I had the distinct pleasure on Monday evening to attend a live interview with Thomas Keller. If the name is a new one to you, Chef Keller is considered one of the top chefs in the world today. Two of his restaurant (Per Se in New York City and French Laundry in Yountville, California) are perennially listed on the world’s Top 10 restaurants and he is the only American born chef to have two restaurants with 3 Michelin stars.
Chef Keller was focused, sweet, engaging, funny, uncompromising and delightful. I found the interview to be inspiring with stories from his life.
I took detailed notes of the interview and the following are my highlights. Quotations represent quotes to the best of my ability, the rest are stories or observations I had during his 90-minute interview:
- “Good Food = Good Product (ingredients) + technique”
- He went out of his way to thank people and singled out the young Chefs from a local college who volunteered at the event.
- A pivotal moment in his life came when his brother (also a chef) taught him how to make hollandaise sauce from scratch. From there, repetition was a critical.
- “You only start to learn how to do something the second time you actually do it”
- His first cook book was a gift from his Mom and she bought it because of the looks – A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price (yes, the same one from Michael Jackson’s Thriller)
- His second cookbook was My Gastronomy by Nico Ladenis. This was another big moment in his life and a turning point as it had a great narrative which helped with technique. Keller adored the narrative so much that he tried to pitch his first cookbook as a book without recipes.
- Cookbooks have regressed with the picture, recipe, picture, recipe format. We are not building technique and you need to develop technique to make a recipe your own.
- `Determination (desire) is the key to success. Passion can ebb and flow; determination endures.`
- `It`s always about teams.`
- When he couldn`t get bread up to his standards for French Laundry he opened a Bakery down the street (Bouchon Bakery) because `that is just what you do`
- Local, fresh and seasonal ingredients excite him and he loves the concept of seasons. He shared a story about visiting a fancy grocery store in Toronto this week and asking a woman why she would buy peaches since what was being offered was essentially a memory of a peach. He steered her to apples and pears and was pleased that she did. Moments later she went for cherries and he gave up.
- When pressed on local and seasonal and informed by the interviewer (Alison Fryer of the Cookbook Store) he was adamant. When she commented `Sometimes I want blueberry muffins in November` he replied `Well therein lies a problem.`
- He was open that the approach to cooking the best food in the world and insisting on local and fresh as possible is somewhat elitist. He said this in a humble, self-aware way and not as a mean to gloat. I found this comment refreshing.
- `At the end of the day, what it`s all about if it`s not about the memories…`
- Resource products which are better and better and ask your grocer for items which are better and better.
- When asked if he eats toast he responded that he did when he was sick.
- `Repetition is the liberation of creativity`
- `Too many young Chefs want to move on to the next thing before mastering the current thing they are working on. The thing about the next thing is that there will always be a next thing.`
- A black iron skillet is the essential pan for the kitchen – if you only had one pot this would be his pick for you.
- There are 2 teams working simultaneous in his kitchens so he can have 10 seatings a week and still have all staff members (including him) work 5 days a week. When he learned his craft a 6-day week was the norm and he wanted to change that. The days are still very long.
- He`s had 2 knee surgeries that he attributes to being a chef. It`s tough physical work and it`s vital you plan for your exit early.
- He believes you must leave the industry in better shape than when you entered it.
There were 450 people in attendance and many, many chefs (the event was held on a Monday to accommodate the industry. It was part of the launch of Ad Hoc at Home and was a great evening.