It is rare, but not impossible, for an artist to become a legend in his lifetime. It happens. But seldom does it happen to a cook.
Yet at any cocktail party and on every tray of passed hors d’oeuvres, chef Thomas Keller is there. At white-tablecloth restaurants around the world, he is revered. His talents might seem meager on the page: He makes dinner. But he took a miniature ice cream cone and filled it with salmon tartare; he paired tapioca with an oyster to create a beloved dish, Oysters and Pearls. Childhood flavors are playfully rendered and perfectly executed, and become iconic.
Keller is the only American chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars at two different restaurants simultaneously. While few of us will have had the pleasure of eating at Napa’s French Laundry or New York’s Per Se, our dinner parties have never been the same. Watch! spoke with the man at the top of the food chain about the qualities that elevate food from merely delicious to palate changing.
Watch!: Is there a constant inspiration for your work?
Keller: I can tell you what inspired me yesterday, but I have no idea what will move me tomorrow. But I do remember the moment of genesis for Oysters and Pearls, the process: I was walking down a grocery store aisle and saw a purple box of tapioca pearls and thought: pearls … oysters.
Watch!: Is that a place you generally get ideas?
Keller: The most important thing is awareness. I try to teach and mentor our young staff, to let them know we are all walking down that aisle as human beings, that our awareness will lead to our inspiration. Then you have to embrace it; you can’t just leave an inspired thought alone, you have to interpret it. From there it evolves, it becomes something meaningful, an idea lives and breathes with you and takes on a life of its own. And it might not happen. But sometimes it does.
Watch!: What was the genesis for the now-famous salmon tartare ice cream cone?
Keller: I create a dish because something touches me. It was a heartfelt emotion, a childhood memory. How many times as a kid did you see an ice cream cone? I took a cracker, rolled it into a coronet and filled it with salmon, chives and crème fraîche. From a flavor point of view you can relate to it, it’s pretty normal. Then life takes it away from you and does what it wants. And the whole cycle can be celebrated: awareness, inspiration, interpretation and evolution.
Watch!: How did you decide you wanted to be involved with restaurants?
Keller: My mother ran a restaurant and I was a dishwasher. I loved it. You have to be really organized stacking dishes—there’s precision and repetition and ritual, you do the same things at the same time of day, mopping and sweeping, over and over, until you get really good at it. Then there’s immediate gratification and instant feedback—you know if the dishes are either clean or they are not.
I enjoyed the physicality of it, you’re with six other guys, you’re 21 years old and you’re never going to be a good athlete, but the kitchen is pumped up with energy, you know if you’re doing a good job and people depend on you. You’re on a team.
Watch!: At what point did you turn away from washing dishes and toward cooking?
Keller: In the summer of 1977, I cooked a family meal for my team. As a young cook, you never deal with guests. But the chef called the order out, he told me, “You’re cooking for staff,” and the reaction I got was immediate gratitude. I was nurturing my colleagues. I found I like to give people things, to take care of them, to make them happy.
Watch!: Most, if not all, cooks feel that way. How does that set your food apart?
Keller: A gastronomic experience is fleeting; it can’t be captured. But all this wonderful stuff happens around the dinner table, the most profound life moments, and those are major experiences. That’s what I want to give people. So if they leave my table with a memory, with their friends and their family, I see my job as nurturing that. To me, memories are a success. It’s a miracle as far as that goes.
Watch!: Practically every Michelin-starred chef in the country has cited you as an inspiration, a mentor or a friend. Chicago’s Grant Achatz, of Alinea, who trained in your kitchen, named his son after you. What is that notoriety like?
Keller: It’s pretty cool to be institutionalized in the culture. I imagine it’s like being John Lennon and writing a song that you hear in a car commercial. It’s neat, and very gratifying, and humbling as well. Cooking is, by nature, all about sharing. Chefs share our ideas openly and lovingly, we give of ourselves and it elevates the standard of the profession. My goal is to make other chefs better than I am. And if they’re not, I haven’t done my job. I think of it as baseball and I run a sports franchise. They make me look better.
Watch!: There seems to be no ego in this philosophy of yours. It sounds almost Buddhist.
Keller: I was raised Catholic but I’m not practicing. But I do know I don’t need to elevate my own ego through others. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them. I teach what I know and I embrace the things I believe in. And tomorrow I need to be open to anything.
A CHEF’S WORLD
Keller hangs his toque in Napa, Las Vegas and New York
The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.
Napa had long been on the map for its wines, but in 1994, vintners found a partner in Keller’s tasting menus. Now the restaurant is a pilgrimage destination for food lovers. (frenchlaundry.com)
Ad Hoc, Yountville, Calif.
Only a few blocks from his flagship restaurant, Keller opened a simple, all-American bistro serving homey foods such as buttermilk-brined fried chicken, pot pies and pork chops. (adhocrestaurant.com)
Bouchon, Las Vegas
In the exuberant Venetian hotel, the Adam Tihany-designed space pays homage to the classic French brasserie with Keller’s elegant take on standards such as steak-frites and poulet rôti. (bouchonbistro.com)
Per Se, New York
The Central Park and city views gracing Per Se are almost forgotten amid the intense flavors, reverential execution and precise service of New York’s high temple of haute cuisine. (perseny.com)