In Conversation with Thomas Keller, an Award-winning Chef and Best-selling Author
World-renowned American chef Thomas Keller has arrived in Beverly Hills after a 10-week tour promoting his elegant cookbook called “Bouchon Bakery.” On a sunny December morning, Keller joins me at a table at Bar Bouchon, a charming open-air dining patio that overlooks the Beverly Canon Gardens. The round red tables, wicker chairs and sun umbrellas evoke a leisurely ‘South of France’ feeling. Sporting a white chef’s uniform over an athletic six-foot-two frame, Keller carries a calm, assured demeanor and a youthful joie de vivre. It’s been a month since his last visit to Bouchon Bistro, one of six successful restaurants and six bakeries that he owns.
The best-selling author and first ever American chef to earn three Michelin stars for two different restaurants (Per Se in New York, and French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.) has virtually every culinary award under his name. It’s no wonder Keller’s staff revere him. They say he works round-the-clock and oversees every project, from training an American chef for the Bocuse D’or (the Olympics of cooking), to routine menu changes. Keller’s kitchens are connected via real-time video cameras to insure the traveling chef stays connected with his teams throughout the year. When not on the road, Keller’s home is in the quaint town of Yountville, just steps from his French Laundry restaurant, which is credited for elevating American cuisine to a new level.
During our meeting, Keller speaks and laughs easily, sharing his thoughts on the evolution of American cuisine, his culinary philosophy, and even whom, past or present, would make him blush to be in their presence. “Audrey Hepburn,” he answers. Not simply because of her beauty, but because of her generous and kind character. Such standards combined with the desire to create a memorable dining experience have propelled him to become the much admired and celebrated American chef he is today.
An excerpt from my interview with Chef Keller here.
BHV: How would you define the Thomas Keller Cuisine?
TK: Our cuisine is very evolutionary. We have the opportunity to evolve the cuisine in our kitchen is through collaboration with the staff. I think that’s the cornerstone of our restaurant that has given me, and everyone around me, the ability to continue to grow and continue to set new standards through that evolutionary process and collaboration.
How do define our cuisine? Our cuisine is American even though it has deeply rooted French traditional techniques and history involved in it. And certainly I have great affection for France. But we are classic American food.
BHV: What do you think are the key ingredients to your success?
TK: Perseverance. Never giving up. In any professional that you undertake, if you give up at a threat of failure, then you’ll never succeed. I think perseverance is important in anything that you’re doing. That’s certainly has been why I’ve achieved what I’ve done because I continue to work at it. I don’t give up. That’s one key element.
It’s also having people who have motivated and mentored me as a young cook, and who have taught me things that I needed to know early in my career. Those people are very important. Those people who are around me throughout my career that have worked with me, and have worked for me are also a big part of why I was successful.
BHV: What qualities do you look for in your staff?
TK: I look for someone with a desire to succeed, a desire to do a good job. Desire burns inside. If you don’t have desire, then what do you have? You don’t have anything. So it’s very simple.
BHV: What are some setbacks you have experienced and overcame in your career?
TK: I don’t see any setbacks in my career. The failures have given me the success that came after that. Without failure, you can’t have success.
BHV: Please describe what is the ‘Modern Chef.’
TK: It’s someone like me. I’m talking about my generation of chefs who has the ability to rise above their restaurants and embrace other opportunities and still maintain responsibility to the restaurants from where they rose. Today, we have multiple restaurants, we do interviews, and we write books. As for me, I’ve also done movies, I’ve designed china, I’ve designed silverware, I’m on the board of trustees to the Culinary of America. There are so many things I’ve done that didn’t happen for chefs of the last generation. In a nutshell, the modern chef today has opportunities to expand beyond his kitchen.
BHV: What are some fun things that you pursue when you’re not working?
TK: If I do have a stretch of time off, it would be just to relax and do nothing. Watch sports on TV, or any teams from San Francisco. I like historical movies and action movies.
BHV: What is the Thomas Keller legacy that you would like to leave behind?
TK: You can’t define your own legacy. Other people will define that for you.
BHV: What do you think they’re saying now? And do you agree?
TK: I have no idea.
BHV: Perhaps they are saying you’re the greatest chef in America.
TK: You can’t listen to what other people say. (laughs)
BHV: Do you read the reviews written about your restaurants?
TK: Everything that’s been written about you is what you did yesterday. I want to know what we’re doing tomorrow. It’s the same thing with reviews. It’s fantastic to get a wonderful review. You can only find reassurance in the direction you’re going. You can’t look to them as a validation for what you’re doing it.
BHV: If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would that be?
TK: I would love to have dinner again with Julia Childs. I miss her greatly. We had some wonderful times together. Harry Truman would be another person. I think Harry Truman was one of the last presidents who was able to resonate in an effective way with people. Someone like him would be great to have dinner with, and my friends and family.
BHV: What are you pursuing now that is non-cooking related?
TK: Better golf. (laughs)