In 1997, The New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl called The French Laundry the most exciting place to eat in the United States. What an impact that must have had!
Thomas Keller: It’s pretty extraordinary when someone with the capacity, with the authority, with the attention that Ruth is able to get says that you are the most exciting place to eat in America. It changes your life of course. We were of course very flattered. We were very honored. But more than any of that, we realized a great burden of responsibility, because Ruth, who is an expert in her field, somebody who we all look to, somebody who we all respect, has now called us, literally, the best place or the most exciting place to eat in America. How do we respond to that? We respond to that by notching up our game. We have to be that much more determined, that much more committed to what we do every day. Every dish, we have to be thinking about in a way that, when someone comes in, it’s going to relate that experience to what Ruth said, because now your expectations as a guest have become greater.
Thomas Keller: I know from a personal experience how your expectations can actually diminish an experience. My first three-star experience in France was just like that. I had been reading about this restaurant for years. It was considered one of the best restaurants in the world. The chef was highly regarded, three Michelin stars. I mean an extraordinary chef. And I went to his restaurant, had lunch on my way to Arbois and I left thinking, “Wow. What’s so great about that?” Right? They served me pigeon and peas with morel mushrooms. We had a beautiful foie gras to start, and we had — I forget the dessert. And I realized three or four months later that it was a perfect meal. And it was my expectations that got in the way of my experience. This was my first three-star restaurant, and I walked in there thinking that — I don’t know what I was thinking. I was thinking that, I don’t know, fireworks. I don’t know, whatever. And it just didn’t happen. But in retrospect it was beautiful. The pigeon was beautiful. The peas were just so perfect. The morel mushrooms, everything was just right, and I didn’t appreciate it. Expectations do get in the way. So we have to — our expectations in our kitchen, in our restaurant, in our service. In everything that we do, we have to understand that our expectations have to be of the highest. The highest priority for us is that we are able to reach our own expectations. And if we do that, if we do that every day, then that’s the best we can do, and we can feel comfortable that we have given you the best. And if you appreciate it, great. If you don’t, then we’ve only failed you, we haven’t failed ourselves, and that’s an important thing for us to remember.
In time, you and The French Laundry got your three stars from Michelin too. Could you tell us how that came about?
Thomas Keller: It’s funny. Before we get there, Ruth Reichl’s article, as important as that was, there was an article prior to that which very few people realize. At this time newspapers still had a social columnist. And in San Francisco we had Herb Caen.
Thomas Keller: Herb Caen was a great writer. He knew San Francisco in and out. He wrote his social column every day. Herb Caen came to dinner at The French Laundry. And Herb always wrote maybe two or three sentences about an experience he had that he wanted to share. He had dinner at The French Laundry and he wrote three paragraphs about The French Laundry. Now people who are interested in food and wine, they’ll read the food section of The New York Times or the Chronicle or the L.A. Times or any newspaper. They’ll pick up Bon Appetit magazine or Gourmet or Saveur or any of the magazines. They’ll pick up the food guides. Everybody read Herb Caen whether you liked food or not. Everybody did. So that was really the beginning for us of our success in Northern California. And of course that catapulted us to again be financially successful, which allowed us now to commit our resources in so many different ways. We built our new kitchen. We were able to expand our staff. We did so many different things.
You opened Bouchon.
Thomas Keller: We opened Bouchon. Every moment’s important. As important as Ruth’s was, Herb’s was the same, the Schmitts. The story of The French Laundry for me is an incredible story, because everybody who was part of the process, who was part of the evolution, was part of that project, has impacted it in so many different ways.
It takes a village to build a great restaurant.
Thomas Keller: Yeah. It does. And I’m very thankful for all of them.
It was unprecedented in this country for a restaurant to get three stars from Michelin.
Thomas Keller: Michelin announced that they were going to come to America. It was like it was — it just shocked us all. We had never — when I say we, I’m talking about the community of chefs who have always aspired to be of that quality, not necessarily ever achieving those stars, but to be of that quality. How could we be worthy of a Michelin star or two? Forget about three. That was going to be something that was maybe decades away. Michelin was coming to America and we didn’t know what was going to happen. Who was going to receive one star, two stars, three stars? Where were their parameters for that? Who was going to be their inspectors? Of course we never knew who their inspectors were, but who were their inspectors? Were they going to come from France? Were they going to be Americans? All this was a mystery until the day that you get a phone call. And Michelin first launched in New York City. So Per Se was in the forefront of that first launch in New York.
When was this?
Thomas Keller: Per Se opened in 2004. Michelin came in 2006. And it was interesting, because at the time of the announcement, Laura and I were in France for — I believe it was a Traditions et Qualité conference, which is a French association that we belong to. We had a choice of getting on an airplane and missing the phone call, because it was going to come at 10:00 in the morning New York time, which was 4:00 in the afternoon in Paris. We would have been on a flight so we would have missed the phone call. Or we could stay in Paris, maybe get a phone call, but miss the celebration in New York. So we chose to stay in Paris because the phone call would have — I mean to miss a phone call as being one of the first Michelin starred restaurants in America, being one of the first American chefs to receive potentially a Michelin star would have been too much of a — I think of a moment in my life that I’d want to give up. So of course, it wasn’t going to come until 4:00 in the afternoon, so we had all day to walk around and just kind of try to patiently wait.
You must have been a nervous wreck.
Thomas Keller: At 4:00 in the afternoon, we were on the West (Left) Bank, in front of one of the department stores over there — I think Samaritaine or some one of the great department stores of Paris — and the phone rings. It’s Jean Luc Naret, who is the director of Michelin. And he said, “Thomas, I want to be the first to congratulate you. You have received the high…” There was a pause. “You have received the highest rating in Michelin, three stars.” And I was just… It was emotional. It was an emotional moment. I caught my breath and I said — of course I thanked him very much and I said, “One of the things that I want to assure you of is, again, it’s great to achieve this recognition, but now it’s our responsibility to make sure that the guests that come to our restaurant have that experience. And I want you to know that we’re committed and dedicated to this honor, to this award, to this achievement, and we’ll do our best to maintain the reputation of a three-star restaurant in America.” And then we were with where are we going to celebrate? What are we going to do? We just received three stars. Of course we called the restaurant. There was jubilation.
And the restaurant was Per Se?
Thomas Keller: Per Se. The restaurant was Per Se, in New York. Jonathan Benno was our chef at the time. I said, “Jonathan, you’re the first chef de cuisine. I’m the first owner. You know, this is truly an extraordinary moment in American culinary history. We are the first chefs, first American chefs in America to receive three stars.” So I thought, “What better place to celebrate than Taillevent, my first three-star work experience?” So I called Taillevent, and of course Jean-Claude Vrinat said, “Please, welcome. Come over.” And we went and it was an amazing moment to be able to walk into Taillevent, which had such a profound impact on my career, on my philosophy, on the culture that we have, on my skills, on everything in my life. And to be able to walk into that restaurant as the first American to receive three Michelin stars and be embraced by Mr. Vrinat, who I have — until the day he died — had such a profound respect for. And he sat us down right at the first table. We had an extraordinary dinner. He actually sat with us, and his wife Sabine told me as we were leaving, she said, “You know, I’ve never seen my husband ever, ever sit down with anybody in this restaurant.” He sat with us for about five minutes and chatted. And it was just one of those magical moments. We got on a plane the next day and came back to New York and of course celebrated again.
The following year Michelin was going to launch in San Francisco. Again, we don’t know what to expect. I mean we’re the mothership, we’re the foundation of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and certainly the inspiration for Per Se. We could only hope that we can achieve that. Jean-Luc Naret was coming to San Francisco himself because he wanted to have an after party to celebrate to introduce the Michelin Guide in 2007. And he flew in from Paris with four other executives from Michelin and they had dinner at The French Laundry. So there were five of them. And about midnight — he finished about midnight — and he came back to the kitchen and I was standing in the box in our little office in the kitchen, the chef’s office, and I was cleaning, doing my nightly cleaning rituals. And he came in, he snuck in. He said, “I just want to tell you, you’re going to get a phone call tomorrow and you’re going to be really happy.” So I went home. I took a shower like I normally did and I came back to the restaurant. I gathered everybody around and I said, ” I think we’re going to have a great day tomorrow,” so we opened a glass of champagne. And of course the next morning he called me and he told me that The French Laundry again had received the highest recognition from Michelin Guide, three stars. Again I told him how proud we were of that, and that was our responsibility to make sure that we lived up to the reputation. And he said, “Oh, and by the way, Bouchon got one.”
A very nice consolation prize!
Thomas Keller: Those were two of the greatest moments of my life. It’s still hard to believe that we are considered on the same level as those great restaurants in France that have inspired me and so many of my colleagues and so many others to try to achieve greatness.
One of the most moving little notes on your website is easy to miss, but it’s just the fact that The French Laundry has had three stars since 2007, and Per Se has had three stars since 2006. You’ve mentioned the value of consistency, but nothing says it like that.
Thomas Keller: One of our commitments is to make sure that we are consistent. It’s always been an important part of our culture, that consistency.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You were actually born on the West Coast.
Thomas Keller: My father was a Marine. So at the time I was born he was stationed in Camp Pendleton, which is right near Oceanside in California. And although I was very young, one of the things I do remember about Camp Pendleton is one of the regiments had for a mascot a tiger. So as a young boy, this tiger was in this massive — well, I don’t want to say penned-in — cage. But you know, just standing there watching this beautiful, elegant, ferocious animal was something that was very captivating. And it was really about Marines and their ability to stalk, their ability to be calm, their ability to pounce quickly and seize their prey. That was something that was fascinating.
In past interviews you’ve speculated that perhaps some people are born with a gene for hospitality. What gives you that idea?
Thomas Keller: I don’t know if it’s a hospitality gene as much as it’s a nurturing gene. I think that is really the essence of hospitality, is that you want to give people something that makes them happy, makes them feel good, nourishes them. I think that’s more of what I meant. I don’t know if there’s a hospitality gene as much as there’s a nurturing gene. And that really, typically, as much as males have nurturing genes, I think really comes from mostly females and the act of being a parent, being a mother. And I think if I was born with that, I got that from my mother. If I wasn’t, I learned it from her.
Were you primarily raised by your mother?
Thomas Keller: My parents were divorced when I was young. I have five siblings: four older brothers and one younger sister. I was four or five years old when my parents were divorced. So yes, I primarily lived with my mother, and my grandmother for a little while as well, and my great aunts. So I was shuffled between very loving, dedicated, committed women, and it was really a wonderful childhood, if you will. Even though I didn’t have a father present, I had some great, great women that helped form and focus my childhood.
So your mom raised all six children by herself?
Thomas Keller: Well, by the time they were divorced, my two oldest brothers were already out of the house. They were of age. One of them was off in the Navy. The other one was off on his career. So there was just the three of us and then along came my younger sister when she remarried.
How did you get started in the restaurant business? You started quite young, didn’t you?
Thomas Keller: When my parents were married, my father was typically stationed somewhere else. So during the Korean War he was there for two and a half years. And to keep herself busy, and of course to supply some income for the family, she worked in restaurants. And typically in the day she would work at the Officer’s Club as a hostess or a waitress, working her way up to understanding how to manage a restaurant. So when they were divorced, that was her path. She became a restaurant manager. And so as a young person, my brother and I — my brother Joseph, who is 18 months older than I — would spend a lot of time in the restaurant and in the kitchen. He migrated towards cooking much earlier than I did. I remember him watching– you know, you would have the Graham Kerr series. Every day after school he’d come home and watch Graham Kerr or Julia Child. He was very, very fascinated with cooking. He became a cook. He actually was my first mentor in this profession. So we found, I think, a great sense of comfort being in restaurant kitchens, and that’s kind of where I found — I don’t want to say I found a home, but I found a place where I could feel welcomed. I could feel I have the ability to learn and to kind of expand. At the same time, be able to do my homework when needed, be able to function as a young person and still keep busy.
What was your first job in the kitchen?
Thomas Keller: I began my humble career as a dishwasher. I don’t know why, I guess because of the age difference, my brother Joseph was allowed to handle a knife, therefore he was allowed to work with the cooks. I was a year-and-a-half younger, therefore I had to be set in front of the dishwasher. I guess it was a much safer position for me around the dishwasher, whether it was at that early age, or more importantly, when I began to realize that I wanted to cook, at the Palm Beach Yacht Club.
I learned six disciplines at the dishwasher which have, I think, become a foundation for my career, and I think for many people who aspire to have success in their careers. Not just in the culinary profession, not just in the hospitality profession, but in anything. I learned that organization was really important. Organization as a dishwasher really meant that you had to set up a template for the servers to, you know, where to put their dishes. So you always had a bread and butter plate in one spot, a service plate in one spot. A bowl, or whatever the serviceware was, you had a piece set up on the counter, on the drain board, where they were supposed to put it. You had your different areas for your knives, your forks, your spoons, things like that. Of course you had your glass racks or specific racks. So that organizational aspect allowed you to be more efficient, which was kind of the second discipline that I learned is efficiency was really, really key in doing things well. If you could be more efficient than the person next to you, then you could have more time to learn what you wanted to learn, to continue to grow and continue to evolve, continue to progress. So efficiency became important, how you lined up the racks, how you put the plates in the racks, or when was the time to wash the glasses, when was the time to wash the silverware so that nothing — so that everything became seamless for everybody. Feedback was the third discipline. If you didn’t properly rinse or stack or sort the silverware or the dishes correctly, and you put them in the dishwasher, a minute-and-a-half later, when the machine opened, they would still be dirty. So that was immediate critical feedback. You knew when you did a bad job and you knew when you did a good job. And you know what, it was okay, either one. You learn from the mistake of doing the bad job that you learn that you needed to either stack your dishes differently, rinse them differently, sort the silverware differently, or whatever it was that critical feedback taught you, that’s what you needed to do, so you modified your behavior to be successful. And of course if you were successful, then it was positive feedback and you knew that you did a good job. No one told you those things. You realize them on your own and that is really important as well.
The fourth discipline I learned was the repetition, right? I don’t want to say the art of repetition, but the ability to respect repetition and embrace it. We’re cooks. We do the same thing over and over and over again. So if you don’t want to be repetitive in what you’re doing, you probably don’t want to really be a cook. You know, learn how to cut brunoise, learn how to peel an onion, learn how to slice. I mean all these that are part of that repetition was what I learned as a dishwasher. As a dishwasher you do the same thing over and over and over and over again. I learned the importance of ritual, doing things at specific times of the day and having them — leading up to those times, and being prepared for those times. You had to change the water in the dish machine every two hours. You had to check the soap every three hours. You had to empty the garbage can three times a day. You had to sweep the floor at these specific times. You had to do different things at different times of the day, which began — which were part of the ritual of your job. And rituals are very, very, very important. And the last, not any more important than the others, was the idea of teamwork and embracing that. You, as a dishwasher, even though you may have been perceived as the lowliest position in a kitchen, you touched everybody, and your job was critical in their ability to be successful. You had to deliver the dishes back to the chefs, right? So that they could plate the food. You had to have the silverware to the servers so they could set the tables. You had to get the glassware to the bartenders so they could do their job. So everybody relied on your ability to be organized, to be efficient, to have your job done thoroughly, to understand repetition, rituals, and give them what they needed to do the job. And those six disciplines are what we do every day as cooks, and I embrace that. I understood it. I didn’t recognize it until much later in my career, but I realized it and I understand that was part of the foundation of why I became a good cook and ultimately was able to become a good chef.
Where were you when you decided to make this your career?
Thomas Keller: I think that was in 1977. I was working as a young cook in a private club in Narragansett, Rhode Island called the Dunes Club. And I was working for a chef who was a presence in and of himself. He was tall, masculine, broad, a good-looking Frenchman who was the executive chef of this private club. And during my time working for him — and of course I was just a lowly cook so I’m not sure why I was having this kind of conversations with him — but the conversations were really about cooks and our career and our profession. And he said to me one day, he said, “You know, Thomas, the reason cooks cook is really to nurture people.” And at that moment that really resonated with me and I said, “Wow, I want to become a chef.”
In school, were there particular teachers you remember who had an impact on you?
Thomas Keller: I wish I could say there were, but no. No.
What was school like for you? Were you a good student?
Thomas Keller: Not really. I graduated high school. I spent a little time in college. As I grew older, I realized the benefit of a good education, and I continue to try to educate myself today. But at the time, I wanted to get out into the world. I was very impatient, and I wanted to go out and explore. I wanted to travel. I wanted to see new things. I wanted to try new things. Certainly the profession that I chose, cooking, allowed me to do all that. I could go anywhere in the world and be a cook.
What college did you attend for that short while?
Thomas Keller: It was a junior college. A community college in Palm Beach.
What did you study?
Thomas Keller: I studied philosophy actually.
Did that help you?
Thomas Keller: I think it’s helped me understand and analyze what I do, and try to attach other examples of other professions to what I do, in trying to understand and elevate our profession. Our job as chefs and as restaurant owners today is not just about our restaurants. Of course we want to make our restaurants better, but our overarching goal is to elevate the standards of our profession, and we do that by training, by mentoring, by giving the skills and knowledge to those next generations, so that they can — not only help us in our restaurants — but then go out and be impactful in other restaurants, and of course hopefully one day open their own restaurants.
On your website there’s actually a wonderfully rich list of philosophy and core values.
We all have our own core values, and I think that we can identify them when pressed to find them. We live by them day to day, not necessarily having written them down. It wasn’t until I had an executive coach for a period of time and he asked me, he said, “So Thomas…” You know, one of his first questions to me. “What are your core values?” And it wasn’t something I had thought about before, but within a half an hour, I defined what they were, just because that’s how I felt, and that’s how most people are. Now our core values can be related to a lot of different people — some of them defining the same way, others not necessarily — but they understand them. They feel the responsibility to them. Then I think that’s what makes our culture so strong.
It’s fascinating that there’s this underpinning of philosophy beneath the core value of great cuisine, of making it as good as it can possibly be.
Thomas Keller: I think people take it for granted that we’re just cooks in a kitchen, or you’re just servers serving food, or you’re just a sommelier serving wine. But there is a lot of work being done — certainly in the past 20, 25 years – that has helped us as a profession to really have an impact. Not only on our profession, but on the consumer, and now beginning to have an impact on the way our food is being produced, is being grown, is being delivered, and that’s a very important thing for us all.
What about books that you read growing up?
Thomas Keller: The books that I read as a kid were mostly adventure books. Kon Tiki, things like that. When I started to cook, the first cookbook that I received was from my mother, and she gave me a cookbook called A Treasury of Great Recipes. It was very interesting because the authors were Vincent and Mary Price, and it was their recipes of the great restaurants that they had experienced around the world, and it was this beautifully leather-bound book. I’m sure my mother bought it for me because of the quality of the book, not necessarily the quality of the content. My first culinary disaster was a recipe from this book, and it just goes to show you the lack of availability of ingredients in our country at the time.
What was the recipe?
Thomas Keller: There was a recipe in there, and I can’t remember the name of the recipe, but it was a recipe from a very famous restaurant in Italy and it was, I believe, spinach pasta with prosciutto di Parma, parmesan cheese and butter. Very simple. But of course there was no recipe for the spinach pasta. And of course at that time I was very young in my profession and I said, “Well, how can I make pasta green? I’ll dye it green.” So, food color came out, we dyed the pasta green. We couldn’t get prosciutto di Parma because it just wasn’t available in this country so we used a dried Virginia ham, which was overly salty. The parmesan was the grated kind that you found in the green shaker. And it was one of those things that you try. You are trying to prepare a dish without having the proper ingredients or necessarily even the knowledge of those ingredients, and that really became for me a real building block, because I understood that. I understood that if I was going to cook a recipe, I was going to produce a recipe, I needed to have the correct ingredients. I needed to have the knowledge and the skill in order to prepare it. Otherwise it wasn’t going to be good. The recipe called for a double boiler. I didn’t have a double boiler. “Oh, what difference does it make? Double boiler, single boiler?” It was not very appetizing, but you already made the commitment to do it, right, so you had to follow through and you had to serve it and you had to take kind of the feedback, the critical feedback, and just say, “Okay, yeah, I made a mistake.” And really mistakes are such important building blocks for success. So that was a mistake I made that I never made again, and I learned from that. I learned that the ingredients were important. I learned the technique was important. I learned skill, knowledge. You know, where did the dish come from? Why was it produced in that part of Italy? Those things.
The specific details of the recipe do matter.
Thomas Keller: That they do. Right. The second cookbook that I received, which was from my mentor Roland Henin, was Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point. Now Fernand Point was at his time — in his era, which was the ’30s and ’40s — he was the greatest chef in France, and therefore of course, the greatest chef in the world. His restaurant was La Pyramide in Valencin (Vienne), France. And he had great chefs that worked for him. Paul Bocuse was a commis at his restaurant. His book, which was extraordinarily inspiring, was a book of stories. The first half of the book was a book of stories, a book about his restaurant, his experience, his guests, his wife, his team, his chef. And then the second half of the book were recipes, but not recipes like we recognize today. There were no quantities. There was no real technique. It was a narrative. It could be as short as two paragraphs. Take the lobster, do this, this, and this, and add this and this and you have this is what lobster Bohemian is. And it was fascinating because without realizing it, it inspired you to prepare the recipe. And the level of the success or the result of the recipe was based on your current ability. So the lobster Bohemian came out the way you interpreted it at that time. A year later your skills — your experience– were increased, and if you made that same dish, it would be different. So in reality, from my point of view and the way I interpret this is, it allowed that recipe to be yours and he told you in a narrative how to prepare it. You prepared it in the way you could at that time with the ingredients that you had, and the knowledge and skills that you had at the moment, and it evolved with you. If you kept after it year after year after year, that dish evolved into something else. Each time you made it it was yours, it was not necessarily his. And I thought that was just brilliant in the way he wrote that book.
That’s a beautiful analogy for how one grows as a chef or as an artist, that you’re always going to have a slightly different interpretation later in life when you’ve learned more.
Thomas Keller: Interpretation is a very, very important word.
Back to the first cookbook you received as a gift from your mom. How old were you when you received it?
Thomas Keller: Probably 17. Yeah. I believe the book was called A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price.
Is there a connection between the fact that you got a book of recipes from the world’s great restaurants and then decided to go and apprentice in France, in the world’s great restaurants?
Thomas Keller: Yes.
Do you relate your attraction to the discipline and camaraderie of the kitchen to your father’s career as a Marine?
Thomas Keller: No, not really. There’s two ways of looking at it, and I look at it both ways. A sports franchise kind of mentality as well as a militaristic kind of mentality, because we do have — and the same in the military — you have hierarchy. And I think that’s very important, certainly in a kitchen as well as other places in many professions where there’s this instant command response. And that’s something that comes very much from military. And kitchens are run in that way because it’s all command response. On the other hand, we look at it as a sports franchise as well. Our job is to mentor and train the next generation of superstars, of franchise players, if you will.
Is that hierarchy something that you observed in France? French kitchens are very delineated, aren’t they?
Thomas Keller: I think it’s that way in most classy kitchens. Certainly, working in French kitchens was the same for me. Most of the kitchens that I worked in always have the chef, the sous-chefs, the chef de parties, the commis, and that’s a very hierarchical system where everybody looks at the chef for the direction, the sous-chefs to implement it, you know, the chef de cuisines to perform it, and the commis to support it. That’s the system that has been in place since Escoffier codified The French kitchen in the early 1900s.
Could you give a little definition of how each rank works?
Thomas Keller: A commis is the lowest position that you would enter when you enter a kitchen. My first job in the kitchen was as a commis. And I shouldn’t say my first job, my first job in a formal kitchen was as a commis. And that’s where you’re there supporting. You’re supporting the chef de partie. The chef de partie is a chef who is responsible for a specific station. So, for example, meats or fish or vegetables or garde manger which is cold preparation, or pastry. There’s a chef de partie in every different station that’s in a kitchen. Then you’d have a sous-chef. The sous-chef is literally “under the chef.” And a sous-chef would be responsible for a couple of different things depending on the role of that sous-chef. In our kitchen, for example, we have a sous-chef that would be what we call the “A.M. sous-chef.” So, our morning sous-chef is responsible for really the beginning of the day and setting the tempo for the rest of the day, which means that he has to work with a lot of the commis, which are typically the youngest, of course the least skilled, the least experienced. So he has to be able to motivate them. At the same time he has to be able to maintain the standards of their preparation and also the ingredients that are coming in. So he’s tasked with many different things and having to juggle many different things. So the morning sous-chef is a very, very important position, somebody that typically has had great experience in the restaurant that he’s working in. And then you have other sous-chefs, which would be responsible for specific groups of chef de parties. So, we have a sous-chef that’s responsible for the meats and the garde manger. And those are his two chefs. So we have a sous-chef that’s responsible for canapés and fish for example. There’s sous-chefs responsible in pastry in the same way. And of course the chefs. And so you have a pastry chef who is responsible for the entire pastry station, right? The entire pastry production, the entire pastry service, working with the chef de cuisine on the philosophy of the pastry. And then of course you have the chef de cuisine who is responsible for the entire kitchen. Today we have executive chefs as well. An executive chef would be somebody that would be in a position in a hotel for example, or where there are many different restaurants, and he would be the executive chef over all of the chef de cuisines from each different food and beverage outlet for example. Now remember, a chef in France doesn’t necessarily relate to the kitchen. A chef in France is the head of a specific area. So you have chef electricians. You have chef plumbers. So it’s not just — we relate to chef as somebody that’s only in the kitchen, but remember, it’s chef de cuisine, chef of the kitchen, chef of the electricians, chef of the plumbers. So typically, artisanal work or work that you’re doing with your hands, manual labor, would have a chef.
Thomas Keller: A chief. Exactly.
One thing that is so fascinating about your biography is your lack of formal culinary education, the lack of a Cordon Bleu certificate. And yet you have risen to the highest of stature of culinary greatness. I wonder where that ambition came from to be the best, and why didn’t you decide to go to school for that?
Thomas Keller: Well first, thank you very much for that wonderful compliment. Why didn’t I choose to go to school? Because cooking wasn’t really something that was popular at the time that I became interested.
In the early ’70s, when I really started cooking, for me it was really about the process. It was about the engagement with others. It was about that physical activity that was so compelling for me. You know, working with a group of other young men in a line, in a high-stress environment where it’s very intense and you’re cooking food. I mean it’s actually performing, and it’s a function, and it’s physical. Testosterone is raging and you’re with all these — it’s a group. It’s really, that’s where I learned about the idea of being a team as it relates to a sports franchise. So at that time, cooking wasn’t as recognized or as popular as it is today. There weren’t really a lot of people who had aspirations of becoming a chef. So the schools that we did have were relatively new. Of course we had the Culinary Institute of America, which began in the mid-’40s after World War II. We had Johnson and Wales. We had The Greenbrier, which had a qualified externship program. Of course there were the schools, some schools in France, but they were mostly focused on consumers, mostly housewives on vacation who wanted to learn how to cook, as Julia Child certainly did when she went to Le Cordon Bleu. So for me, there wasn’t really a lot of awareness about opportunities outside of learning the trade in a kitchen. So that’s where I chose to go. I chose to go into the kitchen. But it wasn’t because I wanted to have a career in the profession, in the culinary profession. It was because of the excitement of working with a team of peers and that physical activity of being on a team.
How did you decide to become a chef?
Thomas Keller: In 1977 I met my mentor, Roland Henin, who really enlightened me about what cooks do: we nurture people. And that was the moment, July 1977, that I decided to make this my career and pursued that with determination, with commitment. I was already cooking now for four years. And still, it wasn’t necessarily something that was recognized as a true profession. There were not that many great chefs recognized other than some of the great chefs of France. In our country we had very few. We had some in New York City, mostly in New York I would say. Maybe in Chicago, L.A. a little bit. You started to see the little sparks here and there of interest in not just cuisine but in those who produced it.
There were no reality TV shows then.
Thomas Keller: No. No reality TV shows. It certainly is very gratifying to see the interest now. In my lifetime, in my career, I’ve watched it grow from its infancy to where it is today, for good and for bad.
What was your first failure?
Thomas Keller: The first had an odd name, so don’t laugh. It was a restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida. This was the year before I went to Café du Parc. I had partnered with two male flight attendants who wanted to open a restaurant. They had saved their money and they opened a restaurant called the Cobbley Nob. The Cobbley Nob has to do with woodworking, because one of our partners was an amateur — he was a hobbyist. He was a woodworking hobbyist. And we thought this location was just like the perfect location. It was on West 45th Street in West Palm Beach, right next door to the jai-alai fronton. You know, jai-alai is a sport. And we thought, “Wow, there’s 2,000 people there every night. They’re going to drive right by our restaurant and stop. We’re going to have this instant business.” But we were doing, at the time, fine dining. Now I think it would be casual fine dining. And they wanted hot dogs and hamburgers. They didn’t want steak Diane and pommes boulangère. So we lasted about 12 months. Our money ran out and I left and went to work at Café du Parc, and the poor guys had to kind of lick their wounds and go back to being flight attendants. We all learned a great deal from it. You learn a lot from your mistakes.
What did you learn?
Thomas Keller: I learned that I needed to be a lot more responsible to the amount of money I spent on my products and how to use them.
I guess you also needed to learn who your customers would be.
Thomas Keller: Well, we all learn that. Yes. The demographics were very important in that process, which we just totally threw out the window, or we just miscalculated. We all learned that we had to be aware of the demographics and not just what we wanted to do, but what those around us really wanted to eat. Paul Bocuse said it very well. He said, “No matter how good of a cook you are, unless there’s people in your seats, you’re going to fail.” Of course I read that after we failed. I should have read that before.
A typical person who wants to be a chef might think, “I’m going to go study with a really good person in Chicago or New York,” or even a really good person in Paris. But no, you went to work in the best restaurants. How did you come by that vision?
Thomas Keller: The best restaurants that you were aware of — if you picked up a Michelin Guide, if you picked up The New York Times, even New York Magazine or any magazine that was either a travel or food magazine, or had a food section in the newspaper –at that time, were always talking about the great restaurants in France and the great chefs.
Where else would you aspire to go if it wasn’t the best? I mean if you’re going to go to France — which was arguably the best country, had the best food, the best products, the best chefs, the best restaurants — that’s what you wanted to do. So I set my sights high. It took me quite a while to get there. It was about three-and-a-half years of trying to find somebody in France that was actually going to commit to giving me a job before I actually left America. Many times the advice was, “Well just go. You’ll find a job. Just go. Just go over there. Somebody will hire you.” I wanted to make sure that I had somewhere to go to. I wasn’t convinced that I was just going to travel to France and knock on somebody’s door, but in reality that’s actually what happened. Where I ended up having the commitment from was a one-star Michelin restaurant in Arbois — which is in the Jura, which is in eastern France just below Alsace — a place I had never heard about before, a restaurant I had never heard about. But someone suggested I write them and I did. And I arrived at the front door and a large matronly woman met me and she was very harsh, and she took me up to my room, which was this small cubicle with a window, but the window was covered with dust, which I thought was dust. And that was my room. It was poorly lit, and I had to arrive at work the next morning in the kitchen downstairs at 5:30 and they would show me what to do. And the kitchen downstairs at 5:30, my first job was to shovel coal into the ovens. And I realized that my window wasn’t covered with dust. Well, it was covered with dust, but it was covered with soot, with coal dust. And the kitchen that I was in was nothing like any kitchens that I had been in in America. And I realized that that’s not why I came to France. And three days later I packed my bag early in the morning and I snuck out the door and caught the train and went to Paris and ended up staying at a friend’s apartment for almost two years and literally knocking on people’s doors for a job.
Fortunately, my persistence paid off and I had eight different stages in observation, permission to have observation at a restaurant.
I was a stagiaire and I was doing a stage, which is, you know, you go into somebody’s — it’s almost like it’s an apprenticeship, if you will. It’s an externship, if you will. It’s going into someone else’s kitchen and actually becoming part of that kitchen. And it’s up to that organization or that chef to define what you’ll do. So you know, I did different things in different kitchens, because each chef needed a stagiaire in a different way. It was a normal thing and it still is today. We’ve reached an interesting crossroads in the stagiaire program because the labor departments need to get involved, and if you have somebody in your kitchen, it’s not a learning experience, they’re actually working. Therefore you have to pay them. It’s this whole process, which has really kind of made it really difficult for us to have a proper stage in the kitchen. And it really truly is a learning, a place of learning. And yes, there are some restaurants around the world that would use a stage in an inappropriate way by making him stand in the corner and peel potatoes for three months, but a true stage in a restaurant that has integrity and understands their responsibility and the purpose of a stage gives you a great opportunity to learn. I have to say that period of my life and that period of my career in France was so, so important to who I am today and really helped me understand a lot of things about running a restaurant that have supported my career and my success.
What we call a “stage” in an American restaurant, or a stagiaire in a French one, does that literally mean a stager?
Thomas Keller: I don’t know the literal translation of it, but it’s an observer.
Traditionally, in France, is that an unpaid position?
Thomas Keller: Yes.
How did you support yourself back then?
Thomas Keller: Fortunately, for those three years I was trying to find somebody to commit to giving me a job, I was also saving my money. So I had a little bit of savings. My saving grace when I moved to Paris was my friend Serge Raoul, who allowed me to stay at his apartment. So I didn’t have rent to pay. You’re working in a restaurant — and in France you work in a restaurant Monday through Friday and you work both services, lunch and dinner — so you get to work at 9:00 in the morning. You prepare for lunch. You have lunch. You work through service. You take a break at 3:00. You come back at 5:30. You have dinner. You set up for dinner, then you have dinner. And then you work until 11:00 at night. So five days a week, my meals were paid for. I was at work so I didn’t have to spend any money entertaining myself. It was really only on Saturday and Sunday that I kind of had to support myself through eating and/or entertaining myself. So it was really — I was in a comfortable position in my living quarters, and I wasn’t really spending a lot of money. Entertainment was going to the Beaubourg and taking a French lesson in the audio class downstairs, or going to the museums or walking around Paris. I mean you’re in Paris. There’s many ways to entertain yourself without spending a lot of money.
What did you learn working at Taillevent? What culinary values and service values did you learn?
Thomas Keller: It’s interesting because when I was at Taillevent, I had been cooking for quite some time. I went to move to Paris in 1983 so I had been cooking now for almost a decade. I had committed myself since 1977 to make this my career. So I had been focused on working in — and I’ve chosen French cuisine and haute cuisine as my metier. So I was focused on that. My sights to go to France and work in specific restaurants were already defined. So when I got there, I had a good foundation of technique, a good understanding of classic cuisine, certainly the understanding of the vocabulary in a French kitchen. So I was a little further ahead than some of the other stagiaires that were there who were much younger than I, who were more worried about how to make a veal stock or how to turn a vegetable or different things that are basic that I had already learned. So I could focus on more of the details, and I was able to do that. And I think that’s what made the difference for me is not having to focus on the foundation of cooking, but be able to understand what made these restaurants great and understanding that Taillevent, which was probably the single most influential for me, a great restaurant. Was it a restaurant that was breaking new ground? No. Was it a restaurant that was progressive and contemporary? Not necessarily. It was a restaurant that was extraordinarily consistent. And great restaurants have to be consistent. We can all cook. There’s a lot of great chefs out there who can do a lot of great things, but to be consistent 300 days a year — lunch and dinner over and over and over and over again — is really for me what defines greatness. It’s the one hit wonders that are one hit wonders. To be there for a long time, to be impactful for a long time, to have a team that continues to evolve, to have guests that continue to come to your restaurant, to have that relationship with your partners or your suppliers, those are really, really important things for me in a restaurant.
There’s also the idea of a restaurant meal as a special event, rather than just getting something to eat.
Thomas Keller: Restaurants are used in so many different ways. I think that a restaurant like The French Laundry or Taillevent, any of the great restaurants around the world — and certainly there are many, many, many of them — are restaurants that are experiences certainly. Yes. You want to go there and you want to have an experience. It’s not just about going out to dinner. It’s not just about getting something to eat. But I truly don’t think that any moment that you get something to eat should just be about getting something to eat. I mean if you’re having dinner you should be thinking about what you’re eating. You should be thinking about those who you’re with. I think the single most important thing you can do — the single most important decision you make when you’re making a reservation to a restaurant is not what restaurant you’re going to, but who you’re going with. It’s that social engagement, that interaction around a dinner table that to me is the most important. That truly defines our success. Let’s face it, if you’re with friends and family, or your partner, and you’re having a wonderful time, your experience is going to be elevated because of the time that you’re having with the people that you’re with. If you’re with somebody you don’t really want to be with, or there’s a problem going on, your experience is diminished regardless of what I do. So I want you to come to my restaurant with the attitude that you’re going to have a great time because of the experience you’re going to have with those that you’re dining with.
How did you meet Serge Raoul?
Thomas Keller: I was working at a restaurant. When I was in South Florida, I was working in a restaurant called the Café du Parc. It was a new restaurant with a chef named Pierre Latuberne and Pierre’s wife, Anne-Marie. Pierre ran the kitchen. Pierre was in the kitchen — Ann-Marie was in the dining room — and I became his sous-chef. And it was a small kitchen. It was him and I in the kitchen with one commis and a dishwasher and of course Anne Marie in the dining room with two or three servers. And that was a wonderful environment, very familiar, very small. We did everything. We did everything from the patés to the desserts, and he taught me a great deal. He had a friend, René Macary and his wife, Paulette, who owned a restaurant in Catskill, New York outside of the town of Catskill, New York. René and his wife would come to South Florida in the wintertime because they would close their restaurant, and he was looking for a chef for the following summer and Pierre recommended me, so I moved to Catskill. A beautiful time in my life. I spent three summers there. The second summer I decided to go to New York City to try my hand in Manhattan, and that was when I met Serge Raoul. I became the chef of Raoul’s, which was, at the time an outpost in what became SoHo on Prince Street, and it was a classic, classic, French bistro in every way, and it was wonderful. I enjoyed it. But the next summer, when spring came around, René called me and asked me if I wanted to come back to La Rive, and because that was such a bucolic experience for me, it was so familiar, they were like my second parents, I moved back to Catskill for that third summer. And then of course the following summer I moved to France.
You opened your own restaurant in New York in 1986. Talk about Rakel.
Thomas Keller: Rakel. It was a wonderful restaurant. That was at the beginning of that relationship with Serge Raoul. That’s where the name comes from. Raoul and Keller, R-A and K-E-L. It began in 1985 when I returned from France. I became the first American chef to be at one of the great “La Le” restaurants in New York City. This was kind of at the end of the era of the “La Le” restaurants. At the height of this you had La Côte Basque, La Caravelle, Le Cirque, La Grenouille, La Reserve, Le Perigord. All these great restaurants were defined by that and so they became the “La Le” restaurants.
I became the chef de cuisine of La Reserve, which is on 49th Street. And I came back a bit arrogant, a bit uppity, a bit disrespectful of — not my kitchen, but the owner, and so we didn’t see eye to eye. Of course, I thought that because of the things that I learned, and because of the ability to execute what I wanted to do, because of my ability to organize a kitchen, I thought that I was invincible. Of course, when you butt heads with the owner, ultimately the owner’s going to throw you out and that’s what he did. I went to work at another restaurant in New York called Raphael, and this was — there’s a lot of R’s in my restaurant history. And Raphael was run just like the restaurants ran in France. We were open Monday through Friday. We did lunch and dinner. It was a very small kitchen, and it was a beautiful experience because it was what I related to from just returning from France. I had much more control over it. The owner was more like the owner of the restaurant that I worked at when I was in the Catskill at La Rive. And of course the lunch and dinner in the same day, it really worked for me. At that time Serge and I started to talk about opening our own restaurant and that became Rakel.
So how did you become partners?
Thomas Keller: We became friends. He recognized a certain talent in me and he wanted to open a restaurant with me so we opened Rakel. Rakel was in an area called Hudson Square in Manhattan, not too far from SoHo, not too far from the Village, but an area which was unheard of, and so we found a space there. This was the area that was going to become the next advertising center of New York City. Jerry Della Femina moved down there, opened his offices. Saatchi & Saatchi, another huge advertising firm, opened their corporate headquarters down there. Then of course, I think it was 1988, when we had Black Monday and that was kind of the demise of that era of spending. And Rakel was in an area that wasn’t really supported by a community or a neighborhood around it. So we were one of the first restaurants to kind of fail. We converted the restaurant into Café Rakel. I left because I was committed to fine dining and ultimately moved to L.A. And unfortunately Rakel failed — or Café Rakel failed — two years later.
The failure of this restaurant did not dissuade you from haute cuisine. A lot of other people might have said, “Maybe I was too ambitious.”
Thomas Keller: It was my second failure in a restaurant. I learned at that time that persistence is really one of those keys to success.
After the failure of Rakel, you persisted with haute cuisine but you moved to Los Angeles.
Thomas Keller: It was a very difficult time in New York City. Everybody was doing casual dining. I mean that became the catch phrase. You know, “Everybody wants casual food now.” It wasn’t so much casual food that they wanted, it was more of a casual price that they really wanted. It didn’t matter if you were doing fine dining, family dining. It was really about price points. Everybody became more frugal during that time, as they do always in times of uneasiness and disruption in our economic climate. So I stayed in New York for about a year looking for something to do, never really finding anything. I became a consultant, which paid me more money than I ever made before, but which was so unrewarding to do that that I was just miserable. And some friends of mine, who were very influential in my move, were moving to California and they said, “Come to California and try it out.” At the same time a gentleman named Bill Wilkinson, who I had a brief conversation with about four years earlier, he was opening a hotel in L.A. called Checkers. And of course Bill Wilkinson was very influential in the hotel world because he opened the first boutique hotel in our country, which was Campton Place in San Francisco. He was the first hotelier to really bring in a great restaurant with a great chef and that was Bradley Ogden. So Bill is then taking his expertise and skill to L.A., bought a hotel downtown, renamed it Checkers, and brought in me. So I became the chef, the second chef there. Jan Birnbaum was the first. I became a chef there and moved to Los Angeles. That didn’t last long because Bill pretty quickly sold the hotel to a German company, and of course there was a real cultural shift for me and I left, and certainly that became my jumping off point for French Laundry.
In your book you tell a story about rabbits, and what you learned. Could you tell us that story?
Thomas Keller: This was a time in my life when I started to embrace the idea of doing things myself outside of the kitchen, having a garden. So at La Rive, which was a beautiful old farm on the side of a small creek, I planted my first garden.
Where and when was this?
Thomas Keller: La Rive was outside of Catskill. I spent three summers there: 1980, ’81 and ’82. So in 1980, I planted my first garden. I understood that there was a lot of competition, because not only did I want the vegetables, so did the deer and the beavers and any other wildlife that would come into the fray. I learned how to share with them. So I gave them some and I took some. But gardening became part of my life. I learned that doing things that other people do better is not necessarily good just because you’re doing it in your own backyard or in your own house. So this idea of smoking your own salmon, or this idea of making your own ketchup, which was really popular at this period of time, didn’t necessarily result in something that was better than the guy in Scotland whose family has been curing and smoking salmon for generations. But nonetheless I built my own little smoker out of an old refrigerator and cured and smoked my own salmon. I was also developing my relationship with farmers, with foragers, with gardeners, with fishermen from around the area.
There was one farmer who supplied me with my rabbits every week. It was a Frenchman, and he would bring me 12 rabbits beautifully dressed every week. And one week I thought, “I’m going to ask him to bring them live, because as a chef I should really know what it feels like and of course how to slaughter an animal, and what better animal to slaughter than something that is relatively small?” You know, go out and slaughter a cow or a pig would maybe have been a little more emotionally disturbing, but slaughtering a rabbit may be something that I could handle. So of course the next week he showed up. He’s got his cage. There’s 12 rabbits in the cage and he’s explaining to me in broken English how to kill the rabbit. The first and most important thing, he said, was to make sure that when you reach into the cage, that you grab both the hind legs simultaneously. So he reached in the cage, pulls a rabbit out, both legs, has one of those little baseball clubs, knocks it on its head, pins the rabbit to the side of the barn, slits its throat, dresses the rabbit in about five minutes. He’s gone. Oh wow, what just happened? I’m looking at this rabbit hanging on the side of the barn, and 11 rabbits in the cage. And now I’m left, because now I have to — without his help or his guidance — is butcher these other 11 rabbits. And of course, I make the critical mistake of only being able to grab one of the hind legs of the rabbit. And of course, what does the rabbit do? It jumps, right? Its reaction is to jump. Of course, when it tries to jump forward, I’m holding a leg. What happens? I break its leg. The rabbit screams. I mean it was such an emotional experience I didn’t know what to do, because the rabbit screamed so loud that Paulette, the wife of the owner, came out of the house — their house was just maybe 50 yards away — thinking something had happened. Now I’ve got this rabbit that’s got a broken leg, and I’ve got to kill it and dress it. And not only that, I’ve got to do the other ten. And I learned at that moment a profound respect for the ingredients that we have, a profound respect for those individuals who bring them to us, and how committed they are to what they do, and how committed I have to be to what I’m doing to respect what they do. And you know, waste became a really important part of that learning experience, making sure that — you know what? That rabbit, which gave up its life, I had to make sure that I utilized it in the best way I could and every bit of it. And make sure that I had paid attention to how I cooked it. To cook something and overcook it, and then just throw it away would be just a waste of life. And so it just didn’t go with our proteins, it went with everything, because every ingredient that we receive in our restaurants or you receive at home as a consumer, somebody has spent part of their life producing that for us, and we have to be respectful of that and make sure that we are able to nourish ourselves with the food that they supply us. The rabbit story was a profound moment in my life where I learned that really deep sense of respect for everything that we have coming through our back doors.
That sounds like a traumatic lesson.
Thomas Keller: It was. When I wrote The French Laundry Cookbook, it was an important story for me to tell. Of course it’s such an uncomfortable story for a lot of people that my publisher didn’t want to include it in the book and I made her. Of course it became one of those stories that, if it was today, it would have gone viral, but back in those days we didn’t have what we have today. But Gourmet magazine picked it up and they thought it was very important. They ran it in one of their last issues.
Did your mother or father support your culinary ambitions?
Thomas Keller: My mother passed away, unfortunately, by the time I went to France. My mother passed away in 1982 — so I had gone to France in 1983 — but my father was, I have to say. Even though I hadn’t spent a lot of time with my father growing up, in my early 20s I made a reconnection with him and certainly we rekindled our relationship and he was very supportive, even though he didn’t understand what I did. He was a Marine. For him it was about meat and potatoes. He was a man who would travel ten miles to save ten cents on a bar of margarine. Not even butter, and then he would buy 20 pounds of it to store in his freezer so that he could have it whenever he needed it. He was that kind of — came from that kind of generation. He grew up in the Depression, was a Marine for 23 years of his life. He enjoyed nothing more — I think what he enjoyed the most when he would come out here with us and spend summers here, and ultimately moved here, was actually getting in line for dinner with the team every night at staff meal. He liked that. It was camaraderie. It was familiar to him. It was something that made him really comfortable.
Thomas Keller: One of his favorite things to do was to sit in the parking lot early in the morning when our purveyors would bring their deliveries in. And he would always tell me he would save me a dollar on a basket of strawberries, or he would be able to get an extra couple quarts of milk. He was always the kind of guy who wanted to save money. So he was very proud to be able to talk to our suppliers and get them to either give us extra or to reduce our price. And he was always the one who was out there getting reservations for the restaurant. People walking around town, he would just chat people up and, “Oh, you know, my son owns The French Laundry.” And they would say, “Oh, can you get me a reservation?” “Oh yeah. No problem.” So we were always trying to fill the books in with his reservations. But I think his favorite thing to do was really to share time, share moments with the young staff and just tell stories. He was a great storyteller. And his house was right next door to The French Laundry, where he lived and it was a common thing to go over there after work in the afternoon, at four or five o’clock when the morning team would be finishing up, and they’d be over there on his front porch drinking beer out of cans, because he really liked canned beer as opposed to bottled beer. Those were things that he was familiar with so — and just telling stories. And they would just be, you know, they were 50 years younger than he was, and he would just be telling them stories and they’d just be like listening on the edge of their seats, and that was one of the favorite things that he did.
You made him a real last supper, didn’t you?
Thomas Keller: We did. Of course you never know those things when you’re doing it. You’re only doing it because you love the person and because you’re responsible for the person and because that’s what you do. That’s just what you do. He wanted to have chicken, barbeque chicken. So we made him barbeque chicken and cooked up some mashed potatoes because that’s what he wanted. Made him a strawberry shortcake for dessert. That’s what he wanted. And you never know. That was a Sunday supper, and we had a beautiful time. My oldest brother was here at the same time. We had a beautiful time on the back porch of our house, and that Monday night, the next night, he passed away. You just never know.
What influence do you think his Marine background might have had on the discipline with which you approach your craft?
Thomas Keller: I think that’s just it. I think it’s discipline. What the Marines say so much about is that discipline, is that commitment to what you’re doing, and more important, the commitment to each other. That’s what really we want to be able to instill, to teach our young staff is that the person standing next to you is your colleague. He’s that person that’s going to support you, that’s not going to let you fall and don’t let him fall, and really it’s a team. We’re all in it together, and we all have to support one another. We’re committed to one another. We’re dedicated to one another. And the success of you as an individual is really based on the success of the team.
You’ve done a lot of beautiful service for veterans here in this area. Tell us about the Thanksgiving dinner you do at Bouchon.
Thomas Keller: We love to do Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is one of those moments that’s truly about that experience around the table, that family, friends. And you know, it really goes back to when I was a young child and that was one of the meals my mother would cook would be Thanksgiving. She would spend — it seems like days — preparing Thanksgiving dinner. With just a small four-burner stove with one oven it takes you a long time to prepare dinner. But it was such a wonderful moment that lasted for days afterwards, because you had all the leftovers. So when we started to think about Thanksgiving here at our restaurant, The French Laundry, when we first opened, we started thinking about that, serving that kind of meal, which was a meal that allowed you to interact with it. In other words, you carve the turkey, you serve the food, and then you took the leftovers home. As we continued to evolve with that idea, we realized that the veterans here weren’t having that kind of experience and so we committed ourselves to doing that. So on Thanksgiving day at Bouchon, that’s what we do. We invite those from our veterans home here in Yountville down to experience a meal around a table in a familiar place with food that is nourishing in every way.
The idea of service is so pertinent to both worlds, military and culinary.
Thomas Keller: Yeah. We want to make sure that we pay respect to them. We also support the Semper Fi Foundation, which is actually in Camp Pendleton. One of the things that I don’t believe we do enough of is to help our veterans, our servicemen and women.
Tell us about the Ment’or Foundation.
Thomas Keller: Ment’or is — it’s interesting because, again, these things have happened in my life kind of by coincidence or by some divine plan. I’m not sure which one. But Paul Bocuse, who has been an icon in our profession, someone who I’ve always looked up to, somebody who changed the way our profession is perceived, somebody who’s changed the way we eat, literally changed the way we eat, started a competition, international competition 30 – 28 years ago to bring the world together on an international level for a culinary competition that resulted in relationship building, in teaching, in awareness and camaraderie, and helping to expand the awareness of our profession around the world. America had competed since the beginning but never even came close to the podium. Very few people in our country even knew that there was an American culinary team representing our country in Lyon every two years at this competition of 23 other nations. Paul Bocuse, who has a great affection for America, he’ll tell the story. Paul tells a lovely story about when he was a young man in The French Resistance being wounded and being taken to an American military hospital, American field military hospital and being given a blood transfusion. And he’ll tell the story that he is part American because he has American blood running through his veins. And he flies the American flag above his restaurant. Of course his son went to school here in the Culinary Institute of America and now lives in America. His grandson is American. He wanted America to have a better representation at the Bocuse d’Or. So he called his son, who then called his best friend, Daniel Boulud, who called me, and said the three of us are going to form a foundation to support the competition, to support a U.S. team in competing in France.
Daniel said, “Paul’s going to call you in ten minutes and ask you to be the president. You’re American. We have to have an American president.” I said okay. So sure enough, Paul calls me ten minutes later and asks me to be the president. And what do you say to Paul Bocuse? What do you say to any chef? You never say no to the chef, right? It’s always, “Oui, chef.” Yes. So I said, “Yes, chef.” And so that began the day of our quest to get on the podium.
We all promised him that we would do our jobs collectively in organizing a foundation that would support a U.S. culinary team to compete in Lyon and actually reach the podium. Our first year was 2009. Sixth place. It was a young chef from The French Laundry, Timothy Hollingsworth. Our second challenge was in 2011. We fell to tenth. In 2013 we raised to ninth. In 2015 we finally reached the podium, the first time the Americans have ever been on the podium in France. We won silver. Philip Tessier, who was a young chef, our sous-chef at French Laundry, formed a team and made the challenge. And we were so proud. It was such a moment for us because we represented our country. In the same way that our U.S. Olympic athletes represent our country, we feel the same way in our profession. Not everybody knows it like that. Not everybody has that much awareness of it, but for our point of view, the sense of national pride that we have in what we do, the commitment that we have during that two-year process of training, choosing and training those young chefs — because it takes a year to train them. The commitment they make to doing the same — talk about doing the same thing every day. I mean that’s it. It’s so repetitive. They’re working on the same preparation, the same compositions, the same dishes, the same recipes day in and day out for that entire year period. And then going to France and in a five-and-a-half hour period producing those two proteins and serving it to 24 international judges. It’s an extraordinary event, extraordinary undertaking. It’s the stamina, the commitment, the dedication to the craft is unparalleled. And to reach the podium for the first time, Daniel, Jerome and I felt that we had finally been able to give Paul what we promised. It was the Americans on the podium. It was fascinating, and again certainly we were very proud and honored. The next day in the Lyon newspaper, the headlines: “Paul’s Dream Realized: America Reaches the Podium.”
Which award did they get?
Thomas Keller: We got silver. There’s bronze, silver and gold. But it wasn’t about the team that won gold. It was about Paul’s dream realized, America reaches the podium. So I’m in his restaurant the next day, because every morning after the competition he does a breakfast for the winners. And we’re watching Philip’s name being inserted into the walkway that leads up to the front door: “Philip Tessier, U.S.A..” There’s now 13 rows of gold, silver, bronze plaques with people’s names on them. The first time U.S.A. is there, I’m standing at the pass in Paul’s kitchen, I’m standing next to him and I’m just telling him how proud I am, how much I love what he’s done, how much I love him. We finally achieved what we promised, to reach the podium. And he looks at me with a smirk in his eye and says, “Gold.” So he’s still pushing. As much as he was satisfied, he said, “You’re not quite there yet. You got one more to go.”
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Thomas Keller: I think the American Dream, what it means to me is we — everybody in our country has an opportunity. And all you have to do is believe in yourself, be patient, be persistent. Never let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. Prove that you can by acting on it and you’ll be successful. I think that kind of sums up my life and what I’ve been doing. I could only hope for the next 20 years that I’m able to continue to dedicate and commit myself on a different level to our profession and to my teams and continue to offer them the ability, the platform to elevate themselves. We are only as good as those who come after us. One of our primary jobs, one of our primary responsibilities is to hire the right people, make sure that the people that we’re hiring, those individuals, young men and women, are of the right attitude, of the right mindset, have the right skills to enter into our profession. We have to give them training. And that training goes on not for two weeks or two months, but that training goes on the entire time that they’re with us. And then we have to mentor them not just in their career, but in their lives. And if we do those three things right, what happens? They become better than you. And if they’re not better than you, then you haven’t done a very good job.
Another great milestone for you was the Legion d’Honneur.
I’ve had some extraordinary honors in my life. I’ve achieved things that I could never even have dreamed of. And certainly receiving the Legion of Honor from President Sarkozy was beyond anything I could ever dream of. And I really have to thank those who nominated me: Daniel Boulud, Paul Bocuse, Jerome. In the process I did really — I wasn’t really privy to the process that you go through — but I remember receiving the letter from the President of France telling me that he was proud of the work that I had done in my field and that I deserved to be recognized by the people of France and to receive the Medallion de Legion d’Honneur was their way of expressing their gratitude and asking me if I would like to be hosted at the Élysée Palace in Paris later that year to receive the medal from him, or to receive the medal from an officer of the Legion d’Honneur that was of a higher rank than I was. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me. As much as I would have appreciated and certainly had deep respect to go to France and to receive it at the Élysée, I knew right away that I would prefer to have somebody else pin that medal on my chest. And again, a coincidence that Paul Bocuse was going to be in America that March or that April. And I could have him pin the medal on my chest. So we had a gathering at the Per Se in New York where we invited the ambassador from France who came, and I thought of my colleagues of course, Daniel, Jerome, Alain Ducasse was there, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and it was a great celebration. And of course he was the one who took the medal out of the box and pinned it on my chest, and it was one of the most — it was the most I think extraordinary moment of my life to receive that kind of recognition from a country that has defined for me what great cuisine is.
You have truly defined haute cuisine in this country.
Thomas Keller: Well, thank you.
Especially in California. As you mentioned earlier, the 1980s and ’90s were a fascinating time for great food in California. Alice Waters had opened Chez Panisse, and since then the influence of that sort of sourcing, that farm-to-table cuisine, has spread far and wide.
Thomas Keller: There was one other — a little less-known chef, who also inspired me and I think a lot of my colleagues, and that was Jean-Louis Palladin. And Jean-Louis Palladin came to this country in the early ’70s, opened his restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. And Jean-Louis was baffled because there were no farmers, fishermen, foragers or gardeners that really connected with chefs. And in his own way he enlightened us in the same way that Alice did in being able to encourage chefs to reconnect to the suppliers that are bringing us those extraordinary ingredients. So between the two of them, they ignited what I believe we have, the resurgence of the farmer, the fisherman, the gardener and the forager. Remember, it wasn’t that long that we missed it. It was my generation that kind of missed that. My grandmother — when I lived with my grandmother — we had the milkman that came. We went to the local markets all the time. There was that true connection to our suppliers, to those people who produced our food. World War II kind of shook that all up. All the men went to the war and the women went to work. After World War II the men came back and the women stayed at work and that spawned the convenience food generation, which was us. So, we weren’t away from it for too long, but long enough that so many of us forgot how important it was. It’s really refreshing to see how much that’s changed in a short period of time, in 35, 40 years. It’s extraordinary what we have available to us and how important our farmers have become. And really, they are the true superstars of our profession.
It all goes back to the rabbit.
Thomas Keller: Yeah. It all goes back to the rabbit.
One last question. When you won your first three Michelin stars, you celebrated at Taillevent in Paris. What did you eat?
Thomas Keller: We began of course with caviar. I mean caviar and blini. So they do this extraordinary blini there. It comes out in a beautiful pan. It’s just breathtaking to look at, very classic, the aromas, the butter, and of course you have a tin of caviar and beautiful glasses of champagne. What better way to start a celebration than that? And then of course we had foie gras, poached foie gras, warm with turnips — spring turnips — peas, and a beautiful consommé of duck, rich but at the same time light, right. And then of course the famous dish that they did, which I saw so many times, was the saddle of lamb rognonade, which means that it’s the saddle of lamb stuffed with its kidneys, served with pommes purées on the side and asparagus. Again, just classic but just perfectly done. And cheese, the cheese cart always comes by in France, and you have so many selections. At that point you begin overeating because you want to try each one of them. And of course then to finish the meal was the famous marquise au chocolat, the chocolate marquise with pistachio sauce, something that I made almost every night during my time at Taillevent. It was a perfect meal to celebrate a perfect moment with the best people in the world.
That sounds wonderful. Sometimes simplicity is best.
Thomas Keller: Yes. Simple is hard. Roasted chicken, that’s a simple thing to do, but it’s very hard.
Thank you, Chef. It’s been a great pleasure.
Thomas Keller: Thank you. I’m very proud to have been part of this.