David Tanis returns to the restaurant kitchen
Chef David Tanis runs the kitchen at Lulu, a restaurant at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Lulu was founded by Alice Waters, Tanis’ longtime collaborator at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. After spending the last decade writing and cooking, Tanis agreed to take over at Lulu despite never having lived in Los Angeles.
I’ve been writing since The New York Times since 2011. For the first eight years it was a weekly column, and for the past two years it has been a monthly column. I didn’t lower my apron when I started writing, especially since every time I wrote for the Time, I was also testing recipes. Even now, I cook for my friends and family all the time. Before Lulu, I cooked whenever Alice came to the East Coast, or I cooked for events in Washington DC, that sort of thing.
With the pandemic, we have tried to make things as normal as possible for guests. Here at the restaurant, we are lucky to have 90% of our seating outside, which helps people feel a little more comfortable. It’s been crazy the past few years for restaurants – everyone is struggling to stay alive. For many restaurants, this has meant completely changing the business model, such as going to takeout and delivery instead of dining out. We have not been in this situation.
Two years after the start of the pandemic, everyone is still quite scared. We have a small kitchen team, and four people all caught COVID at the same time, so we had to close for a week in December for the holidays. It’s the kind of thing to try to navigate.
In my kitchen, it’s certainly not top-down. People are encouraged to taste and have their say, whether they’re Lulu’s new cook, dishwasher or host. Anyone can comment. I don’t want to be the only person with good ideas, and I really like tossing around concepts. I find that once we start doing that, we come up with a better solution than I could have had on my own. People always have new ideas. We have a lot of UCLA students helping out in the kitchen, which also provides great energy to the staff.
My main approach has always been to serve good, wholesome and wholesome food. Products have always been the most important thing to me when thinking about menus and recipes. We try to source organic ingredients and work with small farms. At Lulu right now, all of our vegetables come from small farms and the farmer’s market. We don’t rely on a big truck to haul the vegetables, like Cisco or one of the big corporate food services.
We try to source very carefully. The way I like to do it is to work directly with farmers and serve what they grow. You don’t need to have an abstract idea of what you are going to serve, because you can see what is developing. I go to the farmers’ market three or four times a week. I usually go to the one in Santa Monica, and the Hollywood market is nice on Sundays. I just go around the neighborhood markets. The seasons also inspire menus and recipes. Right now, we’re just starting to talk about asparagus, so there will be asparagus on the menu in one form or another.
One of my favorite activities is writing menus. I find it satisfying to understand what comes first, what comes in the middle, and what comes last. It’s a bit like writing a poem: you start with something light, then move on to something deeper, and end with something refreshing.
I think the new trend in the food industry is moving towards supporting regenerative agriculture. It might be a bit of a buzzword right now, but the term essentially means growing food beyond sustainability. Regenerative agriculture finds ways to sequester carbon and allow organisms that live in the soil and benefit plants to do their jobs without turning the soil as much. We try to work with farmers who have these goals and an agricultural approach that does not contribute to climate change or global warming. It’s a bit of a small step, but it’s important.