By Ray Levy-Uyeda
Chef David Tanis runs the kitchen at Lulu, a restaurant in the Hammer Museum at UCLA 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 having never lived in LA.
I’ve been writing for The New York Times since 2011. For the first eight years it was a weekly column, and for the last couple of years it’s been a monthly column. I didn’t put my apron down when I began writing, especially since whenever I was writing for the Times, I was also testing recipes. Even now, I cook all the time for friends and family. Before Lulu, I’d cook whenever Alice came to the East Coast, or cook for events in Washington DC—that sort of thing.
With the pandemic, we tried to make things as normal as possible for the guests. Here at the restaurant, we’re fortunate to have 90 percent of our seating outdoors, which helps people feel a little more comfortable. It’s been crazy the last few years for restaurants—everybody’s just struggling to stay alive. For many restaurants, it has meant changing the business model completely, like going to takeout and delivery rather than dine-in. We haven’t been in that situation.
Two years since the start of the pandemic, everybody’s still quite fearful. We have a small staff in the kitchen, and four people all came down with COVID at the same time, so we had to close for a week in December during the holidays. That’s the sort of thing to try to navigate.
In my kitchen, everything is certainly not top-down. People are encouraged to taste things and give their opinion, whether they’re the newest cook at Lulu, the dishwasher, or the host. Anyone can comment. I don’t want to be the only person that has some great ideas, and I really like to bat concepts around. I find that once we start doing that, we come up with a better solution than I might have on my own. People always have fresh ideas. We have a lot of UCLA students helping us in the kitchen, which provides great energy for the staff as well.
My main approach has always been to serve good, wholesome, healthy food. Produce has always been the most important thing to me when thinking about menus and recipes. We try to procure organic ingredients and work with small farms. At Lulu right now, all of our vegetables are coming from small farms and from the farmer’s market. We don’t rely on a big truck coming with the vegetables, like Cisco or any of the big corporate food services.
We try to source things very carefully. The way that I like to do that is to work directly with farmers and serve what they are growing. You don’t have to have an abstract idea about what you’re going to serve because you can see what’s growing. I go to the farmers market three times or four times a week. Usually I go to the Santa Monica one, and the Hollywood market is nice on Sundays. I’m just getting around to some of the neighborhood markets. The seasons also provide inspiration for menus and recipes. Right now we’re just getting into asparagus, so there will be asparagus on the menu in some form.
One of my favorite things to do is to write menus. I find it satisfying to figure out what comes first, what comes in the middle, and what comes at the end. It’s kind of like writing a poem—you start off with something light, and then you move into something deeper, and then you finish with something refreshing.
I think the new trend in the food industry is moving towards supporting regenerative farming. That might be a little bit of a buzzword right now, but the term essentially means growing food beyond sustainability. Regenerative agriculture figures out ways to sequester carbon and allow the organisms that live in soil, and are beneficial to plants, to do their work by not turning up the soil as much. We are trying to work with farmers who have those goals and a farming approach that doesn’t contribute to climate change or global warming. It’s kind of a small step, but it’s important.