to necessarily be elaborate. That the best meals mirror nature and celebrate the seasonal.

The idea that we enjoy the summer’s harvest and preserve what we can for the winter is an old notion. Even though global marketing and modern refrigeration have paved over much of this territory, there is a movement now toward a more seasonal life, and I consider myself part of it. A good cook knows the pleasure of a seasonal kitchen. Eating seasonally is eating sustainably, supporting local farmers, and preserving the land, but it has everything to do with pleasure as well. There’s no denying the flavor of a good tomato picked ripe or a cucumber straight from the garden or a new-crop apple. The experience is pure and sensual.

serving food: pretty versus beautiful

Generally I don’t like pretty food, but I am in awe of beautiful food. Here’s what I mean: I think food should look natural, not contrived. Plums in a bowl are nothing more than a repetition of shapes: what could be more beautiful? Tender green beans—briefly cooked, dressed with oil, and gently piled on a platter—are beautiful in a way that stacked, squeezed, decorated, gussied-up creations will never be. Simple well-worn earthen cooking vessels, cazuelas, gratin dishes, deep bowls, terrines—all enhance the simple glory of the food itself. Platters speak of abundance and generosity. There’s a communal aspect to a platter as well: It must be passed from diner to diner. It must be shared.

Now, about cooking for friends. At my house there always seem to be at least eight of them and I’ve designed all the menus in this book for a table of eight or ten. That should not be daunting. And most recipes can be easily halved, or increased (as in add another potato to the pot). What matters is that you do it.

spring menus

menu one


Fava Bean Salad with Mountain Ham and Mint

Roasted Veal with Morel Mushrooms and Saffron Carrots

Hazelnut Sponge Cake

menu two


Spinach Cake with Herb Salad

Mustard Rabbit in the Oven

Parsnips Epiphany-Style

Apple Tart

menu three


Oysters on the Half-Shell

Chicory Salad with Lemon and Anchovy

Lobster Risotto


menu four


Warm Asparagus Vinaigrette

Shoulder of Spring Lamb with Flageolet Beans and Olive Relish

Rum Baba with Cardamom

menu five



On Sale
Oct 1, 2008
Page Count
294 pages

David Tanis

David Tanis

About the Author

David Tanis has worked as a professional chef for over three decades, and is the author of several acclaimed cookbooks, including A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, which was chosen as one of the fifty best cookbooks ever by the Guardian/Observer (London), and Heart of the Artichoke, which was nominated for a James Beard Award. He spent many years as a chef with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California; he ran the kitchen of the highly praised Café Escalera in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and he operated a successful private supper club in his seventeenth-century walk-up in Paris.

He is an advocate for simple home cooking, with a core belief that food needn't be fussy to be beautiful. An avid traveler, his first stop on any trip is at an outdoor market, finding inspiration in regional cuisines from hither and yon. He has written for a number of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian/Observer, Cooking Light, Bon Appétit, Fine Cooking, and Saveur.

Tanis lives in Manhattan and has been writing the weekly City Kitchen column for the Food section of the New York Times for nearly seven years.

Learn more about this author