Palettes quiver and chefs shiver at the mere mention of the name Thomas Keller, a king among princes in the gastronomic arena. He founded world-famous The French Laundry restaurant in California’s Yountville in 1992. Bouchon, Per Se and Ad Hoc followed over the next few years from the West Coast to New York.
Keller is the ‘Michelin Man,’ and not the kind made out of tires. The French Laundry and Per Se are both Michelin Three Star restaurants. There are only 10 in the US.
Keller has consulted on movies, written books, appeared on competitive cooking shows, and makes appearances at festivals all over the country, including our own Pebble Beach Food and Wine.
With a career this juicy, Chef Keller still finds time to enjoy golf and music, from country to contemporary hip-hop. His ethics are based on taking care of others while creating the best food possible. Keller is a fan of local legend Cal Stamenov not only because he admires his cooking, but also because he considers him calm, generous and sincere. Character matters to Chef Keller.
The French Laundry, hailed by many as the “greatest restaurant in the world,” is still Keller’s home base. It takes months to get in the door, and those who do dine for hours on a prix fixe menu of nine courses. Dina Eastwood attempted to get inside the renowned chef ‘s head in an exclusive interview.
Dina Eastwood: Why nine courses?
Thomas Keller: It wasn’t planned that way. I think it really comes down to when we mapped out the menu, we knew we wanted a seated canapé in a celebratory way, like caviar and champagne. Of course, we had to have a salad course. We wanted two fish courses: one fish, and one crustacean. Well, if we had two seafoods, we’d have to have two meat courses— lighter to heavier, like a poultry, rabbit or pigeon, and then beef, lamb or venison. Then, what’s a menu without a cheese course, and with all this great Napa Valley wine to pair it with? So, we came up with a composed cheese course. Nobody had done it at that time. Everybody did cheese carts. We didn’t have room for the cheese cart, so we did it our own way. Then, sorbet and dessert. Sometimes we have thirteen, fifteen, twenty courses. It changes all the time.
DE: As do the ingredients. You take pride in not using the same item twice in one meal.
TK: We do have that rule: No repetition is allowed unless it is a luxury item like foie gras or truffles. We don’t want redundancy on our menus. We certainly have a plethora of ingredients to use, we have great resources, we have great skills, great imagination, so there’s no point in having carrots on the menu three times.
DE: You have six restaurants now, as well as five bakeries. How do you keep your restaurants personalized while branching out?
TK: I really think it has to do with the team. It’s like I run a baseball franchise, making sure that we really hire the right individuals, giving them the training that they need, and mentoring them. If you hire, you train and you mentor correctly, then those individuals are embracing your culture and philosophy and they’re able to really extend and evolve that cultural philosophy in so many ways you couldn’t even imagine. One of the keys to my success is just that.
DE: Did success come easily?
TK: I was part of my very first restaurant in 1978, a restaurant called the Cobbley Nob. They made me a partner because I could cook, although none of us could run a business, so it didn’t last very long. My next business was Raquel in New York City in 1986. Neither one succeeded. It wasn’t until I got to The French Laundry in 1992 that I understood what I needed to do to run a successful restaurant.
DE: What was your first whiff of wanting to become a chef?
TK: I didn’t start in any typical fashion. I didn’t have this dream of becoming a chef, this goal and ambition of going into culinary school. My mother ran restaurants when I was a child, and I’d always end up in the restaurant eventually, as a dishwasher. I learned that so many of the skills you acquire as a dishwasher, you need as a cook: organization, efficiency, feedback, teamwork, repetition, rituals. All the things that are the essence of being a really good dishwasher are the essence of being a really good cook. I just translated one to the other, and it was always about trying to do better than I did the day before.
By 1977, I really fell in love with cooking and in love with France, and realized that this is what I wanted to do. The chef I was working for at the time, a French chef, really made the connection for me that what all chefs do, what all cooks do, is nurture people. That nurturing aspect really resonated with me. From that moment on, I decided I really wanted to be a chef.
DE: So you’re a soother, not a screamer?
TK: I think we all used to be ‘the screaming chef.’ I think that’s part of the phases we go through. Eventually life brings calm leadership, more compassion, more responsibility, more understanding and knowledge. When you are young, you tend to be a little more emotional. But, the goal never changes. The goal has always been to give the guest a great experience. You just find different ways of achieving it.
DE: Where do you eat when you visit the Carmel area?
TK: The restaurant I love when I’m at Pebble Beach is the Tap Room. If I want a good steak, I go there. It’s a classic golf restaurant in a pure form. I love Bert (Cutino) and Ted’s (Balestreri’s) Sardine Factory. It’s such a wonderful slice of history and they are so generous in spirit and so gracious. I had dinner with Ted last year in the basement wine cellar. You just go, “My God!” It’s just amazing. They still have the classics, the frozen swans, and they are still busy and people still love it.
DE: They did a fantastic Lobster Thermidor and in 40 years, they have never stopped serving abalone bisque.
TK: I always tell my staff, I don’t understand what happened to some of the classics, the things that I loved. They’re so good, but we don’t do them anymore. Why don’t we do them anymore? Everybody always wants the next newest thing. But some of the greatest things and some of the most wonderful moments are steeped in tradition and food in so many parts of our life.
I remember my first taste of white wine sauce, vin blanc sauce. It was just heavenly. No one makes it anymore, and I just don’t understand why. When I think of Lobster Thermidor, I go, “yeah, that’s pretty cool.”
DE: The renowned Pebble Beach Food and Wine event is soon approaching, and “you” are the guest of honor this year. The event features a dinner in your honor. What has enabled this to become a world-class event in so few years?
TK: It’s the quality of people who come. David (Bernahl) and Rob (Weakley) have put together a group of chefs and wineries who really support it. They attract a great, great guest list. It becomes that destination every year, and who doesn’t want to go to Pebble Beach?
DE: Has it been odd watching chefs transition into being celebrities in our culture?
TK: When I started cooking, there was very little recognition–zero recognition–for chefs in America. Maybe in New York and in San Francisco a little bit. But it wasn’t until the late ’70s, early ’80s when Americans got into food, started talking about chefs. It’s kind of exploded lately with all the different arenas chefs can go into now which I think is great. Before, if you wanted to be a cook, you went into the kitchen. Now, you can go into writing, photojournalism, research and development, not to mention the different styles of restaurants you can be involved in. I think the world has really opened up for chefs and the respect chefs get now is worthy of the type of work that we do and how hard we work.
Think about what we do. We nurture people, we make people happy, which is how we are all kind of wired. But, the whole celebrity chef thing, that’s a result of the media, really. Most chefs who call themselves celebrities shouldn’t be acting like celebrities. A sense of responsibility comes with who you are. A group of chefs of my generation and I are trying to set the example because there has never been an example before. There is not a path that was written for us as a profession. What we are doing today has never been done before by chefs. Some of us trip, some of us fall down. But I don’t think there are any of us that are not trying to move our profession forward.
DE: What does your future hold?
TK: I don’t know–you never know. I’ve been thinking about opening a sushi bar for 10 years and a hamburger restaurant for 18 years, but you only have so much time in your life to do the things you want to do and you always have to prioritize. At 56 years old, you have to think, “How many more projects do you have in you?” Do you really want to get on the golf course and break 80, because you can’t do that working every day. I’m sure there are some projects left. But, for me, the most important thing are the restaurants we have today. I want to make sure they continue to thrive, continue to offer opportunities for the team that is here, continue to evolve in a way that is significant to the restaurant but also maintains the connection to the history of the restaurant. I think that’s really important.
When I look at the team that I have in the restaurant and the opportunity they have today, I also look at the literally hundreds of people who have helped build the foundation for the team here today. I am so proud of them. They are able to excel at a level that the previous individuals couldn’t because they didn’t have that kind of foundation. I know that the individuals here now are adding even more strength to the foundation so the next generation that comes into our restaurant will be poised to do even better. When I go into the restaurant and I look at what they are doing, and I kinda slap myself upside the head and say, ‘God, I wish I would have thought of that!’ I know we’re on the right track.
The fifth annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine takes place April 12-15, 2012. For more information, go to www.pebblebeachfoodandwine.com.