Award-winning chef Thomas Keller is a king in the culinary world. With three Michelin stars for two of his restaurants and long waiting lines at his others,Keller has come to define eating as an emotional connection by offering the finest experience imaginable. And, as he explains to Roberta Naas, he does exactly that, time and again.
Keller, owner of the famed French Laundry in Napa Valley, California and the esteemed Per Se in New York, recently took an hour out of his busy schedule to talk with us about cooking, eating and the dining experience. The 61-year-old chef, restaurateur and cookbook author has won dozens of awards from the James Beard Foundation, Bocuse d’Or and other respected organizations. He is the first male US chef to win the French Légion d’Honneur, which only three American chefs have ever won – Julia Child and Alice Waters went before him.
Keller is also the only US chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants, and has a one-star rating for another of his restaurants, Bouchon. Even his cookbooks have won awards. Still, Keller does not rest on his laurels and continually strives to improve every single aspect of the dining and culinary experience.
“It’s all about getting the smile, making the emotional connection, giving somebody something they feel inside their hearts,” explains Keller. “In today’s culture and society, where everything is fast-paced, it is important to give an experience that is memorable.
With food, emotion is typically associated with experiences we have already had, something that has given us great pleasure. We source the best ingredients and present them in ways that elevate the flavor profiles in different ways that connect.”
In addition to running restaurants and writing cookbooks, among other things (let’s not forget that this is the chef that consulted with Pixar for the movie Ratatouille, to ensure authenticity in the movie’s lead character), Keller is president of Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, the mentoring program for the US teams that compete in the famed Bocuse d’Or competition, the highest global competition of the culinary world. Launched in 1987 by chef Paul Bocuse, the competition takes place in Lyon, France over the course of 18 months and involves countries from around the world. The US team won the most recent competition, wherein the final 24 participating countries competed for nearly six hours of cooking tests.
When we asked Keller why he got so involved in tutoring the US teams, his answer was simple: “Because Paul Bocuse asked me to, and when Chef asks you to do something you do it. In this profession, you learn at a very young age to say ‘Oui, Chef.’ This is a culture that is all about giving somebody what they ask for. I think that is what makes great restaurateurs great. They say yes and figure out a way to do it. So when he called me and asked me to organize an effort to have a US team supported by a large group of individuals, across many disciplines, to support the US culinary team in order to get to Lyon and compete in a meaningful and serious way, I said ‘Oui, Chef.’”
Keller, along with chef Daniel Boulud and Bocuse’s son Jérôme, put a team of experts from many aspects of the business together to give full support the US culinary team. “They have to garner our attention in an application, prepare their presentation, demonstrate their techniques in front of 12 judges and if they make it on the team, they have to take a year off from their position at work to focus on developing a program for the international level. Our entire board meets with these chefs at least six times throughout the year, tasting, testing and commenting. Those team members have to put their egos aside and compete as a complete team. It’s serious business,” says Keller.
Of course, he also trains young aspiring chefs on a daily basis at his restaurants. “It’s our job to teach them, to give them the tools and the mentorship to make them better than we are.” This, Keller says, is one of the most satisfying parts of what he does. “I’ve been blessed. I have had so many wonderful moments in my career and have been recognized in so many different ways, but my most gratifying accomplishment is the teams that I have working with me at my restaurants; the culinary teams, the wine teams and others. To watch them grow and go out and open their own restaurants and to elevate the status of our culinary business is very important. That and the day I was able to purchase The French Laundry are probably the most gratifying and life-changing moments I have ever had.”
According to Keller, the vital ingredient a person needs to be a top chef is to take charge. “When you whittle it down, it comes to being a leader and allowing those around you to excel at what they do. Young chefs need to learn from their failures and grow from them. Sometimes we make mistakes.We are like a baseball team; you can’t go out and win every time, but the good chef is the one that tells his team to learn from their mistakes, put it behind them and come in the next day to do it better.”
Keller says he learned from experience, too. When he was a young dishwasher early on his road to success, he learned six disciplines that led him to become not just a great cook, but also a successful restaurateur. Those disciplines included the ability to stay organized, be efficient, ask for critical feedback, practice repetition, respect times and rituals and be a team player. “As a dishwasher, you are an important part of the team,” says Keller. “The bartender can’t do his job if you haven’t washed the glasses and put them in the right place at the right time. The cook can’t do his job without the plates you washed, and so on. Those disciplines transfer throughout everyone’s careers and timing is always key.”
For Keller, success means building the right team, as well. “You need t realize that you need people around you that have the discipline that you don’t have, and have the work ethics that you do have and the ability to collaborate and shed yourself of ego so you have a true team effort—that was probably one of the most significant learning processes for me. I don’t know everything, so I should focus on the things I really know and get those people around me in the different disciplines I need.”
Keller says timing is important, not only in cooking but also in serving and in making the experience pleasant. He says he is fortunate to have formed some great relationships as a chef, including one with the venerable Swiss watch brand, Vacheron Constantin. The French Laundry and Per Se both have Vacheron Constantin clocks on the wall and Keller wears a Vacheron Constantin Patrimony watch. “This is a company that has a long, rich history and I have a great appreciation for history,” says Keller. “I love the idea of tradition and of dedication to excellence. This is what we are about, too.”
So, what does the chef who has won so many accolades and awards feel is his most important dish? He names four, but there’s one that stands out above all. “I think my most iconic dishes include the cornet. It has been copied around the world and I copied it from an ice cream cone, so the idea that I created it is a myth. We are inspired by what we see; everything is evolution. I developed it at a sad time in my life and since then it has brought so much joy. It is a simple presentation of a cracker with sour cream and salmon, flavor profiles we all understand that are presented in a different way that brings a genuine childlike smile to your face.”
To Keller, it’s always all about bringing that smile to the face of customers.