Writer Florence Fabricant and Chef Thomas Keller at Guild Hall Sunday, August 18, 2013.
By Kathryn G. Menu
Sunday morning at Guild Hall had the feel of an informal conversation between two friends about the United States’ culinary evolution. Except this informal conversation happened to be between Chef Thomas Keller, widely considered one of the best chefs in the world, and renowned New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant. Keller, the chef and owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, California, Per Se in New York City, as well as Ad Hoc, Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery spoke with Fabricant as a part of Guild Hall’s Stirring the Pot: Conversations with Culinary Celebrities series, which will continue this Sunday with an 11 a.m. conversation between Fabricant and food writer Melissa Clark.
FF: First off wanted to dispel any rumor you may have heard about Thomas scouting real estate to open a restaurant in the Hamptons. Very unfortunately. But Thomas, what’s interesting to me is you went from a moderately successful restaurant in New York and then closed it with a restaurant Raquel that I think was before its time. And then you decamped for California. You worked a bit out there, peddled some olive oil and then bought The French Laundry nearly 20 years ago. And shortly after that you kind of rose to the top of the profession and you are today one of the world’s most revered, praised chefs. How did that happen? How do you keep it going?
TK: I want to thank you first for inviting me and thank you all for coming on Sunday morning. I really appreciate it. I have always felt very fortunate and certainly lucky to be able to speak to anyone let alone a group of people like this. So thank you very much for showing up.
It’s a good question. I think most of all persistence if you really had to distill it down. Persistence plays a big part in what I do and certainly what we do. Certainly when a young culinary asks me for advice, and I am not really sure what they are looking for other than maybe some magic phrase that is going to get them to be successful …
FF: Or a job.
TK: Or a job. There are two words that always come to mind—that is patience and that is persistence. I think we as young cooks and particularly as young people need to learn patience. We are always in a rush to get beyond what our skillsets are at that time and I think patience is a very important thing to have and something we all need to practice certainly when we are learning our skills and when we are young. Persistence—don’t let anyone tell you you cannot do something and I think those are the two things that got me where I am—patience and persistence. More persistence than patience.
FF: Patience and persistence don’t fill tables every single night and don’t have waiting lists of people and cookbooks that sell out and so forth. There is more to it.
TK: Luck. Lots of luck.
FF: No, it’s more than luck.
TK: It’s true. When I look at my career and where I came from, Flo was a big part of that in New York when I was here. In fact she wrote one of the first articles on Raquel in The New York Times. And I asked her, “Why are you writing about me?” And she said, “Cause if I don’t, someone else will.” Perfectly honest and helped a great deal establish Raquel as a wonderful restaurant, downtown, a little off the beaten path at that point and it became a restaurant that was successful for a specific amount of time. It failed for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into at this point. But I think failure is a really big part of our success. Without failure we’re not going to learn and without making mistakes we are not going to move forward. One thing I always make sure we are doing is continuing to make mistakes because if you are not making mistakes you are not evolving, you are not pushing yourself. We are going to make as many mistakes today with the knowledge we have as the mistakes we made when we didn’t have it. The amount of mistakes is not necessarily related to the position in your career as in what you are trying to accomplish. So today, as someone who appears to be an accomplished chef, I still make a lot mistakes because I still want to push myself to continue to evolve and establish new standards, parameters for what we are doing. You can always second-guess yourself in anything you are doing. But with that the amount of people you have around you and the knowledge they are able to bring is extraordinary as well. We talk about if it is not luck, if it is not patience, if it is not persistence, it’s the knowledge of things you don’t know and I wasn’t afraid to reach out beyond myself to incorporate others who knew what I did not and I think that has been a big part of my success—the opportunity to be able to collaborate with a group of individuals who have a common vision and a common goal.
When I first opened The French Laundry there was four of us in our kitchen and each one of us acted like a chef and each one of us acted like a cook. And it was probably the most idyllic kitchens I worked in because of that. Not one of us was the chef, each one of us was the chef and we allowed ourselves to criticize one another, we gave ourselves permission, which was a great thing and we celebrated together. To be able to do that–not have one person in charge, it’s a really, pretty magical environment to work in.
FF: From the beginning, speaking specifically of The French Laundry there are some dishes I think of as iconic dishes that you came up with—Coffee & Donuts, Oysters & Pearls—and they are still on your menus, but how has the food scene or your cooking or you vision or your menus, how have they evolved and changed.
TK: We all like to use the word, “create.” Right? That is one that is thrown around a lot. There are a couple of words that really bother me and “create” is one of those. I don’t really think we “create” anything. I think we are inspired about what we see, what we touch, what we smell, what we taste. Coffee & Donuts was a perfect example of inspiration—inspiration at a time when I really needed to do something, when I needed to figure out what I was going to do for dessert. I walked across the street, I was living in Los Angles, and I got a coffee and donut at a coffee shop, S & K Donuts—it’s still there today—and I was walking back to my apartment thinking, what am I going to do for dessert? And it was there, coffee and donuts. It was perfect.
FF: But you have to be able to think outside the box and actually approach what you do with a light hand and a little whimsy to even pull something like that off.
TK: I think you have to be open-minded for the most part. I think the most important thing we have to be in life, in general, and certainly in our professions, is be aware, be aware of the world around you so those moments of inspiration are moments you can recognize. Inspiration is one of those things that is so rare. True inspiration should be really rare, so if you are not aware of what is going on around you then you are not going to be open and able to embrace the inspiration when it hits you. I was just thinking out loud and was just there—coffee and donuts was right in front of me. After you are inspired, as I realized I was, you are then going to interpret it as something that is meaningful for you. In that case, I needed a dessert. I didn’t have a pastry chef, I needed a dessert and I interpreted coffee and donuts into a dessert. And that is evolution. You talk about the menu and where we are today—if you look at some of the dishes you understand how they evolve from 1992 when I first did the Coffee & Donuts and how it is served today. It is much, much different, but it is the same. The flavor profiles are the same, but it is served much, much differently.
Back to your original question—how has the menu and how has the dishes evolved. Some of it has evolved in great ways. Really the most important decision I made in terms of having a menu evolve and stay current is the decision I made when we first opened The French Laundry, which was to change the menu every day. Back then, we probably had an average of 40, 45 items on the menu at the time. We had several different menus going on at the time. And some dishes carried over, not every single dish changed every single day, but a significant number of them changed every day and to have one person control all of those ideas, all the compositions would have been impossible.
So we collectively sat around the table at night—those three other chefs and myself—and decided on the menu for the next day, what the ingredients would be, what the composition would be, what the techniques would be. There was an idea of no repetition—still a rule today—so if Steven was using corn, no one else was allowed to use corn on their menu. You can imagine how that became a significant conversation at the end of the night. The beginning of the day, someone would say, “I got corn.” (Laughter) And at the end of the day I would say, “I got corn” because I have my dish in my mind. So you have initiated this idea of true collaboration where people are coming in with ideas they have already started thinking about before they came in for that day. That is a significant thing to be able to get young chefs to think outside of the box where they are not being told what to do but are a part of the decision process which means they actually take ownership of it—it is part their idea—so they are that much more committed to it. The idea of collaboration also allows one to think as significant as my idea might be once it is exchanged and shared around the table we could have a significantly better idea. Working in collaboration has been a core ideal since the beginning of the restaurant and that continues to happen to this day.
If we all understand the core or philosophy of our food— philosophy is very basic, our philosophy is rooted in tradition, traditional flavors. We are in the wine country so we have to be respectful of where we are. People come there to eat and drink so we were not doing flavor profiles that were outside of the flavor profiles of the wine they wanted to drink. We are very, very traditional and likeminded in what we want to accomplish with our flavors so it is about composition and the ingredients of the day.
FF: Have the ingredients changed over the years? Not necessarily, thinking on a larger scale, not just at your restaurant but in terms of accessibility? Because I know as consumers we have seen a great deal of change in the market if you really care about what you buy. What has changed for you?
TK: Well, everything that has changed for you, began with us. The consumer always benefits from what chefs do, whether its food, whether its technique, whether it is tools. When I started cooking 35 years ago, and some of you were there, we didn’t have a lot of choices in our grocery store. Today, we have an enormous amount of opportunity to buy different kinds of vegetables, certainly different varieties. Look at tomatoes. Today, you can go to a grocery store and there are probably six, seven, eight different kinds of tomatoes that are going to be wonderful. We have a return to our green markets, which is a big deal for all of us. So food has gotten much better. When you think about 35 years ago from an international culinary point of view we were in last place. We were a joke.
FF: England was in last place. (Laughter)
TK: That is actually a great comment because I would say both the UK and the US 35 years ago were right there. Neither one of us had a great reputation. They were boiled beef and we were fast food and in 35 years during my career you see how far we have come. It’s extraordinary what you can do if you set out to do something—if you are committed to it, if you are dedicated to it. We have today some of the best restaurants, some of the best chefs and some of the best food in the world. And so does the UK for that matter, so we had a parallel path.
FF: That is true. At the same time the whole food landscape has changed with consumer interest. How has that affected you?
TK: It has taught me to be who I am today. When I started cooking it was before there was a widespread interest in food and chefs that there is today. The chefs then—we had Julia Child and Graham Kerr on television. The great chefs in our country were primarily in urban environments—New York City, some in San Francisco, but most in New York City. There wasn’t a lot of interest in chefs. There was some interest in restaurants, particularly in New York, but not in other parts of the country. So when you think about where we have come it has been extraordinary. So the amount of opportunities afforded to chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, farmers, gardeners, foragers in the last 35 years is significant and has brought us to a place where we have significant resources to do what we want to do.
FF: Television has played a significant role. You haven’t been a part of it. How come?
TK: I don’t. You have to enjoy what you are doing and I don’t really enjoy being on TV. I have been on morning shows, Charlie Rose, The Today Show, but in terms of a television program (shakes head). It doesn’t interest me.
FF: Talk a bit about the difference between New York and Per Se today as opposed to working in Napa and anything you might offer that would be relevant to a resort area or outside an urban area like the Hamptons.
TK: It’s hard. We are comparing apples to oranges, certainly when we think about the Hamptons and New York and Napa and New York. Napa is our premiere wine-growing region in the country so we have enormous amount of interest in what we are doing in that industry, all year long whether its spring, summer, fall or winter you have a whole group of individuals to come there because of their ability or their interest. In the wintertime we may have people coming from the industry because it is a down time. In the summer certainly we have a lot of visitors as in the spring and the fall. In New York City, we are in one of the most amazing dynamic cities in the world. But the guest profile for us, and people have asked me this before, is the same. The same guests come to The French Laundry that goes to Per Se that goes to Alan Ducasse or goes to Jiro. At the level of those restaurants we are competing not necessarily with local restaurants or restaurants within the vicinity but restaurants around the world. We are getting the same type of guest who has that interest.
Here, and I apologize for being ignorant about the Hamptons—we were talking about East Hampton, Southampton, Westhampton and some of the differences just backstage—here this seems to be a very vibrant place in the summer time. People are out here from the city or vacationing and have summer homes out here and there is an enormous amount of agricultural wealth. There always seems to be a great amount of produce gown out here, both individually and collectively. And there is a certain amount of livestock as well. So it is fascinating we have become so interested in our food that we are treating ourselves to growing it, understanding who is growing it, where it is coming from, and learning how to cook it, which is a wonderful place to be.
FF: Do you cook at home?
TK: I cook at home very seldom. I live next door to the restaurant. (Laughter) Which is great. It’s my market. And we have a garden across the street from The French Laundry, which produces an enormous amount of vegetables for us.
FF: If you did cook at home what is the first thing you would make? I bet you are going to talk about the chicken you made for your father.
TK: Yeah. I think we go back to those things we really love, the things that resonate with us, the things that have memories. Roasted chicken for me is one of those perfect meals. Roasted chicken, a simple salad—yeah, I think that is something I would always go to, or something on the grill. Steak on the grill or lamb chops on the grill. Something really simple is for me. But it has to be of extraordinary quality. If I am going to eat a piece of beef I don’t just want to eat a mediocre piece of beef, I want to eat an extraordinary piece of beef. You want to be able to take the opportunity to really enjoy it, its flavors.
In American culture, we tend to want the very best and pay the very least for it. My mother told me a long time ago you get what you pay for. For us to be able to support those farmers, fishermen, foragers and gardeners who are bringing us our food is very important, and to not really negotiate with them on price.
FF: You once told me you really started cooking with your mother. Where was that?
TK: Well, my mother ran restaurants. My mother was a single parent. My parents divorced after 20 years of marriage. I was five. My brother, Joseph, was six-and-a-half. And so then we had three older brothers who were already in their teens and grown and doing their own thing. For us, we would go to the restaurant after school and she would give us odd jobs whether it was peeling vegetables, or whatever. That was kind of the beginning of my career in restaurants.
FF: Very French.
TK: Very French.
My background is one of the reasons I have been such a good cook because I learned at an early age some of the elements of what I do in cooking as a dishwasher. Some of the things you have to do as a dishwasher is you have to be organized, you have to be efficient to keep the dishes cleaned, immediate feedback was critical right away, you learned how to be part of a team, you learned about repetition being important because you are doing the same thing over and over again and those things are all applied to what we do as cooks. It was the beginning of me knowing how to be a cook.
FF: But I know with a lot of chefs it goes back to family …
FF: Whether by osmosis or just dinner where that spark was first lit to enjoy and want to get into that whole universe. You also mention products. How important is organics. I have people saying to me, ‘It makes no difference.’ I have other people who are passionate about it.
TK: It doesn’t really matter to me. And I say that because we have an opportunity to know all of our growers and so we know what their practices are. And some people just don’t want to become organic. It’s a process. It’s a costly process and they have been farming that way for generations and so why should they have to go through a process where they are certified by the state when this is what they have been doing all their lives. This is what their father did, this is what their grandfather did and I respect that. For me it is about the quality of ingredients and you can really tell the quality of ingredients by the individuals you have built a relationship with. So the organic thing is not important to me.
In a grocery store that gives you an opportunity to understand how it was grown, and to specifications it was grown to be certified organic—if that gives you a sense of comfort then certainly. But if you are going to a green market, I would assume you all would know those farmers and have a relationship with them where you would be able to have a certain expectation about what they were able to bring. I think it is about relationships—that is the most important thing we talk about when we talk about food.
FF: But that level of farming, fishing, raising livestock, making cheese, and so forth, I agree with you but for many of us that go to the supermarket many times the farmer is a faceless corporation.
TK: I agree with you, but big faceless corporations are growing organic now. So they are getting certified by a five-year process in most states now. Anyone can become organic. It is a specific process you have to adhere to for a certain amount of time. So Monsanto, do they have organic farms, certainly they do. Is that good for us, certainly it is because they have changed the way they have decided to grow some of their vegetables. I think we are making big strides in that area.
FF: Over the years can you talk about how perhaps technology and even movements like the chemistry of food and what has been coming out of Spain has changed because again, you mention how improvement of consumer products in the market has been thanks to chefs. I think improvement in terms of our pots and pans also.
TK: Everything we deal with today is at a higher level, and higher quality and I think its because we want that, we strive for things to be better. You talk about what is coming out of Spain right now—although I think it is pretty much over—when you talk about molecular gastronomy you have to realize that was not a term any chef described to do what they did.
We are talking about two different things here. We are talking about technology. Technology is something that is constantly evolving. When I started cooking we didn’t have food processors. Does everyone remember when we didn’t have food processors? So, all of a sudden food processors showed up at Raquel, in 1986 if I remember.
FF: And you put spinach into it.
TK: Yes. And that was a major improvement for us in technology. Can you imagine what it was like going from firing coal in your kitchen to gas? Or using a big ice bucket to having an ice box? At every interval there has always been technology that has changed our lives. I think GE said that, right? (Laughter)
So you think about today and the technology we have today and you think about sous vide, which doesn’t have anything to do with technology but has to do with packaging but we think about it like a cooking technique. It is an interesting thing we have now redefined the word sous vide to be a whole process when really it is just boil in a bag. I am sure many remember in the early 70s boil in a bag. It didn’t become popular back then, it was a big flop, because it wasn’t embraced by chefs. Today you see sous vide technology as a cooking definition being used in a lot of different ways, but sous vide was developed in the 1930s by Folgers Coffee, remember the (makes sound of Folgers Coffee can opening). And then we had cryovaced turkeys. So about 12 or 13 years ago chefs started being introduced to cooking with sous vide in a restaurant and a large part of that was do to a movement by a company called Cuisine Solutions and there vision of creating more opportunity for chefs. So here is a better way—I shouldn’t say a better way. What chefs really want to do—chefs are control freaks, did anyone know that (laughter)— so what we want to do is control everything and that is one of our problems, but with that said controlling a cooking technique is one of our primary functions. As young chefs one of the first things we learn is how to cook a piece of meat, and being able to cook it perfectly each time was a true challenge and something you would be extremely proud of when you were able to do 90-percent of the time. In sous vide cooking you look to science. You put a piece of meat in a liquid and you have a specific temperature and at a specific amount of time it comes out perfect, each time. So you become more precise with your cooking and that is what we are always trying to do, find precision. With that said, there are certainly a lot of threatening elements to that as well because then you forget how to cook a piece of meat. If I could just put it in this liquid for a certain amount of time and it comes out a perfect medium rare … so we have to be cautious in our kitchens about embracing technology without losing the technique. With that said, we talk about precision, we talk about technology, it is something we have to understand, we have to be able to use it to be more precise in our cooking.
A style of cooking, like molecular gastronomy, which deals with the chemistry of cooking, that has been fascinating for a long time. How many of you know who Harold McGee is? Harold McGee wrote a book 30 years ago about the chemistry of cooking, which for us in our profession …
FF: Was a chemistry oriented analysis …
TK: Right. He taught us not how to make a hollandaise but how does it work. Or mayonnaise? How much oil can a yolk actually hold? Well it is almost infinite as long as you can keep the balance between liquid and oil and the emulsifier is the fat in the yolk. And so McGee taught us all these different tools about the chemical composition of food, how they react with one another. Fifteen years later you look at Ferran Adrià and his ability to embrace the chemistry of food and start to interpret that on the plate, and in different ways, which is fascinating. But the point I am trying to get at is that each generation—[Georges Auguste] Escoffier, one of the most famous chefs that ever lived, at the turn of the century, the turn of the last century, talked about nouvelle cuisine. And we wrote about nouvelle cuisine in the 70s. Every generation has new cuisine. We only started realizing it recently because we only started to care about food recently. What Ferran did is use the idea of chemistry and recomposing dishing on the plate with recognizable profiles composed in a different way; it became molecular gastronomy because he started implementing the technology of different elements, hydrocolloids. Hydrocolloid is something that binds water. So the most common hydrocolloid you have in your kitchen today is flour. When you put flour in water it becomes a paste. When you put xanthan gum in water it also becomes something thicker, so hydrocolloid is now something we use in restaurants to bind water to something. It got branded as chemistry food, which is not really correct, it is just an extension of what we do using ingredients that have always been available to us. You go to grocery store shelves and see “xanthan gum” and you think why would I want to eat “xanthan gum,” but it comes from seaweed. It’s all natural products, it is not chemicals.
FF: I have one last question for you. In terms of food, at home or in the restaurant, what is next? What do you see on the horizon?
TK: Better food. It has to be our priority. So with that said you have to support the people who bring you that food and like I said before it is not about price. They work hard those fishermen, farmers, gardeners and foragers.
I work with a lot of suppliers. One I like to talk about is Diane St. Clair. Twelve, 13 years ago she sent me a pound of butter. She read French Laundry cookbook and she was compelled because she read about the five farmers I highlighted, profiled in that book, and she thought if there was any chef who would give her feedback on her butter it would be Thomas Keller. So I get this pound of butter–really it is just a Ziplock bag with like three little balls of butter and it was in the summertime so it was the brightest little orange butter I had ever seen. So I called her up, I said, “Diane, this is Thomas Keller.” We chatted. I said, “Diane, I really love your butter. I would like to buy it.” She didn’t want to sell it to me, she only wanted my feedback. So I said, “No, no, I want to buy it. How much do you make?” She said, “Well, I only own four cows so I make about 15 pounds a week.” I said, “Fine, send me 15-pounds a week.”
Now not once in this conversation did I ask how much this butter was going to cost. Not once. There was no point in that. The point was here is a woman in Vermont. I am in California. She is seeking out my advice, and I am really proud she is seeking out my advice so I am really proud about that and number two, she has the most delicious butter I have ever tasted. Number three, she is only making 15-pounds. It doesn’t matter the cost of the butter, I want to be able to support her in what she is doing. She is in Orwell, Vermont. You can guess the name of her farm—Animal Farm.
But here is a woman who gets up every day around 5 a.m. or 4:30 a.m., so she can wake the cows and then she sends them out to pasture, and she starts to process the milk, churns the milk from the day before to make butter. Then she has lunch; the cows come back in at 3:30 p.m., 4 p.m.; she milks them again; and then she makes dinner and goes to bed. She does that seven days a week. I think I am committed to what I do and I am sure you think you are all committed to what you do but these farmers are far more dedicated to what they do than we are. And she is making just 15 pounds of butter a week so how much can it cost. I still don’t know how much it costs. It is irrelevant because the most important thing to me is making sure I can support Diane and making sure she is able to continue to make this extraordinary butter.
When we opened Per Se. I called her and I said we are opening a new restaurant, what are we going to do. She said, “I’ll buy some more cows” and now she has eight cows.
I went to see her for the first time after a decade two years ago when we were making the bakery cookbook and she is just a wonderful lady. She has been to the restaurant one or two times when the cows are calving. It’s a wonderful farm and just so natural. She is not certified organic. And that is irrelevant to me. You go to Vermont, you see this farm, you see this process, and it is just so natural. So I went to the farm and spent the whole day there. She churned the butter and she is straining the butter through a strainer this big (holds hands up the size of a large soup bowl). She makes the butter in a room that is tiny—maybe 10-by-10 and I am thinking, “Girl, what are you doing?” You have to pick up this pail of butter and buttermilk and strain the butter six or seven times. What are you doing? So I get home, I write her a nice letter about everything she is doing and I wrote out a big check and I wrote out a note and I said, “Get a bigger strainer.”
And I did that because my responsibility, the same as your responsibility, to make sure we support these individuals in what they are doing, making sure they are able to continue with the lifestyle they have because if she is not able to continue then what happens to someone like Diane Sinclair?
She called me one day and told me she had to raise the price of her butter. I said, “Diane, whatever. I don’t know what your butter costs.” She wants to send her son to NYU. Fine. Her son is at NYU today. Now that is the kind of impact we can have on all those people who supply us with food. If we can support them, they can support their lifestyle and then a young kid, like Diane St. Clair’s son gets to go to NYU.
Keller then accepted questions from audience members at Guild Hall.
Q: Other than your own, do you have a favorite restaurant in the US or a favorite restaurateur?
TK: That’s an unfair question. (Laughter). Never ask a chef what his favorite restaurateur is, favorite food is, favorite dessert it, whatever. And I appreciate the question. It’s a question that is often asked and is very hard to answer because restaurant choices are really about the mood we are in. So I have a lot of favorite restaurants. It depends on how I feel that day or who I am going with.
I tend to like restaurants where they don’t know who I am. Because when I go to restaurants where they do know who I am it becomes somewhat of a production as you can imagine. So I go to a lot of ethnic restaurants. I like simple food so a Yakitori restaurant on West 56th is a place I will spend one of my eating nights out when I am in New York City. I love the idea of our restaurant Ad Hoc in Yountville because there are no choices so you have eliminated the anxiety of deciding what you want to eat that night. You have left it up to the chef.
If you are talking about favorite restaurants as the great restaurants—is that how you are defining it? There are so many of them now. It is just extraordinary. I have so many colleagues it would simply be unfair to name one of them as being my favorite. I think they are all my favorite, again, depending on where I am and who I am with.
I am very fortunate to be able to eat at some of the great restaurants around the world. It’s a real pleasure to do that. I don’t do that very often, maybe two or three times a year will I eat at a restaurant that is the same caliber as The French Laundry or Per Se.
FF: There are probably only one or two in the world.
TK: Well, thank you very much for saying that. All of you probably think I eat out a lot, but I don’t. It is a rare moment when I can eat out like that.
Q: In my humble experience there are two kinds of chefs. They are either very wired in the kitchen or very peaceful. Which way do you operate?
TK: It has to do with your age. (Laughter) I think when you are younger you tend to not have learned how to lead people and sometimes that is a struggle. I think we grow and mature and I think we are able to focus on some of the important things we are suppose to do, which is be a leader and with that we want to make sure we are leading in a very responsible and respectful way. So we now align ourselves with respect and responsibility as opposed to being demanding and emotional.
Q: You are making me feel old.
TK: It’s a really good question. And the TV shows forget about that. You all know that is not real. They call it a reality TV show but it is not real at all. Chefs get emotional, chefs get upset in kitchens. It does happen. But there is a reason it happens, a very important reason. A chef’s goal is to give you, the guest, an extraordinary experience. That is what I want to do. So my whole day, my whole week, my whole life is based around that one thing and in a restaurant there are a ton of individuals between me and you. There is the whole kitchen staff, the porter, the chefs, there is a whole dining room staff—sommeliers, servers, captains, runners—and so you have literally dozens of opportunities to have somebody come in there and somehow inhibit my ability to give you that great experience. And that is when there can be an issue—if someone is getting in the way of me and you. Making a mistake is fine. We are there to teach, there to train. Making a mistake twice is not fine. If we don’t learn from our mistakes that is an issue. We do need to learn from our mistakes.
I just want you to understand why chefs get emotional. We are trying to give you an experience and there are so many people that can somehow get in the way.
FF: And you are also on the firing line and you don’t have the leisure of being able to deal with problems tomorrow, or in an hour, or even the ability to take an hour. It’s minute by minute.
TK: It’s almost like an operating room. Where if the nurse didn’t have the scalpel there would be hell to pay right? Of course, we are not in a life or death situation as is the case many times in an operating room but we still have the same intensity in terms of what we want to accomplish.
Q: Thank you both for a fascinating conversation. We really appreciate it. Chef, if you were not a chef what might you be doing?
TF: When I was younger I used to say, “play baseball.” I love baseball, I have always loved baseball and I think running a kitchen, for me, is like running a baseball franchise. It’s the same thing. And I have always looked at it as my responsibility to make sure we are hiring the right people, we are training the right people, we are mentoring and if we do those three things correctly then they are better than we are. If you think about a sports franchise, it is the same thing. We are always trying to improve. Let’s take the New York Yankees. They didn’t win 27 World pennants just because they wanted to win—they planned for it, they worked for it, they trained young talent. Derek Jeter is going to get to a point where he will not be able to play for very much longer but there is another kid who will be the next Derek Jeter and he may already be on that team. So I understand that. My generation of chefs needs to find ways to maintain the quality of our restaurants without us being in them day to day. And we do that by hiring the right individuals, training them and mentoring them and ultimately they become better than you. Because if they are not better than you, you haven’t done your job.
Q: How much R & D do you put into your recipe development for your cookbooks? I use your cookbooks and the recipes come out perfect every time. I can’t say that about all cookbooks.
TK: That is all Susie Heller, who is responsible for our cookbooks. Susie is very fastidious about making sure every recipe works. We work directly with her. We do it in the style she wants us to do it in and she will test that and have associates of hers test them as well. I really have to say that she is a big part of the success of those cookbooks and those recipes in those cookbooks.
At the restaurant we don’t do a lot of R & D. We are pretty comfortable with what we are doing and we change the menu every day so it is not like we are developing a technique we would be using two weeks from now. We do some R & D, more for Bouchon than for The French Laundry or Per Se. It is just a constant evolution, so sometimes it may look like we have done a lot of research and development on it, but we will make mistakes and it won’t be a mistake that will diminish the guest experience but we will improve on it for the next day or even the next plate. It can be that quick for us—the evolution.
Q: I had the great pleasure of dining at Bouchon a few times and besides the extraordinary food—thank you—the experience was so authentic. The ambiance, the service was impeccable. There wasn’t a moment I needed something it wasn’t there. It really added to being able to just suck in that food. Can you speak to that?
TK: It is really just about having people around you that do a good or better job than you do. When you look at restaurants in the list of priorities food is maybe like four or five. You go to a restaurant you feel comfortable in, you go to a restaurant where they treat you really well. And the food is good. You won’t go to a restaurant where they don’t make you feel comfortable, they don’t treat you well, but the food is great.
Really in all of our restaurants we take the humble approach that we are there for your experience. The initial part of that process happens before you even get to the front door. How do you feel where you are sitting? How do you feel about how comfortable you are, how it feels, how it smells—all of those things you experience before food even becomes a part of it. It’s all important and it all comes down to who you surround yourself with. I have been very lucky, I have been blessed to have individuals around me who are as committed and dedicated to their craft as I am to mine. And then you let them do it. You try not to micromanage them. And I think that was the most significant change for me. From being a chef that worked in the kitchen every day to the chef I am today is letting go of that control and having trust in those individuals to do the job. Trust is a big thing.
Q: My husband Sam downloaded today’s French Laundry menu.
Q: My question is how do you construct a dish and I thought I thought I would read a dish off the menu.
Q: Herb roasted Elysian Fields Farms Lamb
TK: What cut? Does it say what cut? The saddle?
Q: No. I will just read you what is here. I am sure the waiter would tell me. Poached candy cots …
TK: Poached what?
Q: Poached candycots.
Q: green almonds, fennel bulb, cauliflower cream, parsley shoots and nasturtium caper juice, which really intrigues me.
TK: Again, what we are doing is this is a collaborative effort. So since I was not there last night I wasn’t part of that effort. Every night the chef de cuisine [David Breeden at the French Laundry; Eli Kaimeh at Per Se] or the executive sous chef and a few other sous chefs along with the chef de partie—it’s about seven or eight individuals who sit around the table and start to develop the composition. The forecast is easy for us. We forecast all the proteins because we know we are going get our lamb from Keith Martin, we know we are going to get our beef from Snake River, we get our veal from Sylvia, we know we get our chicken from Sylvia, and we know where the fish comes from. So what we are going to do to understand how these compositions come together is to understand what is coming out of the gardens. Evidently, Aaron [Keefer], who is our gardener at The French Laundry, who has full control over what he is growing over there and in many ways what he is foraging as well, as these nasturtium berries. So he will bring the nasturtium berries over and show them to the staff and the chef and they will be intrigued by it, and inspired to cure it as they did in this case. Cauliflower cream seems like a simple composition, a simple technique. It’s about texture, so instead of having a puree of potatoes on the plate, he has a puree of cauliflower on the plate. How they cooked the lamb? We love the lamb with thyme and with garlic, so roasting it like that is the way we would want to do it. I am not sure what primary cut it was, but we like to use the rack and the saddle. It may have been cooked sous vide prior to being roasted, and then finished in the over to give it the caramelization and the flavor we want.
Q: We talk a lot about the quality products—the butter from Vermont, the outstanding cut of beef. A lot of those come with a high price tag. I am wondering if you see a future where those kind of products are available more readily or for the masses?
TK: Unfortunately, the extraordinary ingredients we are able to purchase are becoming more and more rare so they are not going to be something that would necessarily be available for the masses. What we hope to get for the masses is high quality food. Are you going to get the same food as I get at The French Laundry? You can, but you are going to pay for it like anything else. Extraordinary ingredients, like anything extraordinary, comes with a price tag. Fortunately, at The French Laundry and at Per Se we have our guests willing to pay for it so we are very fortunate in that way.
When you think about Keith Martin’s lamb—Keith Martin is a grower in western Pennsylvania who has developed a protocol for raising his lamb. It’s such a compelling protocol he actually had it patented. He has six other farmers in Ohio and western Pennsylvania who have adopted this protocol for raising their lamb. This is where we get our lamb from. So if we use the primary cuts at The French Laundry–we use the saddle and the rack, which are the most expensive cut on any animal, then what does he do with the legs, the shoulders, the necks? For us, we are able to use the entire lamb. The rack and the saddle will go to French Laundry, but the legs will go to Bouchon and the shoulder can go to Ad Hoc. So trying to make sure we are finding a way to be responsible, the total utilization of the animal, is important. In other words, we can use the extraordinary saddle and rack, and you can buy the shoulder and it is much less expensive, but it is the same lamb raised the same way. Does that make sense?
FF: Those lambs are really pampered. (Laughter)
Q: This might sound like a crazy question, Chef Keller. But do you think we are going out to eat too much in this country? If so, how do you think we can encourage people back into the home kitchen to enjoy the joys of cooking?
TK: That’s a good question. I have never been asked that question and I have never given it much thought. I am a restaurateur, so no you are not. (Laughter). Again, I did not grow up with a family sitting around the table. We sat around the table once or twice a year because my mother worked and I was being raised by my brothers. Normal food was Swanson’s TV dinner, hot dogs or pizza. Because I was the smallest one I had to really fight to get anything. But the idea that you bring up about that social interaction around a table which is so, so important, it happens at restaurants. Restaurants have become places we go with our family, with our friends and have meaningful conversations. I will say, our restaurants—it’s just food. Restaurants just serve food. Memories are established by you sitting around the table. The most important decision you can make when going to a restaurant is not what restaurant you are going to, but who you go with and making sure there is a meaningful purpose behind that. Cooking at home is wonderful. How you do that? That is about time. How many cookbooks are on the shelf—60 minute, 30 minute meals.
FF: 12 ingredients.
TK: Right. Cooking is a process and it takes patience. You have to appreciate the process. To eat the food is wonderful, but to cook the food is magnificent. The process is the purpose of it. It has actually transformed beef from beef cubes to a beef bourguignon that is just heavenly and the different sounds and aromas that happened during that process is extraordinary. Or just grilling a perfect steak, or making great mashed potatoes or a simple salad. I can cook dinner in a half hour pretty efficiently and effectively because that is what I do for a living, but for some people that takes an hour, hour and a half.
Time is so critical and valuable to people. That is what happened with our country. Right? We lost that opportunity to eat at home. Right after World War 2—the men went away, the women went to work, the men came home and the women stayed at work. Then we had the baby boomers—I was in a family of six. My mother had to feed us what she could feed us, so what did we have? Convenience foods. That was the first generation that had convenience food, everything before that was farm to table. I know we talk about farm to table as if it is something new, but it’s not. Before World War 2 everything was farm to table and even after in a lot of places it was still farm to table. It is not something new.
My mother worked, my father worked, they were divorced. I ate whatever was convenient to eat. But when we started to realize there was a disconnect it wasn’t last year, or five years ago or 10 years ago—it was 30 years ago we started to realize that disconnect. And there were two people who had a really big impact on making us realize how important it was for us to know where our food was coming from and be dedicated to those fishermen, farmers and foragers we talk about today—Alice Waters on the consumer side and Jean Louis Palladin on the professional side. These two individuals really awoken us to realize that it is really about where our food comes from and we started back on the path of having extraordinary food again. Only a very small brief moment in our history that we had only that convenience food. It still exists today, an enormous amount of that food. Obesity is rampant, diabetes is crazy. So what do we need to do to break the habits of eating that food? What is it going to take? It’s going to take parents who actually care and have the time and resources to cook. That is a huge commitment because there is a whole lot of people out there with both parents working, some working two jobs, who can’t afford good food.