Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Chef Thomas Keller

Chef and Restaurateur Thomas Keller shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.May 2006

From three Michelin stars for Per Se in New York and five Mobil stars for the French Laundry in Yountville to multiple James Beard awards for himself, his restaurants, and his cookbooks, there isn’t an industry award that Chef Thomas Keller hasn’t received. Both restaurants have been named among the ten best in the world and best in America, while his critically acclaimed Bouchon in Yountville and Las Vegas offer a more casual experience with the same standards of excellence. Chef Keller began his career in the kitchen of the Palm Beach club managed by his mother, before traveling to France and working at Guy Savoy and Taillevent, among other similarly lauded places. In the late 1980s he opened Rakel in New York, but left for California a few years later. He found renewed success when opening the French Laundry in 1994, and hasn’t lost it since. The Main Course caught up with him at Per Se a couple of weeks before the opening of Bouchon Bakery in New York, his latest project.

How do you deal with being a bi-coastal, almost tri-coastal, chef?
You just get on an airplane [laughs]. I think the best way to deal with it is to really give up day-to-day control to people who have the same desires, the same ambitions, the same goals, who have embraced your philosophy and extended that beyond yourself, who understand the culture that we're trying to establish. This is really how you do it. As much as chefs are kind of control addicts, because I think we are, and that's kind of in our nature, to learn to give that up is a difficult thing. But if you're really going to achieve a larger impact than a single restaurant, which, today, seems to be the direction that our societies take us to, having more than one restaurant is part of the evolution of a chef.

Is it more of an external expectation than something that you impose on yourself?
No, the opportunities are there externally. But the expectations are certainly real. You have to be able to analyze those opportunities and look within yourself, and around you, and see if you can accept those opportunities, number one, and then, if you can give those opportunities to other people. I think that's really a wonderful thing to be able to do, is say ‘here's a restaurant in New York City, ladies and gentlemen. We have this opportunity to do it. We're going to take the opportunity, but it's really going to be your restaurant. You're going to run it. You're going to be part of that process.’ That is just really the thing to do.

Are the chefs de cuisine who work with you in these situations able to have their imprints on the different restaurants, or are they doing your cuisine?
Of course [they have their own imprints], very much so. We have to separate that. When you're talking about Per Se and French Laundry, which is really a personality cuisine, based on Thomas Keller's philosophy, there's a lot of flexibility in that, a lot of tolerance in that, as it relates to what they're allowed to do, as long as they're working within the philosophy of Thomas Keller.

How do you define that philosophy?
It's a collaboration. That philosophy began within me at the French Laundry. Well, not just the French Laundry, but certainly became more apparent there. The more success we had, the more the philosophy became apparent, and easier to track, which meant it was easier to teach, and for people to understand. It became part of the evolution of that philosophy.

How long do people typically work for you before you put them in charge?
There's no typical time period. It just depends on the quality of their work.

You could have someone as a chef de cuisine who's been with you for a year or less?
I don't say that. There's no really typical time that someone is with me to become chef de cuisine, because we don't plan things out and say, ‘okay, you're going to be a chef de cuisine in five years from now, and this is where you're going to go.’ It's not that easy, for many reasons. We don't really know what our opportunities are going to be. We're exploring them all the time. They're coming to us all the time. It's not something that you want to have mechanized, if you will, especially at this level. A Bouchon Bakery, those are certainly different kinds of situations, where you can kind of start to apply timeframes, to say, ‘let's open a bouchon every two or three years,’ and starting to find your second, third generation chefs within your framework that you have today, to start to train them. And that's something we're doing, planning. We want to open a Bouchon in the next two years, possibly, in Los Angeles, for example, but we have a sous chef now who's been with us for five years who would really qualify to be a chef de cuisine at a Bouchon. So, what do we need to do to for him to make sure that he has the quality that we need for him to be a chef de cuisine? He has the qualities of cooking. He understands our food. He understands the parameters. He understands the concept and the philosophy of Bouchon. Then, it gets to management, and financials, and human resources, and all these other elements that really are very, very important for a chef to understand.

Are people fighting to work for you?
I don't know. I don't think that people fight to work for you. What's happening today in the hospitality industry is really kind of scary, because the hospitality industry is exploding. It's just extraordinary. I think true hospitality comes from within. I think that you are almost born with the hospitality gene in you. You want to make people happy. As many people would want to be in the hospitality service industry, they're not really cut out for it, sometimes. Therefore, they don’t really follow through with that genuine kind of experience. Unfortunately, the great hospitality people today are becoming fewer and fewer, but not because they're actually becoming fewer in numbers. They're just becoming fewer in the percentage of how many restaurants, or how many hotels, or how many service, how many hospitality outlets are opening today. It's just extraordinary, so there’s far more competition for employees. French Laundry and Per Se, it's a huge commitment. What we do here really extends out to life itself. You have good habits because you have good habits. You don't have good habits only at work. You have respect because you have respect. You don't just have respect at work. You're responsible because you're responsible. What you learn here with us, you should be able to extend out to your life, and therefore become more successful at what you're doing.

Is that pressure hard for some people?
Yes. Some people just want to go to work and go home.
One article, when you opened the French Laundry, said that the only negative part of your restaurant is that your prix fixe made it a special event dinner.

Do you think that's still true today?
I think that's true with any restaurant, when you start talking about the amount of expense, that it becomes a special occasion restaurant. Certainly, the style of restaurants of Per Se and French Laundry's caliber is one that is special occasion. We want to give somebody an experience, and this is what we feel the experience should be. That in itself is defined as a special occasion or special experience. I think that fine dining should be something special.

When you left New York, close to 15 years ago, did you always have in mind to come back?
No. But if I was going to do another fine dining restaurant the choices for me were far and few between. I'm not talking because we didn't have opportunities, I'm talking about the choices I would make. And New York would have been my first choice, firmly was because of the relationship and the history that I had here, and being here for 10 years. I grew up in my career for a portion of it. A lot of my colleagues lived here, a lot of my friends lived here. I had alliances with press here. I had a lot of resources in New York. So, it was an easy decision.

How did you decide when you opened the French Laundry to go for that concept over something more casual?
The decision was made for me because that's what the restaurant’s format was. It was a prix fixe menu. They didn't offer any choices in their prix fixe menu. It was one menu. It was like Chez Panisse. Sally and Don Schmitt, who opened French Laundry, opened it about the same time that Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, and it was just about ‘come to my house and have dinner. This is what we're cooking tonight.’ They offered a four-course menu at that time, and when we first opened, we offered a four-course menu, and then we added a five-course menu to it. And it just evolved from there, slowly but surely, then we eliminated the four-course menu, and we added a nine-course menu. We added a vegetable menu. The process of evolution. Then we changed the five courses to seven courses. So, little by little, it evolved to what it is today.

Is that the best way to experience your cuisine?
I think it’s the best way to experience anybody's cuisine who's in this group that I'm in, if you will, and I don't say that in an arrogant way, because I don't know [laughs]. I mean, the idea of writing a menu for me, now, is becoming obsolete.

But would you be able to switch to a non-menu format?
I hope so. That's my direction. If you come in tonight, you should have enough confidence in this restaurant, in this staff, in the chefs in this restaurant, and their ability to procure the best ingredients, and say, ‘okay, the chef is cooking for you tonight.’ You would say, ‘fine.’

And you don't think people trust you?
I think people have become accustomed to having way too many choices in our society and our cultures. It becomes confusing. Dining's about experiencing the person you're with and having a good time, and having really good food in a really wonderful, environment, with great wines, and service in the correct way. I feel most comfortable, and this is from my experience, going to my colleagues’ restaurants, and saying, ‘Daniel, just make whatever you want,’ because I know that you're going to do something great. And certainly, he does. So when I start to think about this, this is very interesting, because I go to these restaurants. I don't order a thing. The wine comes. The food comes. I can spend time with the person I'm with. I enjoy the food. I don't really have the expectations that I have about what I'm ordering. To me, that's extraordinary. And that's the way it used to be. The original restaurants didn't have menus. You'd go in and they would feed you. But as things evolved, people felt that they had to have choices. You look at wine lists today. Why do you have to have 2,000 choices on the wine list? To really look at the wine list, and study the wine list, in a way to be able to make a choice, you spend half an hour or 45 minutes. And what is your guest doing while you're looking at the wine list? You and I are out to dinner, and I'm going to spend 45 minutes with the wine list, and you're going to sit there and look at me? You're going to be kind of upset, no?

Probably!
Right [laughs]. So I'm going to say, ‘we'd like some really nice wine. Maybe a Pinot Noir, from California, or from France, and I want to spend around 300 dollars tonight on a bottle.’ The sommelier comes back with two choices. Okay, because I trust the sommelier. That's his job. He should know his wines in his wine cellar.

I think that a lot of people just want to be in control of what they're eating.
But what is the definition of pure luxury? Not to be in control. To go into an environment, and trust the environment, and just enjoy it. When I go on vacation, I don't want to go to a place where I have to have choices. I want to go to a place where everything is taken care of. I don't have to ask for something.

How big is your wine list here at Per Se?
Too big. It's ridiculous. I'm talking to my sommeliers about that. But sommeliers are saying ‘we need to have more wines, more wines.’ Forgive the phrase, but it becomes like a pissing contest. Who can have the bigger wine list.

But you asked about directions of the menus. Hopefully we’ll get to [abolish menus]. Like next door, at Masa. There’s no menu. You can go in there, and you have one of the most extraordinary meals of your life. Did you need to choose anything? No. He did it all for you. And in many ways, it’s such a relief, having that part done for you at this kind of restaurant.

How far are you from that?
I don’t know. Maybe a year or two.

Would you want to open a third fine dining restaurant?
I don't know. It really depends on not so much me as much as my staff, and their desires to do that. One thing I realized in opening this restaurant is that I didn't need to open it. My point is that I had already done one. I had done the French Laundry. And that was exciting and it still is very exciting and it was a challenge personally for me. This one, when we looked at the opportunity, it was very challenging and very exciting for me as well, but once it was done, I said, ‘that was wonderful. But I already did that once.’ So do I really need to continue to do it for myself? No. I've satisfied my desire to do something. So then, do we have opportunities to do another fine dining? Yes, we do. Where we would do it? I don't know. Who would do it is the bigger question. My staff is certainly younger than I am. Some of them have never opened this kind of restaurant, so for them, it would be their first time. With my support, my knowledge and our resources, we could make it easier, because of our experience. But I don't personally need to open another restaurant. I don't have an ego that continuously needs to be fed with press. The financial rewards, I don't need that enough. Not to say that I'm rich but I also realize that no matter how much money I have, I still have a modest lifestyle. I'm not an extravagant person.

Would you have time for a more extravagant lifestyle anyway?
Right… My dream, at one point in my life, was to buy a nice sports car. Wow. Then I finally bought a nice sports car last year, but it sits in the garage. You kind of want to have the lifestyle that goes with it, you know, the commercials that you see. But you realize it's just not you. That's not you.

What new challenges do you have?
I'm challenged right now with trying to maintain my health, making sure that I'm working out, exercising, and making sure that I'm eating correctly, doing those kinds of things. And at the same time, trying to have an impact on my staff in a positive way, give them a real strong foundation for them to grow from and have some security in their jobs. And to have opportunities to go forward. If I can do that, that's kind of what I see as having an impact. Having an impact on people is important to me. Leaving a legacy is important to me. So those are the two things that I'm trying to work on now as well as thinking about myself for a little bit. When I was in my late 20s, 30s and 40s, it was always about other people, trying to turn that around. I'm 50 now, I've done a lot of things and maybe I should start thinking about doing things for myself and making sure that I'm good to go, and, and part of that is giving up the control that I just spoke about at the beginning.

What are some of the things you'd like to do other than anything cooking-related?
I don't know. This has been a big transition for me this past year and a half, two years, opening Per Se, opening Bouchon Las Vegas, because until that point, I was in one place, and it was very much home. I didn't have to go anywhere. Walk down the street, two blocks, it was great. But since we have restaurants now outside of Yountville, we have to travel to them. It's different for me because I'm not behind this job as much as I was before. I am part of that first generation of modern chefs. Up until our generation, you had one chef, one kitchen, one menu. Now you have our generations of chefs, you have more than one restaurant, you have more than one kitchen. Certainly, you have more than one menu, even if you only had one restaurant. Things have really changed. And there's no historical data based on well, what did the guy do last? What did that other guy do, in the last generation? So we're really establishing building blocks for the generations of chefs to come and that is a very wonderful thing to be thinking about.

So what is a modern chef?
A chef is not so much somebody who you own. Before the French Revolution, when you think about chefs and where they came from, they were always owned. The aristocrats, kings and queens and dukes, those were their chefs. After that, they took on the same kind of definition. But the general public owned the chef. And if the chef isn't working, then I'm not going to the restaurant. Because that's my chef. And restaurants are treated a little differently than other service industries, or other entertainment industries, even differently than other entertainment venues, if you will. If you don't have a table, some people yell and scream at us. You have to have a table. You have to make room. You go to a Broadway play and they don't have a seat, you're not standing at the box office screaming at them [laughs]. It's different. Chefs are treated differently than other people are. And I think it's time that we understand that chefs aren't necessarily in their kitchens all the time, or down in the markets buying the food all the time. It doesn't mean that they're not doing their job. It doesn't mean that they've cashed in, or sold out as some media says. It doesn't mean that it's a negative thing. I think it's an extraordinarily positive thing to be able to say that we are establishing a framework. We're establishing a foundation for culinarians, for service people, for wine people to really expand on what they do in a way that establishes exposure.

Is the change coming from the chefs themselves?
America has a very entrepreneurial kind of philosophy. You're always pushed to succeed and our culture is set up like that. So I think the modern chef is really part of the American culture. It has been exported around the world and you see that.

Do you think some chefs resent your success?
Well, envy's not a bad thing. I get envious, all my life, about what other people, what other chefs are doing. It only drives me to try and do a better job. So envy, if you look at it from a different point of view, can be a good thing. It's establishing goals by setting examples. Establish your goals and set the examples for other people to follow. My colleagues, I think that's exactly what they do. There's just this wonderful large loop that just keeps going around and around and around. It’s a spiral that continues to go up. So if someone does something that I like and then I interpret that and I do something, it just keeps going around and around. We all continue to set the standard for each other.

How do you deal with sustainability issues pertaining to caviar, or fish?
It's a good question. It's something that we're really starting to deal with right now. There is some real danger here. What’s going on with the caviar trade, since the fall of Russia, has certainly become paramount for us, and trying to find something of quality that's going to replace that is challenging. How does a chef deal with the sustainability of it? We can become part of that, but by the time it gets down to us, there have been so many other people that have had the opportunity to be responsible and step up to plate. All of a sudden, everybody looks at the chefs and say ‘okay, chefs, what are you doing?’ Well, excuse me, I have a small restaurant. Am I really supposed to be standing out there in the forefront, talking about the sustainability of food products? There are dozens of people in front of me who should have been there before.

They may not have your platform.
Governments? Come on. People look to chefs to be the policemen for the world? I'm sorry, that's not my job. Excuse me, I'm a cook. My job is to find the best products, treat them respectfully, and bring them to my guests to make them happy. You want me to be a policeman now? Well, that's not what I signed on for.

There's nothing you wouldn't serve?
We don’t serve Chilean bass just because we don't like it. But I don't think we would serve it now in light of what's going on. I think your question is, do I think it's my responsibility to make sure that the government or that the farmer or that the fisherman does things correctly? No, no, no, so we're looking for alternatives to the problem. Which really puts us now to the forefront of this, of the problems. We're going to try to find other resources for this. But right now, unfortunately, the commercial industries, whether it's the sturgeon farms in California or in Norway really haven’t got to the point where they're producing quality product. So you probably say, we've had 40 years to do this? What the hell's going on with you guys? How come you can't get a consistent product? Sometimes it's great. Sometimes it's shitty. They have no answers for that. And what happened to the sturgeon that was in the Hudson River 100 years ago? Right here, outside our doors, they would give caviar away in front of bars so that you would go inside and have a beer. Norway, Germany, this is not something that just happened over the past decade. This has been going on for a long, long time. The sturgeon fish has been on this planet since prehistoric times and it's been exploited for hundreds of years. It's a sad thing that now we're losing something that has such great history to it, great tradition to it, and all because of why? Because a few government, a few people, have been way too greedy, way too irresponsible. And I would hate to see that the chefs get burnt because of their notoriety. The government is now legislating what you can eat. It's a stupid thing. There's enough bad things going on in the world. Why do they want to tell us what to eat?

Do you travel and see things in other cuisines, in other countries, that might interest you?
Very little. We try to be inspired from within, rather than from without. We want to take what we know, what we do, who we are and interpret that ourselves, and be inspiring to one another, a very collaborative form. That helps maintain and grown the philosophy, rather than going out and saying oh, I saw something interesting in Japan, let's do that ourselves. Certainly, getting fresh Greek bottarga is very inspiring. You just serve it as that. It doesn’t become a component in one of your dishes.

So your dishes are basically simple.
Simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.

How do you define your cuisine?
My food is American contemporary cuisine based on French classics.

What's the relevance of French cuisine today?
That's the most important cuisine in the world. Of course, if you went and said that in Japan or China, they would be upset. It's really the flavor profiles that the French have established that make it very important for me. I love the definition of the plates, how they are composed. In French cuisine, you would have a sauce. You would have a protein. I just like that. It doesn't always happen in cuisine.

Some people didn’t like Gordon Ramsay’s TV show Hell’s Kitchen it because it portrays the kitchen as a hostile environment, which is the antithesis of what you do.
The kitchen is violent and there's a race to what goes on there. Does it have to happen in a violent way? No. We're very respectful, but when you think about the kitchen, you think about the kitchen and the dining room. You try to define the two. Well, the dining room is luxurious and the kitchen is violent. Because you have 800 degree heat. You have knives. You have water. You have people. When you think about the power of that fire, it's very violent in a way. But it doesn't have to be emotionally violent. And it's not. It should be very respectful and calm. But you see that perpetuation of that kind of image from the last generation, and it's easy to fall back to that. It's easy to go back to that place. I can go back to that if I want to, emotionally.

Were you ever a chef like that?
As a younger chef? I got emotional, sometimes. Overly stimulated emotionally [laughs]. But I've learned to get away from that. It doesn't mean that, every once in a while, I don't go back there. But I want, for my next generation of chefs, to have that experience less and less so that it doesn’t become a normal thing for them, so that when they become chefs, they've lost that, they’ve lost that emotional place.

Do you think that the rise of professional culinary schools is changing the way future chefs see their profession?
It's interesting because what's happening today is different than what happened before. There is a lot of conversation about the X generation, the Y generation, whatever generation it is, how their expectation of life is much different that my generation was. And the expectation is that they'll get promoted or they'll get offered jobs just because who they are. The whole kind of thought process of, I really need to do my work and do it really well, to get promoted is kind of lost. There is a little bit of conflict. The work ethics aren't the same. And how to get back to those work ethics, lighting a fire underneath someone's behind, used to be the way to do it. It's not the way to do it anymore, but you have to have some way to get people to feel that sense of urgency that we talk about in the kitchen.

Do you have that sort of conflict here?
I can't generalize it. But work ethic is a problem sometimes.

Is there any way to teach that to somebody?
You teach by example. This is what you have to do in order to achieve the next level. This is the expectation. We're going to give you all the tools that you could possibly ask for, and in return, this is the level you have to achieve. If you're not willing to do that, we should realize that right now. Because neither one of us wants to go down that end of the road.

Is it hard to be you?
Yeah. Sometimes, I really want to be bad and do something terrible but I realize I can't do it anymore. I have the responsibility. You have to be strong enough to accept the responsibility. And strength comes with experience. So hopefully, I'll continue to be able to set the right example. But I guarantee you that I always won't. I mean, I'm a human.

-Anne E. McBride