Thomas Keller’s obsession with the best made him a legend – and Cooking for Solutions’ 2009 Chef of the Year.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
is flagship French Laundry restaurant is so popular that potential guests must call at 10am precisely two months in advance to harness any hope of paying $240 a head for a menu of nine small tastings (and shouldn’t bother calling after 10:30am). No other American-born chef has conducted two symphonic three-star Michelin restaurants in the past century. The best cooks in the world have his books on their shelves – and instinctively follow his lead when they gather in the kitchen for culinary summits like Pebble Beach Food & Wine. When he opens Bouchon in Beverly Hills this fall, it will be his ninth restaurant.
Yet, speaking before a huge tent overstuffed with Pebble F&W foodies last month, chef Thomas Keller insisted that when it comes to cooking, he’s the same as every Joe Porkchop out there.
“No matter who you are,” he says, “only two things matter: product and execution.”
It seems the vigilant Cooking for Solutions judges, who will honor Keller this weekend as their Conservation Leadership Chef of the Year, both agree and disagree with Keller: Yes, those things matter most; but no one makes them matter quite like him, differentiating him as someone uniquely qualified to be a lead ambassador of conscious culinary practices.
As Keller says, “Ingredients are everything.” His precious $2,000-a-pound white truffles are foraged by expert contacts. Butter comes from a tiny farm in Vermont where the proprietor watches her “girls” zealously. He buys lamb from a rancher who has never advertised – and who tracks any inconsistency in taste back to its original cause. He only acquires lobster and halibut from chef-adored fishmonger Ingrid Bengis; his oysters come courtesy of the fastidious farmers at Island Creek.
“If I can get a better quality product than you,” Keller told 60 Minutes, “then I’m a better chef.”
His execution, meanwhile, earns those conscious choices an unparalleled platform. After his suppliers personally come to Napa to coach restaurant staff on the passion and purpose behind their practices, that benevolent obsession is transmitted to consumers; as Keller pulls said product from custom-made fridges in multi-million dollar kitchens and shapes it into, say, bone marrow “pudding” with morels, favas, nantes carrots and bearnaise reduction, other powerhouse food players take notice.
“He is so incredibly focused on his work, has a great desire for knowledge, and is always seeking to understand and learn more, while being extremely open about his ingredients,” says Bon Appétit Management’s Jim Dodge, one of the CFS judges, a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, and decorated chef himself. “His influence was very important to the judges – with his books and his success, he has the attention of most chefs in the country.”
The Weekly found Keller in the kitchen of Per Se in New York City to set some of these topics on the stove.
How’s life as chef?
It’s more of a struggle than ever. (Laughs.) Back in the day when you were a chef, you would just stay in the kitchen and cook. Now you got interviews, you’ve gotta do meetings, do charity events – there’s very little time for cooking anymore, you know?
Do you ever get to cook in your own kitchen?
Uh… no. It’s sad. It makes me want to quit sometimes.
I got a kick out of a story I heard the other day. I understand that you cleaned up on the pool table at Casa Palmero one night during Pebble Beach Food & Wine – so you’ve got the pool game, some good tempo on your back swing on the golf course, and you’re not half bad in the kitchen. What do you suck at?
I’m working on it. Working on everything. I haven’t tried everything, but I’m sure there’s dozens of things I suck at.
I enjoyed your cooking demo at Pebble Beach Food & Wine. You mentioned that as sophisticated as you want to get in food, it still comes down to two things: product and execution. Your approach to the product is a big reason you earned the Cooking For Solutions nod – I love the story about Animal Farm (1), and how you or your chefs meet with your gardener at French Laundry (2) every day to write the menu – so I was hoping you could get into the first half of that equation and how central that’s been to your success.
1. Animal Farm Dairy is the smallest licensed creamery in Vermont, where all the farmstead butter is produced by seven Jersey cows and one woman, Diane St. Clair. “I know what my cows are doing every minute of the day,” she says. “Even where they’re grazing.”
2. “When I was an apprentice traveling through France,” Keller writes on the French Laundry website, “I fell in love with the three-star country restaurants—so fine but also so comfortable…when I first stepped under the creeping roses to behold the French Laundry I knew immediately that what I’d seen in France could happen here.”
I think it’s an evolution. I’ve always seen a specific point of view. In a restaurant, if you buy a fork you’ve got to buy a knife. If you buy a knife, you’ve got to buy a spoon. One thing builds on the next and you accomplish the basic tasks and as you continue to grow you continue to learn. You start to grow and refine and evolve. And then you do what we’ve done and you try to reinvent (3) yourself every day.
3. At French Laundry and Keller’s other Michelin three starred spot, Per Se, the two nine-course tasting menus are changed daily—and no ingredients are repeated.
And we’re trying to have a bigger impact on what we’re doing. With relationship to product, it’s just that – it’s building relationships with people and having it be a respectful relationship that can continue to grow where you’re supporting them and they’re supporting you and ultimately the byproduct of that is our guests.
I say that in a truly respectful way: that our guests are the byproduct of all the work that’s done by our suppliers, our farmers, our growers. And having us in the kitchen, that strong bond and that strong respect, not only for each other, but for the price that people have paid, whether that’s across the street at Tucker’s garden (4) or with Keith Martin and his lamb. It’s all connected, it’s life in general.
4. Tucker Taylor is the culinary gardener for the 3-acre farm that rests in front of French Laundry. The bulk of its specialty vegetables and herbs goes to Keller’s Yountville, Napa Valley family of restaurants—Ad Hoc, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery—though some travels to sibling Per Se (5) in New York and Las Vegas.
5. Per Se, touted as an urban “interpretation” of French Laundry, debuted in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle in 2004 after Keller closed FL for four months to export the entire staff to New York City to train the staff there.
When you think about that, it’s really inspiring that somebody actually grew this amazing corn that you can cook and someone’s really going to actually enjoy that. As we lose that in today’s culture especially as we talk about food and the enjoyment of food is sometimes taken to an analytical place where it’s not enjoyable anymore.
I don’t care what level you’re executing to, it’s really about the enjoyment of food in that simple way, and that simple way is with friends on the dining room side. I’m preparing food for you to enjoy with your friends and your family and your loved ones in a way that’s going to be nurturing and memorable.
I’m not really trying to blow anybody’s socks off. The reasons that we cook are really simple: It’s that nurturing thing. Being a chef, being a cook, you have that feeling, you’re wired like that.
Did you ever have a hallelujah moment – between being a dishwasher at your mom’s restaurant (6) to opening multiple Michelin-adored restaurants – when you realized you really had to get back to the best ingredients?
I think there are many hallelujah moments. It has to do with everything: the product, the equipment, the organization, the emotional, all those different things. Throughout your career you start to put it all together.
6. Keller’s mother was manager at Palm Beach Yacht Club. One day, when one of the cooks didn’t show, his mom told him he would be cooking.
You can identify talent at an early age but you know that talent has to be nurtured and matured. And that part of nurturing and maturation has to do with experience. Giving that person the opportunity to experience different things so that they can become a whole person.
You can have all those hallelujah moments where you realize, “Wow, it’s about respect for the product, it’s about the farmer, it’s about the way I place the food, it’s about how I turn the carrots.” For me, with my mother, as a young child and the kind of that respect for organization and efficiency and that work ethic – that was my original hallelujah moment and it builds from there.
The theme of respect comes through clearly on a few levels. Can you talk about your respect for an animal and what that sacrifice (7) means and how it’s no small duty to honor that animal?
Yeah, you think about the animals that we eat – I’m a carnivore, not a vegetarian and all respect to vegetarians (8) – for me it’s a natural cycle. You raise an animal and you raise it to the best of your ability in an environment that’s going to be nurturing, helpful and humane for the animal. You know you give all that respect for that animal so that when you do kill it, you’ve nurtured it and it nurtures you. And making sure that you treat that animalwell not only in its life but in its death. How then you cook that animal… how you process that animal for consumption.
7. The story of the first rabbit Keller butchered has been well circulated. “I was holding onto one leg and it snapped,” he told 60 Minutes. “The rabbit screamed. It was a terrible sound. It was a moment in my life that changed everything, the way I think about food… After that, I wanted to make sure I was extra careful, making sure that I used every bit of that rabbit, and didn’t make a mistake. If I was going to be a cook, if I was going to be a chef, if this was going to be my life, that had to be something that I had to not only participate in, but do it in a way that was proper.”
You need to be proud of that in a way that brings that inner gratification to everything. It’s a scary thing to kill an animal, but when you think about it, we’re animals, too. We’re at the top of that food chain, you know. It’s like all these animals giving up their life for us – it’s really quite frustrating and unnerving when you see animals being treated inhumanely. It’s not necessary, it doesn’t have to happen.
8. Vegetarians are in good hands at French Laundry and Per Se. One of the two tasting menus is purely veggies—a FL menu from last week included “robiola tre latti” (a medjool date with compressed endive and black truffles).
A lot of people would want to define you as a white tablecloth chef – after all, French Laundry has an 106-page wine list with $500 dollar half bottles – but if I’m interpreting correctly, you want to be accessible to more people.
Well, I think certainly, fine dining’s been the goal of my life. It’s always been my desire to be chef of a fine dining restaurant. For me, it’s all about finesse (9), it’s about that extra effort you put into something to make it that much better. Finding that best piece of lamb, finding the best beef, finding the most pristine piece of tuna. That’s always what it’s about, and you know, bringing it to that level.
9. Keller’s fiancé Laura Cunningham, who still occasionally consults with the restaurant family, went so far as to contract a ballet dancer to help choreograph the wait staff’s movements, smoothing out their body language, eye contact and how to maneuver tight dining rooms gently.
But you know we’ve done a good job at [widening their accessibility] with Bouchon (10) for example, being our French bistro. It’s very traditional, very historic. I’m not one to put my own stamp on history. It’s not an interpretation of a bistro. It’s a replication of a bistro, with a spirit and a menu, and a design. It’s very important for me to try be as authentic as possible when doing that and I think we’re very successful with that.
10. Bouchon, a newer joint next to FL in Yountville (and with another branch in Las Vegas), takes the classics still served in Leon or Paris—pot-au-feu, steak frites—plugs in the best ingredients, and applies techniques that result in even cleaner textures and flavors.
And then Ad Hoc (11) is an important representation of that, with the same standards of the French Laundry and Bouchon. It’s just a different concept, a different format – it’s family style. It may not be the exact same loin of lamb, but it’s going to be the shoulder of lamb and it comes from the same lamb so the quality of the product is the same. You deal with the same standards of how we work, how our team works, in our dining room. We try to treat each other how we treat our customers.
11. Ad Hoc is another Yountville venture opened temporarily to serve four-course family-style menus that change daily (think chophouse salads, beef porterhouse, cheese boards and apple granita); it went permanent in ’07 after a very warm reception.
One key reason this honor is heading your way is that investment in your staff, so they know precisely why it’s that fish or that grain and in turn they translate that to the greater public – you guys are ambassadors.
Well, I think chefs always lead the way – they’ve been doing that for centuries and they’ll be continuing to do that. And trying to set the example has to be part of our philosophy and in doing that we also have to try to balance what we’re doing and be respectful not only to us, but as an industry to our suppliers, to our kitchen, to the dining room, and ultimately to our guests in a way that brings the best possible experience to them. And you know, it’s a tricky road, honestly, to navigate these days.
Keith Martin (12) is my lamber in Pennsylvania. He’s an extraordinary man who uses an extraordinary protocol when raising his lamb. But he had to ship his lamb 2,200 miles to California or 1,800 miles to Las Vegas. People say “What about the carbon footprint?” But if I don’t support someone like Keith Martin, how can I continue to have an impact on the industry? Hopefully, one day, I’ll impact the industry so much that other producers or livestockers are raising their animals like him across the country.
12. “Nature does its best work when people stay out of the way,” Martin says. At his Elysian Fields Farm near Pittsburgh, he gives his lambs water continuously tested for purity—and leads them down to the Monongahela River where Huntington soils produce naturally enriched alfalfa.
I like how you’ve encouraged people to go to the farmers markets and see what’s in season and build their meals from there. You’re doing that with your gardener, too, but you’re doing nine courses (13) every night. How do you pull off that kind of freshness and creativity so religiously?
It’s really about collaboration, it’s about a group, it’s about a team having a vision, to have common goals and that’s really about how we do it. It’s not about one person – it’s about a culture that’s been refined and defined at our restaurants that enables each and every person to have an impact and take ownership for what they’re doing, and I think that’s one of the keys to our successes.
13. A menu from earlier this week included hand-cut buckwheat “capellini” (with Jidori hen egg, crispy sea beans and marinated cypress seeds) and poached Maine lobster tail with King Richard leeks and red beet essence.
So it’s being able to empower people to have the ownership of a course.
I got a couple old lady questions for you. You told an anecdote about “Nona” at Pebble (14). What else did Nona teach you?
It was about the pasta. My experience with her was great. Every morning she would wake up and make the pasta. That’s what I got out of the pasta was just that. To me that was profound, that was enough. That changed my life about making pasta. It’s one of those what-you-say moments?
Exactly. It’s like, “Oh yeah. I get it.” So it’s so simple. Sometimes you expect too much, when it’s just one thing that you should take away from an experience. And you think about how that one thing enriches your life over and over and over again. And that has, for me, over and over and over again.
14. “I was in Castiglione Falletto, Italy,” Keller told the crowd. “Every morning, Nona and I would wake up and make pasta. She didn’t speak English; I didn’t speak Italian…but she would touch her earlobe when it was done. That’s how I would know.”
You’re hitting on another theme I see on your menus: Less is more. Using simple ingredients, really creating a platform for them and their flavors.
It’s an extraordinary thing.
Before I get to the other old lady question, what’s it been like being involved (15) at Pebble Beach?
Well it’s great. I’m proud of every small contribution I can make to it. You know David [Bernahl], Robert [Weakley], and Gary [Obligacion] have done an extraordinary thing there. I feel confident that it’s going to continue to get better and be one of the premiere food and wine events in our country, if not in the world. It’s really extraordinary, just physically, where it is on the Monterey Peninsula. To be there where you have Pebble Beach and to have the support of the gardens that are around us in Northern California. All the best food comes from Northern California. It’s in heaven.
15. Keller serves on the advisory board to Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
So the other old lady question. A woman got up during your demo and you cracked, “Where are you going?” Beyond another Bouchon in Beverly Hills this fall, where are you going?
I don’t know. I’m on the road and seeing where this road takes me. And you know it’s frustrating, it’s aggravating, it’s rewarding, it’s enriching. It’s all those things in life that you experience, but the thing that I find most gratifying is the staff that I work with and their contributions to what they do, and what I do.
How would you describe yourself as someone to work for and work with?
Well, you’ve got to be fair. You’re trying to be demanding, you’re trying to be challenging, you try to be a leader, you know you try to be tough in all those areas. You know you’re a parent, you want to nurture (16) and lead and be a teacher, all those things.
16. Many of Keller’s chefs have gone on to rousing careers after working with him. Thomas Keller Restaurant Group alumni currently command kitchens from Hugo’s in Portland, Maine, to Michael Mina in Las Vegas, Dovetail in N.Y. to Masa’s in S.F.
Free association time. Truffles. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind?
What’s the first thing that pops into my head? I think it’s just the enjoyment, the freedom. Yeah, it’s that feeling of being outside in a beautiful location and just being totally immersed in that moment.
Your golf coach David Bernahl says that you’re out there because you like the challenge of competing with yourself.
That’s true for everyone to a certain extent. To me it’s about being in that moment, being out on that beautiful grass.
And that’s when you’re probably playing your best golf, when you’re in the moment.
It’s the sense of freedom. Inspiration. There’s no distractions on the golf course.
OK. Kitchen. What’s the first thing that pops into your head?
I think it’s comfort.
I would have to say Pebble Beach.
What do you think about when you hear “The best in the world”?
There’s so many things that remind me of the best in the world. For me, the best in the world is not having to ask for anything. Having all of your desires fulfilled through a knowledge and understanding – and of who and what you are and what you eat.
That ties nicely into Cooking for Solutions because if we’re not careful about the way we steward the best things, no matter how much knowledge we have…
We’re not going to have anything left.