Thomas Keller Q&A
GT chats with the chef’s chef, Thomas Keller, on why France is and always will be a culinary touchstone for him – even when he roasts a chicken.
In 2011, Thomas Keller was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, for his work in promoting French cuisine in America. It’s a rare distinction for a chef working outside France, and one Keller shares with only two other Americans in the food world – Chez Panisse chef-patron Alice Waters and the late Julia Child.
Keller is no stranger to acclaim. The only American to simultaneously run two three-Michelin-starred restaurants – The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley and Per Se in Manhattan – he is by any measure one of the most respected chefs in the world. In Sydney in May to cook for a charity dinner at Rockpool Bar & Grill with Neil Perry and Mugaritz chef Andoni Aduriz, Thomas Keller caught up with GT to talk all things French.
GT: Do you look to France today for inspiration?
Thomas Keller: I think what’s going on in France right now is extraordinary. When you think about haute cuisine and you think about fine dining, France exemplifies what that’s all about. I was in Paris in October and I had a three-Michelin-star experience, and it’s something that reinvigorates your desire to have a restaurant, to cook and to create an experience for the guest. It’s something that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.
Does French food remain a touchstone for how your teams cook at your restaurants?
Yes. We really look to the history of cuisine, to the classics, for those flavour profiles. At The French Laundry, we’re in wine country. People are there to drink wine as well as to eat, and the flavour profiles that are most enjoyable or approachable or appropriate for wine are French. A lot of the flavour profiles of the wines made in our region [the Napa Valley] are modelled on those in France – the cabernet sauvignons, the pinots, the chardonnays, the syrahs – so we don’t want to do food that conflicts with that: we want to do food that has that ability to enhance the wine.
Who do you see leading France’s restaurants into the decades to come?
That’s a good question. I’m not really sure… Good food is good food, and in always searching for what’s new, we sometimes lose sight of that. Newness is not necessarily the important thing: quality is what it’s about. I’m frustrated sometimes because we’re led down the path, in many ways, to always want that next thing. People are always asking me when I’m going to open a new restaurant. Why do we have to be looking to the next thing? Why can’t we be satisfied doing a really good job today?
Was there a particular bistro experience that you called on when you were creating your own bistro, Bouchon?
It can’t be authentic, because you can’t be truly authentic outside France, so we wanted to have a place that resembled a classic urban bistro. When you look at bistro menus you see the same types of food over and over again – roasted chicken, steak frites, trout amandine, quenelles de brochet, soupe à l’oignon – because those things resonate with people. All these different things that are very classic, dishes that you can enjoy over and over again, week after week.
Do you think bistro menus are frozen in time?
I don’t know that it’s so much frozen in time as geared towards seasonal ingredients and dishes that allow you to produce the food in a very efficient and effective way. You take coq au vin or blanquette de veau or boeuf Bourguignon: it’s all prepared ahead and it’s the kind of food that gets better as it sits. You think about the classic sauces for bistros and they’re all based on browned butter, whether it’s meunière, Grenobloise or amandine; you have an opportunity to make four different sauces from one base. The bistro is not necessarily about a menu, but a spirit. It’s spirit that’s important – a communal experience, one of a neighbourhood, of recognition, of conviviality, one of spontaneity and just being able to drop in. It’s about a restaurant that can be used at different times of the day.
Which classic French techniques do you think can most enrich a home-cook’s repertoire?
Roasting a chicken. It depends on the kind of chicken you want to roast, of course. There are several recipes in my Bouchon cookbook on how to roast a chicken. One of my favourites is chicken roast with a lot of salt and a very high heat. But then another of my favourites is just roasting the chicken in a skillet with a lot of vegetables and basting it, so it really comes down to what it is you’re trying to achieve and the amount of time you have. But I think a roasted chicken, regardless of how you do it – whether you truss it or not, whether you cook it at a high heat or a moderate heat – is a great asset for home cooks. Being able to scramble an egg. It’s these very simple things that are so satisfying in so many different ways. Being able to roast a good chicken once a week enriches your lifetime.
How French is your food?
When I began cooking, 35 or 37 years ago, nouvelle cuisine was really the height of cooking at that moment. Paul Bocuse and the Bande á Bocuse were redefining what French food was, and it hadn't been redefined since Escoffier did it in the early 1900s. And, like any generation, you see new art, new music, you see new fashion, and of course you see new food - even though Paul Bocuse didn't want his food called nouvelle cuisine. That was the moment I fell in love with cooking and decided to become a chef, and at the pinnacle of cuisine was French food, and the new movement of nouvelle cuisine.
Where do you send your chefs to work in France?
We try to send them wherever they want to go to experience whatever they want to experience rather than what I think they should experience.
Where do they want to go nowadays?
It's very difficult to get anyone work in France today. That's become scarcer and scarcer. Guy Savoy would be a place that we would send them. Michel Trama, Marc Haeberlin, Michel Troisgros. Places that are part of our relationship and association with Traditions & Qualité and Relais & Chateaux, that make them a little more accessible, but still very difficult because of the French laws today. It's not like it was when I went to France.
It seems like France isn't perhaps the essential stop it once was on a young chef's curriculum.
Well, when I was starting out it wasn't an essential step for me either, as far as learning to cook is concerned. I think today you can learn the skills and techniques, philosophy and culture of a great restaurant without having to go to France. I learned that firsthand because the most important things I learned in France weren't about cooking. They were about the importance of consistency, the importance of ingredients, the importance of relationships and dedication. It was a cultural thing, and there was a social aspect to it - that is what had the most impact on me. If I went there because I had to learn how to cook, all the nuance of why we cook would've been lost on me, and that's the most important thing.
What are the key French books in your professional library?
There's Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. Another one was [Quentin Crewe's] Great Chefs of France, which you also don't see much because it's out of print. Certainly Escoffier's Le Repertoire de la Cuisine. Those are really books that precisely define and codify French cooking, its basis and foundation. Someone like Point is very inspiring, and so is The Great Chefs of France. Paul Bocuse's books are extraordinary, the whole series of [Éditions] Robert Laffont were fantastic. The thing about French cookbooks is that you don't see too many of them anymore, and in France, cookbooks aren't really popular because most people think they already know how to cook. Their mothers teach them, so they don't need a French cookbook.
Do you think that in all this talk we hear from chefs about the primacy of produce that the value of good technique is getting lost?
Cooking is an equation, and it's a very simple equation. There's two parts to it. One part is ingredients, the other part is technique, and if either one is lacking then it'll interfere with the other. If you start with inferior ingredients and you have great technique, you'll still end up with an inferior result. If you start with great ingredients and your technique is lacking, then that's going to affect those ingredients. You really need both parts of the equation to have something that's going to be compelling.
What's the key to longevity in the restaurant business?
Consistency. We're in the hospitality profession and we need to remember that and make sure that not only are we being that way with our guests, but also with each other in our restaurants. Making sure we have that level of respect and understanding with one another, that we're looking out after each other's best interests. And if we do that, I think that translates to the experience our guests will have as well.
In practical terms, does that translate to you requiring exactitude on the part of people who work for you?
With our staff, one of the things we try to achieve is a unified common vision, common goals and the ability for any staff member to make an impact. We nurture that through giving them the confidence and courage to communicate. In many restaurants, the younger staff members are sometimes considered insignificant in what they're doing, but for me, anybody can have an idea. Anybody can have a great idea, and we want to encourage them to speak up. It's very difficult when you're 21 years old to muster up the courage to say to the chef, 'What do you think about this?' And that's something we want [them] to do. We nurture each other the same way we nurture our guests. It really is an effort that we think about all the time. We're not always successful at it, but some extraordinary ideas come out of that confidence that they have.
Your head chefs from The French Laundry and Per Se, Corey Lee and Jonathan Benno, left the group to open their own restaurants at roughly the same time. Did that make that transition difficult for your teams?
Before Corey and Jonathan, you have to realise, we had Eric [Ziebold] who stepped out of the kitchen first. There was Jeffrey Cerciello who opened Bouchon. It's always been something that's been part of our culture; to prepare the young professionals for the next phase of their working life. Whether it's coming from a commis to a chef-de-partie or a chef-de-partie to a sous-chef, or from a cellar sommelier to a floor sommelier, or from an expediter to a back-server to a captain to a maître d'. Every part of the restaurant is looked at the same way. We're continuously training these individuals for their next position.
If you walk into a restaurant and ask, 'Who wants to open their own restaurant?', 95 per cent of those hands are going to fly into the air. If we're not helping our team reach their goals, then we're not being responsible for them. It's always in transition. We have to prepare the restaurant for the next person. Ely [Kaimeh at Per Se] and Timothy [Hollingsworth at The French Laundry] will open their own restaurants someday, and their replacements have to be identified before they leave. It's the same thing as a sous-chef. If you become a sous-chef, who's going to take your job as a chef-de-partie? You have to be thinking not only about where you're going, but about training the person who's going to take your place.
It's a constant evolution, and if we're not prepared, we won't have consistency in our restaurant, and then we're back to that importance of consistency in our business. Anybody can cook a great meal, but can you cook a great meal every day, 75 times a day? That's the key.
You're now a Chevalier of the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur - what did that mean for you?
It's probably the most significant award I've received. All of our awards that we receive come from ourselves, it's our industry awarding the industry, and to have a government recognise you as an individual having an impact on their country and culture? That's a pretty significant thing. It's not about us passing our awards around the table, it's the head of the government signing a piece of paper that says you, as an individual, have really succeeded in extending the French culture in your country.
When can you wear that?
I have to wear the red ribbon whenever I wear a suit.
Does it get you through French border control more smoothly?
It does. You get a very high level of respect in France for something like this. Most people in America want to pick it off your lapel because they think it's a loose red thread on your suit. 'What's that doing there?' But I don't wear the medal, no.
Looking back on your career from the perspective of nearly 40 years in the kitchen, is there anything you'd say to the Thomas Keller who was just starting out?
I don't think I'd want to change a thing. It's not important. I've been on this career path for 37 years and I think I've been extremely fortunate to have achieved what I've achieved because of the direction and advice that people have given me along the way, and because of the mistakes I've made. It's a question I'm asked a lot, whether I'd have done anything differently, and the answer is no, not a thing.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY ANDREW FINLAYSON
This online exclusive was published in June 2012.