Thomas Keller is one of the greatest chefs the United States has produced. He owns not one but two Michelin three-star restaurants - on opposite coasts. He is perhaps best known for the French Laundry, in the Napa Valley town of Yountville, which has earned the top rating from the prestigious guide every year since it began reviewing American restaurants, in 2006, as has his Manhattan restaurant, Per Se.
In addition, he has served as a mentor for scores of younger chefs who have passed through his kitchen, including Chicago's Grant Achatz, Denmark's Rene Redzepi, Washington DC's Eric Ziebold, New York City's Jonathan Benno, Los Angeles' Timothy Hollingsworth and San Francisco's Corey Lee.
The French Laundry Cookbook, published in 1999, sold more than 600,000 copies. A new cookbook, “The French Laundry, Per Se” (Artisan, £60) captures the adventurous, highly technical cuisines of both restaurants.
Keller is a longtime friend and colleague. In fact, I worked on a much different incarnation of this book several years ago, before moving to Ireland.
What effect is the pandemic having on fine-dining restaurants?
It's just killing restaurants. But aside from the business part, it's really hurting the younger generation of chefs who are still building their careers. I look at our young staff, and they're all aspirational and it's a big challenge for them to look at their lives now and figure where they're going. I'm 65, and I've done what I've done. I could retire tomorrow and feel comfortable; I think I've added to my profession in a way that was significant. But these kids … You're a chef who's 34 or 35 years old and you have to shut down your restaurants and maybe not reopen them. What's their career path now? What's going to happen to them?
It's been more than 20 years since the first French Laundry book. When you look at that book, what strikes you most about it?
Each one of our books is of a particular time and place. The first French Laundry cookbook was about 1996, when we did all the recipes. They captured what we were doing at the time, our skills, our knowledge, our thoughts. This cookbook is 2018, when we did these recipes. And you know what? It's not really my cookbook any more. It's really [the French Laundry chef] David Breeden, [Per Se chef] Corey Chow and [executive pastry chef] Elwyn Boyles' cookbook. That's something I'm proud of.
You can see the evolution in what we’re doing. The food is different, but you can see the philosophical connection. It’s amazing that 25 years later there is still a resemblance to the food we were doing in 1994. And that tells me that I’ve hired the right people, I’ve given them the right training and I’ve mentored them so that right now they are better than I am.
And so it’s also my way of saying to everybody, this is what happens when you allow yourself to set your ego aside and champion other’s efforts. Watch how they surpass what you could do because you’ve given so much of that to them. And that exemplifies what I expect them to pass on to the next generation.
It’s important to realise that we all have done what we’ve done through the work of so many people and we stand on their shoulders. It’s not about us individually; it’s not even about our restaurants. It’s about our profession, and helping our profession become better. If we take care of ourselves, take care of our teams, take care of our colleagues, all those things will happen. And that’s a wonderful thing to watch, the transformation of our profession.
This recipes in this book are extremely technical, even more than the first book. What would you like the general reader to take away from this book?
Well, first, there are more than 100 recipes in the book, and, yes, many of them are really technical. But there are also simple things like brining fish, which can change so much the flavour of your food. And there are all of these components to each dish. You might not want to make the whole dish, that's a chore, and though I'm sure there are some who will try, that's not what it's about. But take the steak and potatoes recipe, those croquettes are just beautiful. The Green Goddess dressing, that's a simple thing that you can use in so many ways. The pickling and preserving of vegetables. There are so many parts of this cookbook which are so useful to anyone.
But I’d also like the home cook to take away the idea that a restaurant is not about the chef. That’s important to remember. Chefs becoming known is something that has just happened in my lifetime. When I started cooking in 1971, who gave a shit about a chef? I’ve watched this whole profession be transformed from nothing to what it is today. Chefs have become the most recognised individuals in our profession. But people have to realise there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have to come together to give our guests a great experience.
One of the things that impressed me the most being around your team was how you've developed a whole culture in your businesses. What are the most important attributes for someone to be successful in one of your kitchens?
We're all great cooks, there's no question about that. We all can cook something for you, that you're gonna go 'wow.' But can we do that every day? Can we do that in an environment that's respectful? And can we do all of that at the most stressful times? Can we still be flexible and dynamic with ourselves and with our guests and with our team at those moments when we need to be? That's what's really important as a professional.
In our kitchens, I think the most important attribute I look for is desire. People use ‘passion’ as a word for what drives them. But to me, passion ebbs and flows. There’s nobody who can tell me they’re 100 per cent passionate about something every day of their life. That’s just impossible. And that’s okay. So the most important thing is desire. Because desire is what burns inside of you every day, the desire to do a good job. And that’s the important thing.
That's what I look for in our chefs. You know, we can teach anybody to do anything. Cooking is not that complicated. But you take that young kid who is working the fish station and they're struggling, right? It's tough. But the one thing that keeps them there is their desire. They come up to you at the end of the night and tell you, 'I had a really tough time, but I'm going to come back tomorrow and I'm going to do better. I'm going to get it.' And then one day it's like a light switch, and from then on they're on autopilot. As long as they're expressing that strong desire and they accept their mistakes and keep moving forward, that's what I want.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.