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An Interview with Chef Thomas Keller


By Kate Mazzarella-Minshall

November 7, 2010


CHEF THOMAS KELLER


INTERVIEW

By Kate Mazzarella-Minshall

  

On June 16, I attended a book signing event for Chef Thomas Keller’s new book, “Under Pressure…Cooking Sous Vide”.  The event was held at Chef Keller's beautiful Las Vegas Restaurant, Bouchon, in the Venezia Tower of the Venetian Hotel.  I was invited by one of my good friends, Annie Kang-Drachen, Manager of Bouchon's Private Dining. 

 

  

As the doors opened and the reception began, servers appeared with flutes of champagne, red and white wine and the most interesting and delicious array of butler-passed hors d'oeuvres.  Chef Keller, with his larger-than-life presence, filled the room as he greeted his guests.  I waited with excited anticipation at the chance to finally meet a man I had read so much about and whose restaurants and bakeries I have so enjoyed over the years.  As my friend walked toward me, I started to shake and I felt a lump form in my throat.  She was about to introduce me to her boss; Thomas Keller, world-renowned chef and author, and I silently prayed to whoever might be listening, to please let me find the words to speak clearly and intelligently, and to remember to thank Chef for granting me an interview.  Within seconds of the introduction and hand shake, I felt at ease.  Chef Keller was most gracious and charming and very down to earth.

 

Thirty minutes later the invited guests were escorted into a private room for a question and answer session where Chef Keller brilliantly described the definition of “Cooking Sous Vide” and offered other interesting insights into chefdom and the world of cooking.  For anyone interested, you must treat yourself to his new book and grab the other two as well, (The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon).  It was a fascinating discussion; Chef Keller spoke about his restaurants, his successes and his failures:  “I’ve failed a couple of times”, said Keller.  “In a way, it’s an exciting time when you fail.  It helps you learn how to become more successful”. Chef Keller is certainly no stranger to success.

 

After the Q&A, my friends and I stood in line for the actual book signing.  We estimated that there were at least 250 people standing in line behind us which wasn't even close to the amount of reservations Bouchon had on the books for that night.  Fortunately my friends and I had the foresight to pre arrange a dinner reservation following the book signing.  When we left at 9:00 PM, Chef Keller had barely finished signing and there was still a long line of walk-in guests waiting for tables; waiting for the chance to enjoy an unparalleled dining experience. 

 

Bouchon is the epitome of a class act, from the exquisite decor and accoutrements to a friendly, accommodating and attentive service staff.  Chef Keller’s exceptional French cuisine is a profound balance of flavors and rich textures that truly demonstrate his culinary creativity and the talents of his chefs. 

  

NSAEN:

Who inspired you to become a Chef?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

I can’t really pinpoint one person. There were many people who inspired me along the way and continue to inspire. My Mother was my first role model.  From her I learned my values, my strong work ethic and desire; the desire to do a good job and to do a little bit better everyday.  I give credit to her for these beliefs; she had a tremendous impact on my life.  She also gave me my attention to detail. 

 

My mother worked as a restaurant manager and she gave me my first restaurant job as a dishwasher. It was a very gratifying experience for me. Through this experience, I formed my inclination for organization, repetition and rituals. It laid the groundwork and discipline for my chosen career path later in life. She was in the industry and she knew how important all of these things were in order to achieve success. 

 

My big brother Joseph, who is a chef like me, really gave me a strong introduction to cooking.  He taught me how to make hollandaise, roast a prime rib, cook lobster tail, flank steak and make omelets. He was my first introduction to cooking.

 

From Chef Roland Henin I learned the emotional part of cooking. It was about cooking for somebody else, nourishing, giving pleasure to people whom you might know or not know--and how that impacted them and brought a smile to their face and satisfied an inner need or desire in them in a very profound way. 

 

 

NSAEN:

Why were you drawn to Classical French cooking?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

That’s always a good question.  I read the “Great Chefs of France”, and “Ma Gastronomie” by Fernand Point, the founder of the legendary La Pyramide Restaurant and they were truly influential and had a great impact on me.   I have to say that it was not necessarily the cooking that attracted me; it was more about the lifestyle and the culture of the French people that were very, very important to me. 

 

NSAEN:

How would you define your cuisine?  What is “personality cuisine”?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

My cuisine is progressive American cuisine based on classic French technique and a classic French repertoire.   My cuisine is a personality cuisine; my personality reflects a real appreciation of French cuisine yet it is still American cuisine.

 

NSAEN:

You’ve described your dishes as being simple.

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Yes, but simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.

 

NSAEN:

Why do you love most about being a Chef?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Nurturing people. That brings me pleasure as a human being.  Cooking is not just about technique and providing sustenance; it’s about nurturing.  Food is about creating memories. I love when my cooking brings a smile on the faces of my guests.

 

NSAEN:

What advice would you give someone aspiring to become a chef or a young chef just starting out in the industry?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Patience.  Be ready at every moment; prepare yourself for tomorrow.  Chefs always want to be moving faster.  I think it’s important to enjoy the moment; to accept and embrace the repetition of the job and perfect what you’re doing each day so you can bring it forward and use it as a solid foundation for building your career.   Chefs also need to take ownership of what they do, and never give up!  It’s all about determination.  Go in everyday and do a little bit better than the day before.

 

NSAEN:

What do you like best about best about your work?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

The teamwork.  It’s really about teamwork and being part of that dynamic.  Because we work so closely together, we are able to achieve a result and give an experience to our guests that far exceeds any one individual’s achievement.

 

NSAEM:

What is your culinary philosophy?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Cooking is a simple equation, no matter if it’s a fine dining restaurant or a themed concept.  It is about using quality products and having people who can execute the menu, and bringing those two together every single day.  Our goal is to give our guests an experience with our food that leaves them wanting more.  We want to have a great and positive impact on the people that are most important to us, our guests.  Food is all about creating memories, past and present and we want our guests to leave with wonderful memories of their experience.

 

NSAEN:

Where do you get the names for your restaurants and how did you choose the concept for your restaurants?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

The name French Laundry was an historic name.  It was called “The French Laundry” since the early 1900s.  It was owned by a French couple who operated it as a steam laundry. The building was later purchased by Don and Sally Schmitt who turned it into a restaurant. They operated their business until 1992 when I purchased The French Laundry from them.

 

Bouchon means a cork in French and also an urban bistro. There was a need for us to open this restaurant as most Napa Valley restaurants closed up at 9:00 PM. We longed for a place for the hospitality industry to go and unwind after a long day in the kitchen. When we started working on Bouchon, the idea was to open a restaurant that reminded us of the classic, traditional bistros we used to go to when we were in New York City and Paris.  At Bouchon, we produce high quality food, using the same standards and philosophy as The French Laundry, but in a more casual setting.

 

Per Se is an interesting name.  It’s a Latin word meaning “in and of itself”.  We were looking at the ampersand symbol and in the word “ampersand” is the word “per se.”  That really personified what we wanted the restaurant to be and now has become.  Per se is a restaurant about luxury with a beautiful view overlooking Central Park; a place where you can watch the seasons change, and as the seasons change, so do the food and the feeling inside the restaurant.

 

 

As far as Ad Hoc, this was originally intended to be a very different type of restaurant. While we were going over its design, we experimented by opening a temporary restaurant that we called Ad Hoc, which literally means "for this purpose."  The idea was to be open 5 days a week offering a 4-course family style menu that we changed every day.  We wanted to have a place for the community and for ourselves to dine for the time being, while we finalized our original concept and design for a burger restaurant.  The decision to change over the restaurant was taken out of our hands by our guests; the response from them was so positive we couldn't close it. So today, Ad Hoc has become a permanent part of our restaurant family.

 

  

 

NSAEN:

Why do you change your menus every day at The French Laundry and Per Se, and isn’t that a lot of work?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

We change them everyday because we’re driven by what’s available in the market. We continue to be inspired by whatever is around us and look forward to collaborating with our team to make these changes.

 

NSAEN:

What does it take to be a master chef?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Desire.  You have to have desire.  People say that you have to have passion in order to do something well but I don’t completely agree with that.  Passion is important but passion ebbs and flows.  We can be passionate about something one day but not the next.  Desire equals success. Having a desire for something means striving for it on a daily basis.  Determination and ambition are also important qualities in any field.

 

NSAEN:

You are a world-renowned chef.  What are the reasons for your success and what distinguishes you from other famous chefs?


Chef Thomas Keller:

I don’t know what distinguishes me from other chefs but I believe the reasons for my success have been a little bit of luck and having the ability to recognize opportunities and take advantage of them.  But more than anything, I really attribute my success to my teams.  We work together in a collaborative way that remains one of our strengths. We all share a common vision and a common goal--the same basic beliefs and principles as they relate to food.  People who have the knowledge and that one-hundred percent commitment to our guests will have success. 

 

NSAEN:

What are your favorite foods?  Do you eat junk food and are there any foods that you won’t eat?
 

Chef Thomas Keller:

I won’t eat bad food [said laughing].  Sure I eat junk food…Nutter Butters, Snickers and I love In and Out Burger.  Roast chicken is my favorite food; food represents memories and roast chicken stirs up many emotions in me. 

 

NSAEN:

Do you read reviews about yourself and your restaurants and how do these reviews influence you?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Obviously reviews are very important; they give direction to the consumer. Certainly no one wants a bad review, but I try not to dwell too much on them.  I respect the food critics for what they do but I don’t like focusing on yesterday; I like to focus on today and tomorrow. 

 

We enjoy hearing from our guests the most. The biggest compliment I can think of is when people say “This reminds me of…” because they associate it with a positive experience in their past. But at the end of the day, we measure our performance from within. We constantly gauge ourselves by how we relate to one another, and as I mentioned above, how we strive to be a little bit better than what we did yesterday.

 

NSAEN:

Do you take advantage of local seasonings and produce?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Of course.  We have our own gardens and farms.  It is all about quality products and supporting our suppliers—and building those relationships.

 

NSAEN:

Has the heightened interest in celebrity chefs and cooking shows been good or bad for the industry, and would you consider hosting your own show?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

It’s been very good.  The Food Network is a great tool.  It teaches people to be more interested in food and cooking.  For me personally, I don’t want to be on TV.  It’s too distracting.  I prefer to focus on my restaurants.  I want to make sure my team is getting everything they need to be able to maintain and elevate the quality of the experience for our guests that we have in all our restaurants.

NSAEN:

Do you follow dining and food trends?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

I don’t get involved in trends for the simple fact that you know it’s going to change.

 

NSAEN:

You have a very strong work ethic.  Is there a rule of conduct and a work ethic you enforce with your team?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Certainly, we always have rules but they are hard to “enforce”, I prefer the position “to inspire”.  I want a staff that is committed to my philosophy and culture. 

 

NSAEN:

What are most important lessons you can teach your staff?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Success.  I want my team to learn from me to help them do their jobs better, because at the end of the day we define our success by how we did collectively as a group.  Awareness is key, without it you may not recognize inspiration. If you are not aware of the world around you, then it is impossible to be inspired whether by people, or by products, or the sight and smell of something. Inspiration is all around us, and we just need to be aware, and be ready for that inspiration, and then embrace it.

 

I want to impart what’s important to me: that respect for the food, that commitment to our guests as well as building relationships with our suppliers.  I want my team to realize that for a restaurant to be good so many pieces have to come together. 

 

NSAEN:

What is your next venture?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

We are opening a Bouchon in Beverly Hills.

 

NSAEN:

You said you became interested in wine when you became interested in food, and now you have your own wine label.

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

Yes, it’s called Modicum; it’s a small production of Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

NSAEN:

What are your favorite culinary instruments?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

My knives (chuckling).

 

NSAEN:

What do you look for when you hire your chefs?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

I want a staff with true dedication and true commitment to the kitchen and the cuisine.  I want my team to set examples for the next generation of chefs, the dining room staff as well as the food industry as a whole.

 

NSAEN:

Your admiring fans love your books.  Do you have any plans to write another?

 

Chef Thomas Keller:

If the right opportunity presents itself, certainly.

 

NSAEN:

Thank you, Chef Keller.  Thank you for granting me this interview and thank you to your amazing staff for making it possible; it was an honor and a privilege.

 



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