The tao of Tanya

Written by Joe Stumpe | Photography by Madison Ham

This article started out as a look at Wichita’s favorite fun summertime food and drinks. But when news of restaurateur Tanya Tandoc’s death hit last month, it quickly overshadowed everything else happening in the city’s food world. And several other worlds as well.

Tandoc was the first chef I ever interviewed in this town, after arriving as The Wichita Eagle’s food editor in 1999. Her restaurant, Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, was then located just out the back door and across the street from the paper. I remember being impressed by two things: the amount of heavy cream (aka love) she put in many of her soups, and her willingness to share recipes and cooking tips.

Oh yeah, and her tattoos, not quite as common then as now.

For Tanya, great cooking wasn’t some secret process; it was something to enjoy with as many people as possible. At the time, Tanya wasn’t interested in having anything written about her. It’s not that she shunned the spotlight—she was quite comfortable in it—but she’d already gotten plenty of love from local journalists.

Instead, she took me to meet Norma Sowell, her next-door neighbor, who grew fresh herbs for Tanya’s restaurant and others in her backyard. At some point that afternoon, I mentioned that I didn’t think fresh herbs were worth the effort and cost; the dried, bottled kind seemed to work just fine.

I can’t quite recall Tanya’s reaction, but I’m sure it was amusing and probably unprintable.

Tandoc had a huge impact on the city’s food community, and not just in the educating of one newbie food editor. She held cooking classes. She worked as a consultant for Cargill and other restaurants. She printed and sold packets of her soup recipes each Christmas, knowing they’d increase the demand for her own versions.

She cooked and donated food to fundraising events. She often served as a judge at cookoffs. She had an uncanny ability to taste a dish, decipher just what ingredients were in it, then go on to describe it in the most appealing terms possible. On public radio, she reviewed local restaurants, sending them waves of new customers. She seemed almost incapable of saying anything boring about food.

She wasn’t all warm and fuzzy. She said her restaurant staff had to “drink the Kool-Aid” in order to work for her. I always thought it telling that some of her closest friends were other strong, independent female owners in the hospitality business.

Food was far from Tanya’s only interest. When her first restaurant closed in 2004, she earned a fine arts degree at Wichita State University. She played the cello and became a sort of pied piperess of belly dance in the city, teaching at a studio and performing in public with a troupe. She loved animals and was known to deliver soup to sick friends. All of those things helped fill the Orpheum Theatre with admirers for her memorial service. Within days, stickers with “Live Like Tanya” started popping up.

As I weeded my herb garden one day last month, then harvested basil, parsley, rosemary and cilantro for use in that night’s meal, I realized I was doing just that.

Tanya-inspired recipes

Basil Pesto

Pesto is fabulous on pasta, as a topping for bruschetta or spread on sandwiches. It also freezes well, letting you carry a little taste of summer into winter.

Ingredients:

• 2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed
• 1-2 cloves garlic
• 1/4 cup pine nuts
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions: Place basil, pine nuts, olive oil and cheese in a blender. Pulse into a smooth paste is formed, adding more olive oil if necessary. Season with salt and pepper.

Chimichurri Sauce

Chimichurri sauce, originally from Argentina, is becoming almost as popular as basil. It’s great as a marinade/sauce for grilled beef, chicken and vegetables. The sauce is best if allowed to rest, covered, at room temperature for an hour or two before use.

Ingredients:

• 1 cup parsley leaves
• 1/4 cup cilantro or oregano leaves
• 2 garlic cloves
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1-2 tablespoons red wine or cider vinegar
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
• Dried red pepper flakes

Directions: Chop herbs and garlic. Combine with olive oil and vinegar. Season to taste with salt, pepper and red pepper.

Fresh Peach Salsa

Although some people claim cilantro tastes like soap, salsa isn’t really worth the name without the herb. Serve this peach salsa with chips or as a topping for chicken, pork or fish.

Ingredients:

• 2 large or 4 small tomatoes
• 2 to 3 peaches
• 1/2 onion
• 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
• Juice of 1 lime
• 2 tablespoons cilantro
• Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions: Chop and combine tomatoes, peaches, onion and jalapeno. Add lime juice, cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. Allowing the flavors to meld for 30 minutes before serving will improve the salsa.

 
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