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Narratives  a gastronomic anthology

Thomas Keller

Where it all began...

It only seems appropriate to launch this blog with my first milestone interview.

Let me clarify. Up until this point in my budding food writing career I'd had the distinct pleasure of meeting, interviewing and writing profiles on a number of local talents who were all too kind to lend me their time and share their stories. So when the opportunity came to not only meet, but speak with Chef Thomas Keller, a culinary legend who I respect greatly for a 30-minute interview (Keller was incredibly kind and actually spent 45-minutes with me), I jumped on board. (Aside: Keller's iconic The French Laundry was the first restaurant I had ever vowed to travel specifically to experience. That happened in 2005 thanks to an incredible friend who took me up on my word. The dark, and almost embarrassing if not for the stories shared in the captions, photoset here.) Below, find the complete transcript of our conversation. It is unedited and a little rough. There might have been a bit of starstruck-ness. Also the very green questions (some of them driven by audience interest, namely, "where have you eaten? What's your favourite restaurant (in Toronto)?" when I knew that this was chef's first visit to the city). It was an incredible chance to glean knowledge, and see things from the perspective from one of the industry's best. It was educational and humbling. So I ask for pardon if certain sections (likely mine) don't appear as refined as they could be. I'm hoping that my interview style has become more polished over the years. I suppose we'll be able to track that progress with each subsequent post. Thanks for reading.

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Published: November 2009

The condensed interview for Q&A: legendary chef Thomas Keller on his culinary empire

Post image by Taku Kumabe of media Smaku

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RS: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Chef Keller. I heard that it is your first time in the city, and was wondering if you might be exploring much of Toronto’s culinary scene?

THOMAS KELLER: Unfortunately I got in late last night and am leaving early tomorrow morning, so I won’t really get to see much this time. The one restaurant that was on my list was The Black Hoof, which I hear is very good.

RS: How did you hear about The Black Hoof?

TK: A friend of mine told me, and it came across my desk, “if you’re going to Toronto, you have to try The Black Hoof, it’s a wonderful restaurant…”

RS: Chef [Grant] van Gameren will probably be pleased to hear that, not that long ago Chef Daniel Boulud was there…

TK: Ah right, maybe it was Daniel that told me. But tonight, by the time I’ll be finished with the lecture and the signing it’ll probably be too late, and then I’m up again tomorrow at 6am to fly to Chicago for another book signing, then Milwaukee the next day. So I’m trying to be respectful of my condition for people who are expecting me to be articulate and have conversations in an intelligent manner. (RS: (giggles)) I’ll probably be in bed by midnight. It’s a book tour and what I’ve learned is that you want to maximize the time to get the message out about the book.

RS: And what is the message you want to convey through Ad Hoc at Home?

TK: Well I think the overreaching goal of the book is to teach people to be better cooks; to make them more aware of their environments, what they need to be able execute not just my, but any recipe. It’s also about enjoying the process in cooking and to make something achievable.

RS: You cookbooks are beautifully put together, (TK: Thank you) however Ad Hoc with its whimsical style is unlike The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon or Under Pressure, what influenced that change?

TK: I look at each book for what they are. With The French Laundry it was a snapshot of the restaurant in 1998. At most restaurants that are personality driven, it’s a snapshot at that moment and very specific to that restaurant at that time. Bouchon is a cookbook that was more historical, dealing with French bistro dishes and classics; respecting the flavor profiles. And with anything we do, it’s a sense of refinement, so with Bouchon, those historical recipes maintain the flavor profile of the recipes, but modernizing it and refining it in a way, using better products and techniques. Under Pressure was really written for the professional, to teach them how to use a specific technology and how we adapted that technology in restaurant cooking. Whereas Ad Hoc is about Ad Hoc, a restaurant that was defined in a brief moment about family and family style cooking, having that engagement with the table and the food, not about serving the food on plates but having people participate and serving food like you do at home – no pretense involved, and a collective collaborative memory about the dishes we do. My dishes are my memories, but there are the memories from many who are involved in Ad Hoc. I think that’s an important element, so that when we think about the dishes, i.e. fried chicken – and that being such an iconic American dish that straddles economic, social, and geographic boundaries and really is something that everyone can relate to, that becomes a collective memory and that brings it into the scope of Ad Hoc as a downstyle restaurant/recipe.

RS: Two questions: In what direction do you see yourself going? And what is your opinion of food trends?

TK: I don’t have anything planned on the horizon. We have a group of restaurants which are really very important to me and the group (The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery) and making sure that they have the support to maintain, continue to grow, be challenged and continue to meet the expectations of our guests. We just opened our third Bouchon in Beverly Hills, so the next year and half would be set to make sure that that gets the foundation it needs to thrive. So that’s what’s on the horizon for me, maintaining the quality of our restaurants and we’ll see if any other opportunities become apparent.

RS: How do you decide on which of these opportunities to pursue?

TK: Los Angeles made sense for Bouchon because so many Angelios come to Las Vegas and Yountville. In fact I’m from southern California, worked in southern California, I know people in southern California… it’s part of that foundation. Going into a new community, like we did in Las Vegas, it’s a little difficult, but Las Vegas itself allows outsiders many great opportunities. Going to, say Scottsdale is a different thing because I have no connection with Scottsdale.

When you think about what food or cooking is, it’s product and execution. Product is very simply defined by the food we get; execution is defined by a lot of different things – skill level of the chefs, quality of the equipment, quality of the facility – that define execution. When you go somewhere else that is not your own country where you can’t easily transfer products around or understand the products it’s hard to say. If I came to Toronto, I wouldn’t know because I don’t have any experience with it. So I’d really have to learn, first and foremost [about] where the food comes from, the quality of the food, and then be comfortable being able to open up a restaurant there. With that I can get half of the equation and feel confident that it’s going to be good.

It’s just not that easy opening up a restaurant. There are a lot of opportunities to open up a restaurant but it really comes down to knowing what the expectations are. If I came to Toronto, London or Singapore and I am not able to achieve that, then I diminish the quality of the experience – then you diminish the quality of your reputation. And the only thing a chef has is his reputation.

RS: So would that be what you would consider as your legacy, a sort of Thomas Keller branding if you will, where once you hear the name you know the association?

TK: Well it is a brand, and I got comfortable with that about six years ago because people kept saying when started to do Bouchon, “oh, so you’re a brand.” “No, no, I don’t really have a brand.” And I didn’t realize what that really meant until you start to get comfortable with the fact that you really are a brand. Eventually you have to find what kind of brand you want to be. If you start to draw parallels to who you are – I always say that if I’m going to be a brand, using the analogy of fashion, I want to be Hermès – it’s a brand that has extraordinary integrity, that doesn’t compromise on quality, it really is respected for what they do, and they haven’t really diverged from their main source of business which is leather and scarves.

RS: Being an experienced hand in the kitchen, where have you been that has most impressed you?

TK: Everywhere I go I’m impressed with restaurants. I have great respect whether it’s the big named chefs like Grant Achatz of Chicago, Heston Blumenthal and Fergus Henderson in the UK… There are dozens and dozens around the world that are just extraordinary chefs that perform at a high level and there are those that you don’t really hear about that just do a really good job. You go to work everyday to do a good job.

RS: That’s highly respectful of you to have such quality words for even the most junior in the business.

TK: Everyone knows the personalities of chefs that are out there. Who knows why we became who we are. There’s no clear path set for us or education for what we do that are outside the scope of our main training: cooking. Like standing around taking photographs and doing interviews, a chef of the last generation may not do any of that.

The expectations have grown enormously with my generation of chefs, if you think about the last generation of chefs, they had one menu, one kitchen, one restaurant and they didn’t change it. They worked tirelessly everyday on refining and perfecting those dishes and they were respected for that. Everybody had the same dishes, but what made one restaurant better than the other was the quality of the product and the quality of their execution. Today it’s not about any specific dishes because it’s all personality driven – this is Thomas Keller’s food or Daniel Boulud’s food or Pierre Gagnaire’s food or Ferran Adria’s or Grant Achatz’s food – it’s all associated with the people, the person, the personality. Our dishes are evolved from flavor profiles or traditional recipes/components into something different. So why?

RS: So why for you then?

TK: I don’t know (laughs). That’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t know why me and not the kid down the street who is as good a chef as I am. I don’t know.

RS: Do you think it’s because you work hard and you’re driven?

TK: I mean a lot of people work hard. Why does one person get to be this and not another person? There’s luck involved, a certain amount of effort, of course, I mean, how did it happen? I worked hard all of my life and I thought I had other restaurants that were going to be successful that weren’t successful. I ended up at The French Laundry at 39 and all of a sudden I had a hit. You just keep trying; you don’t stop. Perseverance, tenacity, luck, I mean there’s all different things involved in why one person gets to do something another person doesn’t.

RS: Although you are a top chef in the US and in the world, I don’t know if you could just attribute that to luck…

TK: (Laughing) No no, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean it to diminish the importance of being talented or the importance of being focused or applying to have a common goal. There are so many things that create the foundation for everybody and I don’t mean to diminish those. But at the end of the day there’s a certain amount of opportunity that you see or somebody else sees in you… there’s a lot of stuff. It’s interesting, a philosophical question that there’s no answer to, it’s just a conversation that you have with people about why you are who you are and what happened with our industry which in the 60s was considered domestic help. It wasn’t even a profession – culinary profession only happened recently in our lifetime (or at least in my lifetime (laughs), I’m not sure how old you are).

RS: (laughs) In my lifetime as well, but now I’m sure we agree that culinary arts are glamourized, a highly respected profession, that not just anyone can do it.

TK: It is tough and that’s what it takes. When I started cooking there was no celebrity chefs. Today, young cooks are getting into the industry to become celebrities.

RS: Does that rub you the wrong way?

TK: I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing in and of itself, but at the base of it needs to be a strong culinary foundation.

RS: So as long as it doesn’t compromise the base…

TK: Right, right. So we talked about trends, and I’m only against trends because the true definition of a trend is something that has an end. So why would you want to be trendy? It doesn’t make sense to me. “I want to be trendy and then someday it’s going to be passé.” The other thing about trends: what is a food trend? This food is in this year and out next year. Why is arugula in this year and out next year? I mean arugula’s still arugula – it’s great! It’s been around forever. Why would it be trendy? I don’t understand. There’s no value sometimes. There are certain trends that are very important, don’t get me wrong, but the overreaching definition of trend is something, when you apply it to food, doesn’t make sense.

RS: But if you were to open a menu…. What one item/ingredient would turn you off? Something that you wish you could phase out altogether?

TK: Bad Food! Ha ha.

RS: How about a favourite?

TK: I’m always compelled to order a roast chicken, an omelet or a great steak. All those things I think resonate with most people. The idea of a beautifully roasted chicken – the aroma, the flavours… I mean who doesn’t love roast chicken when it’s done really really well? It’s compelling. So sometimes looking at menus there’s great anxiety when you see a great steak, roast chicken, tripe, you know, what am I going to order? There are so many good things on the menu; I don’t know what to choose. So it’s almost better not to have any choices when I order.

RS: Is that the premise behind the chef’s tasting menu?

TK: Sure. When you think about luxury, what is the true definition of luxury? In the Western culture, and in the Eastern now as well, it’s all about choices. You have the choice of 15 car models, they’re all great cars, but what car do I buy? Then you start looking at that, your friend has this, you see that… Matt Damon’s driving this, I mean, which one do I choose? So the anxiety is to make the choice. Luxury to me is about not having to make the choice.

Going to a restaurant, just sitting down and having the chef cook for you, is great. When I go out to dinner [at] any of my colleagues’ restaurants, I never see the menu nor wine list and it’s just a wonderful experience. So if you can replicate that in a restaurant, substituting for allergies or intense likes/dislikes (those things are easy to accomplish), basically this is what was chosen because it was in the market/garden, the compositions, it’s all good. Sit down and enjoy your food.

RS: I like the way you think. I’m labeling this the Thomas Keller philosophy.

TK: The kind that you don’t have a choice!

RS: Now we’re going to make you choose. If you had to create one ultimate meal at any point in time with anyone in history, who would be there and what would be on the menu?

TK: That’s hard. Well, I think the time would be now. I think that we have extraordinary products, certainly what I see in America from my personal history. We have amazing facilities, technology and understanding about food. So I think cooking today would be ideal.

The people I’d like to have around would be my parents; someone like Fernand Point – he was an icon not only in our industry but somebody who really inspires me through his book – he’s been dead since I was born but somebody who has continued to inspire me through my career. Someone like Harry Truman, who to me was our last great president, there were great presidents before him and Clinton was pretty great, but somebody who I really respect. Somebody like Audrey Hepburn, who to me was an extraordinary woman in so many ways, not just in her beauty but in her thoughtfulness and compassion.

What I’d serve is simple food, probably a great soup something like garbure (a rustic thick French winter soup), which I really love right out of the garden, a great salad, roast chicken – of course, whatever vegetables were in the earth, then something lemon and something chocolate. Separate, not lemon and chocolate together.

RS: Ha, ha. I will attest that your lemon tart is fantastic.

TK: (Smiles) Thank you.

RS: Last question, what is your non-food related hobby?

TK: Golf! I don’t get to do it very often. I just love the idea of totally committed to something, it takes all your attention and it lasts for 4 hours. You’re walking around an amazing park, if you want to call a golf course that. Some golf courses are the most majestic geographic locations in the world: you think about Pebble Beach, New South Wales in Australia – beautiful lawn, throwing a little white ball all around.

RS: Will you be taking a break after the book tour to get in some rounds of golf?

TK: Yeah, I think I’m going to try to spend two days in Palm Springs between Christmas and New Years. I haven’t golfed for months. For me it’s not about the good game but more about the experience.

RS: Well thank you for this experience it was wonderful to have had the chance to speak with you.

TK: Hopefully I got the message across and that I answered all your questions.

RS: If it doesn’t sound too awkward, you have made yourself even more likeable than is possible. It’s truly an honour to know that you are as genuine as your brand is (TK: Thank you) and that I’ve perceived you to be. Thank you for your time.

TK: Thank you.

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