Table Talk with Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller is considered by many to be the best chef in America. His restaurants, including the Napa Valley's French Laundry and Bouchon and New York's Per Se, are regularly acclaimed as among the finest in the world.  He recently published his fourth cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. The new volume, already a New York Times bestseller, shares the history and the food of his "accidental" restaurant in Yountville, California; it showcases Ad Hoc's family-style fare, from fried chicken and clam chowder to creamed corn and chocolate chip cookies. In addition to inviting recipes, it's filled with anecdotes and marvelous kitchen tips and trucs. Like its three predecessors, it is also very beautiful.

 

I'm no cooking expert, but I do know something about books, and I can say with both a bit of surprise and a lot of delight that the quartet of cookbooks created by Keller and his colleagues -- project coordinator and recipe wrangler Susie Heller (assisted by Amy Vogler), photographer Deborah Jones, writer Michael Ruhlman, and designer David Hughes, as well as chefs from the respective restaurants -- over the past decade are among the best I've read in that period. Not just best cookbooks, but best books -- each one telling a story and elaborating the education of a sensibility in ways that are engaging, informative, and satisfying. Sometimes that sensibility is collective as well as individual, illustrating the collaborative nature of the culinary enterprise.

 

But still, I think it is fair to say that Keller's volumes reveal the culture acquired by a man who, with all due to apology to Henry David Thoreau, went to the kitchen because he wished to live deliberately.  Not only in their recipes, but also in such unexpected essays as "The Importance of Hollandaise," "The Importance of Onion Soup" and many other pieces of splendid writing, we have the privilege of sharing the personal and professional schooling of a chef who, with no formal culinary training, has nurtured his private gifts in a career spent nourishing others.

 

One morning in early November, I met Thomas Keller at Per Se for a conversation about Ad Hoc at Home. The restaurant was empty, but its spirit of elegant alertness attended us like a sophisticated novel waiting for the attention of a careful reader. At a table that offered the full benefit of the restaurant's gorgeous views of Central Park, we talked for more than an hour. A handsome, gracious, and thoughtful presence, Keller was good company. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.  -James Mustich

 

 

James Mustich:  There's an autobiographical thread that runs through your books, not only within each volume but across all four. The first, The French Laundry Cookbook, opens with a rather peculiar -- for a cookbook at least -- evocation of the melancholy that to some degree inspired the cornets that would become something of a signature dish at French Laundry. You said you had to be sad to see how to put the ice cream cone through such a playful and sophisticated transformation.

 

Thomas Keller:  It's interesting. You talk about the four books we've written so far -- I say "we" because, of course, it's a collaborative effort, and it's a great team of people, both from the culinary side and from the writing and production side. You know what goes into books. The French Laundry Cookbook was a moment in time. Everything evolves, and certainly a restaurant like the French Laundry -- or Per Se -- is in continuous evolution. So that book caught a moment in the life of that restaurant; it's about what I was thinking about at that time.

 

Bouchon, the second book, is about history. To talk about Bouchon, you have to talk about bistros; you have to talk about France. We were really trying to make sure that when we wrote the recipes we talked about food in a way that related to France and the history of those restaurants (of course, when we wrote the recipes, we modernized them).

 

Under Pressure, which you mentioned before we sat down that you find to be the most daunting, is probably so to a lot of people, because it was written for professionals. It's a book about the new sous vide cooking technology that we're all embracing now, as we've all embraced other technologies that have come along in our lifetimes, such as the microwave and the food processor. Who knew what to do with a food processor before someone put it in front of you and said, "This is how you use a food processor"? Who knew about a microwave before somebody said, "This is how you use a microwave"? So we felt that it was really a good time to be able to explain to other chefs what we've learned about cooking sous vide, using that technique in an à la carte restaurant.

 

Now, of course, we've done Ad Hoc at Home, which is really a book about, again, history, but history in this country, as experienced by a group of chefs, not just myself, who have memories about the food they ate when they were children, or when they were growing up. It's how they relate to that food and what it means to them now -- and of course, ultimately, about how it brings people together around the table to share this food and to create memories for themselves, which I think is very important.

 

So, to go back to that moment in my life that you asked about -- when I wrote the story in The French Laundry Cookbook about conceiving the cornet, and what triggered that for me: I was leaving New York, the city which I had loved for so long, which I thought was the center of the universe, where I thought I was going to be forever. Under the stress and pressure that I was going through leaving New York, not knowing what was coming up in my future, because things didn't work out the way I thought they would -- at that moment, in that state of anxiety, sadness, and a kind of detachment, I saw the cornet.

 

I had lunch with my friends, which I had done countless times before, and we went into a Baskin-Robbins, which we'd done countless times before, and I saw something that I'd never seen before in an ice cream cone -- and it was the cornet, which has become such an icon of ours, of the French Laundry, of Thomas Keller. So much so that you see them in many places now, interpreted. Now, people say "Thomas Keller created the cornet." Well, I don't like to take that kind of responsibility. [LAUGHS] It was an ice cream cone; to me, that's what it was. It was an interpretation, and an inspiration.

 

JM:   Do you find that inspiration comes more powerfully out of sadness?

 

TK:   Not necessarily. Certainly for me, that was a very powerful moment. But I was just as inspired when I saw a purple box of pearl tapioca, and thought about the dish that became oysters-and-pearls. I was just walking down the grocery store aisle. I wasn't sad -- it was just a day for me in a grocery store when I saw that. You don't know when inspiration is going to come. But you have to be aware of what's going on around you, so that at any moment, when inspiration happens, you're ready for it and you interpret it. Because we all interpret inspiration differently. If we have a moment of inspiration on the same thing, I'm going to interpret it in a different way than you do. I think that's the important thing -- being aware of that inspiration and being able to interpret it into something that's meaningful for you.

 

JM: At the beginning of the French Laundry book, Michael Ruhlman relates a conversation he had with you before you began collaborating on it. "And so Thomas told me," he writes, "'Get the story. I want the story to be just as important as the food; otherwise, I'm not interested in doing a cookbook.'" The tone for the story of Ad Hoc at Home is set by your account, at the outset, of cooking your father's last meal.

 

TK:   I think the story of this book is about appreciating the time with your family and friends around the table. Food is such an important part of our lives, and sometimes we tend to diminish the importance of that, because we rely on conveniences or because our lives are so complicated today. We forget about those moments that we can actually share around the table with our family, with our friends, with our loved ones. I think that's really what this book is about -- being able to take some time.

 

It's not every day. It's not about cooking 45-minute or 60-minute gourmet; it's not about that. It's about engaging yourself in the cooking process and enjoying it. It's about engaging your family in the cooking process and enjoying them. It's about sitting around the table, engaging one another over shared food and wine. It's just a wonderful thing to do.

 

When I talk about my father and his last meal, I had no idea that he was going to die the next day. It just happened that way. Certainly, I feel extremely honored, in many ways, to have been able to do that last meal for him. If you're trying to plan for the death of loved ones, you think about all the things you'd want to do with them -- have the last meal with them, take them somewhere that they love. To be able to cook one of the meals that he loved the best -- barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, strawberry shortcake -- that's a memory I am happy to hold onto. I can still see us sitting on the back porch together, eating dinner.

 

 Food plays such a big role in establishing those kinds of memories. They're life-long, and you can always go back to those places, whether they're sad or happy, and really get something from that.

 

JM:   Tell me a little bit about how you started this restaurant.

 

TK:   Ad Hoc?

 

JM:   Yes. Early in the book it's called "the accidental restaurant," and you share an email you sent to your team when you first had the idea for it. You said the new place was going to be fun, and they all wrote back to each other saying, "Thomas doesn't do fun. Thomas does complex, refined."

 

TK:   [LAUGHS]

 

JM:   Would you talk about that a bit? Because there is a relaxation to this book that is a nice expansion to what you've done before.

 

TK:   The restaurant wasn't conceptualized or thought-through to the point of French Laundry or Bouchon or the bakeries -- it really was a kind of accident. To begin with, the way we purchased the restaurant was not really about buying a restaurant. It was about buying this property so that we could solve an issue we were having with the inn that we wanted to build across the street from the French Laundry. We wanted to solve a problem for employee housing, which is a requirement in the state of California. We'd been searching for some alternatives for two years, and all of a sudden this property became available and my partners and I decided that this was it -- this was going to be the solution. It happened to come with a restaurant, and a brand-new restaurant at that. I think the restaurant was probably two years old.

 

So there we were one day with a restaurant. I'd always had in mind doing this hamburger restaurant that I've been trying to do for the past 16 years. Certainly behind the curve on that!

 

JM: [LAUGHS] There you are at the top of the food world chain, and all you want to do is open a hamburger restaurant, and it gets further and further away.

 

TK:   Exactly. But I wasn't really thoroughly prepared to do that at the time. Still, we had a restaurant there, in working order. So we sat around the table at the end of the night, like we do every night with the chefs and the sous chefs, and we talked about our menu and we collaborated on what the menu was going to be for the next day. Then at the end of the conversation, I said, "All right, we have this new restaurant down there. What should we do with it?"

 

I was just trying to get some ideas. We all came up with different ideas, and ultimately we ended up with Ad Hoc. The memo that went out that night -- it was, in fact, April Fool's Day -- was the collaborative idea of putting together a restaurant that was very simple. No menu. Market-driven. Simple and inexpensive food. Inexpensive wines. No pretense. We wanted it to be about family and friends, and about the experience around the table -- not about us serving them. It's about us putting the food on the table, as your parents did when you were young. Then you guys help each other out, and pass the potatoes around, and the water or the wine or whatever for each other.

 

It's a bit shocking for a lot of people, going into a restaurant like that -- especially a restaurant that Thomas Keller owns and operates. But the key thing is the quality of the food, and the quality of the shared experience, the quality of the individuals engaging one another, and the staff being, in a way, very light-hearted. Not serious. We don't want Ad Hoc to be a serious restaurant, although the standards for the food are very serious. The quality of the food is the same standard as the food at the French Laundry or Bouchon. The standards don't change just because prices change.

 

People forget that when I bought the French Laundry fifteen years earlier, this is exactly what the French Laundry was: a four-course meal for $49. Alice Waters has been doing this for years. Nothing is new. It's about interpretation. And this is the way I interpreted this restaurant to be delivered, as a family-style restaurant, with an evolving menu that was even more market-driven than a set Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday cycle of dishes.

 

And Ad Hoc was so well received that the burger restaurant fell away. People really loved Ad Hoc and embraced it, not only for the quality of the food, but for the experience. You go in there on some nights, on a fried chicken night, and you think everybody's 12 years old, because they're just having such a great time and eating with their fingers and laughing. That's the kind of energy, that's the kind of spirit that you really want to have in a restaurant like that.

 

JM:   Let's talk a little bit about the food. In French Laundry, you describe the impetus behind the menus in that restaurant as follows: "What I want is that initial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience. So I serve five to ten courses, each meant to satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity." Now, the food in this book is obviously very different. In fact, the book starts off with main courses.

 

TK:   Well, reference points are very important regardless of the restaurant. French Laundry's reference points are important. We talk about the cornet. When you really think about the cornet, all it really is is a cracker with sour cream and salmon and onions. What more of a reference point do we need than having experienced all of that before? It's just presented in a different way, a unique way that kind of makes you smile, but then, nevertheless, when you taste it, you realize that it's something that you recognize, something that's comforting to you, or something that's not shocking, or something that is so unique that you don't have a reference point for it.

 

In Ad Hoc, there's the same kind of recognition, but even more so. Take beef stroganoff -- there's something that really resonates with me. When I think about beef stroganoff, I think about the beef stroganoff my mother made with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and Ronzoni noodles. I don't know what kind of beef she used. But that was beef stroganoff to me. So what we're doing at Ad Hoc, and in the recipes in the book, is taking as reference points things that are very familiar from a home point of view, and trying to interpret them, or modify or modernize them, in a way that's going to result, say, in the best beef stroganoff that you ever tasted, but that is still something that resonates with a reference point that makes tasting the food a comfort for you.

 

And there is a broad range of foods in this book. Mar i muntanya, for example, which is a dish with chicken, shrimp, and mussels, is not something that my mother cooked, but it was something that Jeffrey Cerciello's mother would make for him at home [Editor's note: Cerciello is director of casual dining for the French Laundry Restaurant Group]. That's why I talk about the collaboration on these menus -- it's about each one of us having these reference points.

 

Of course, the fried chicken is just something that is so completely American that we all have reference points to that. What makes our fried chicken different from anybody else's fried chicken? I don't really know, but one of the things that we do that's unique is brine the chicken. We learned brining chickens when we opened Bouchon. The roasted chicken there becomes so much better when we brine the chicken first. So we just took that technique from Bouchon, and brought it down to Ad Hoc, and when we do the fried chicken we brine the chicken before we fry it, and it gives it that much more flavor, that much more complexity.

 

What we're trying to achieve at Ad Hoc is to evoke these reference points to comfort food and the memories that we have from our childhoods. Sometimes what we're doing is helping people create their own memories around the food, because they may not have experienced some of the food that we're doing before they come to the restaurant, but they understand the basic idea that this is family food. I love when children come to the restaurant and we have a hand in introducing them to these memories and reference points through these types of food.

 

JM:  There's a wonderful line at the beginning of the new book, in which you say that the only way to learn is "by cooking, by touching and remembering." Elsewhere you mention that you find it somewhat puzzling that people are afraid to touch food.

 

TK:  Right.

 

JM:  There's a real tactile quality to the intelligence you impart, too. You tell people to pick up salt so they can determine how much a pinch or a handful means for them. Touching is in fact a great teacher in the kitchen. I've noticed that when we've cooked with our kids.

 

TK:  The process. Yeah.

 

JM:  It makes the process really personal; the learning is physical, and breeds confidence. So why do you think people are so afraid to touch food?

 

TK:  I think they're intimidated by food, for some reason. It's hard for me to explain, because I've always been the type of person that really loves to get my hands in there and play with food. There's nothing better to me. I can make dough in a machine faster than I can make it by hand, but I want to make it by hand, because I want to remember the way it feels. It's so important for me to make it by hand -- whether it's a pasta dough or a pâte brisée. You become involved in it. You become personal with it. For me it's such a wonderful way to get satisfaction and gratification when I'm cooking.

 

It's about the process. The dining and eating part of it is wonderful, but I love more the process of cooking. That's what this book is about, it's not about cutting corners. Yet the food is accessible -- even though there are some long recipes [LAUGHS]. The Catalan Beef Stew, for instance: it's an easy recipe, but it takes a lot of time to go through the process. Now, is this something that you want to do during the week? Probably not. Is it something that you can do on a weekend? It's a wonderful thing to do on a weekend with your family. And the aromas that come out of the kitchen when you do something like this are some of the most satisfying things. And the sounds of the cooking, the textures of the ingredients -- that's really where a lot of the fun is.

 

I don't know where we learn to detach ourselves from food, because children usually love to play with it -- they like to get in there and work with food. It's a great way to bring up children, welcoming them into the process of cooking.

 

JM:   One of my favorite pieces of food writing is a newspaper article that James Beard wrote many years ago. The headline was, "The Most Important Tools in the Kitchen" -- something like that -- and the article was all about hands.

 

TK:   It's all about your hands. Exactly.

 

JM:   You say in Ad Hoc at Home that one way of learning to cook is by making the same meal over and over. It reminded me of the marvelous essay -- it's my favorite page in The French Laundry Cookbook -- called "The Importance of Hollandaise," in which you talk about what you learned by making a hollandaise sauce every day for two years in one of your first restaurant jobs. I've given that piece to young writers, saying, "You're not making hollandaise, but this is what you have to do if you want to teach yourself to write." Would you talk a little about the value of repetitive tasks?

 

TK:   Repetition is the mother of perfection. If there is true perfection, it's about doing something over and over again. I truly think that if somebody does a recipe they've never done before and gets it right, they're probably more lucky than they are talented. When you do a dish over and over again, getting to know the nuances of how something reacts, something cooks, something smells, something tastes, the way it sounds -- all those different things become familiar to you as you go through the repetition process. Even making a pasta dough over and over again -- it becomes second-nature to you. You get a real comfort level that can be liberating: you're not really thinking about it that much any more.

 

They talk about muscle memory in sports. I don't know if there's muscle memory in cooking, but certainly there's a similar feeling or sensation. All your senses are tuned into those dishes, and you know the way they should sound, the way they should look, the way they should smell, the way they should feel at different times throughout the process of cooking that dish. When you know that, then you know how to cook it.

 

When you think about what a chef does and what makes a chef so good at his trade -- or anybody at their trade, for that matter, whether it's a chef, a surgeon, a plumber -- you realize that he does these things over and over and over again, day in and day out. We're not always doing new things. We're working on the same basis, the same foundation, the same fundamentals, and we do it over and over and over again. That's how we become good. That's how I became a good chef, because I'm a person that likes repetition. I like to do things over and over. I find a comfort in that.

 

As I grew accomplished as a chef, I could butcher a salmon, and I didn't really have to think about butchering the salmon. I could be thinking about what I was going to do with the salmon after I butchered it, or, even more important, I could be looking around the kitchen and surveying what was going on so that I could give direction, if I needed to, while I was butchering the salmon. It's a liberating thing -- you do these things so much that you don't have to really think about them any more.

 

If you can do five or six really good dishes at home, that's a great accomplishment. To feel obliged to do something new all the time can be a bit problematic. [LAUGHS]

 

JM:  In French Laundry, you talk about your time working in Narragansett, when you were hired in a big restaurant to cook family meals for the staff.

 

TK:  Right.

 

JM:  And that story comes back again in the new book, because the conception you had for Ad Hoc was that the food you served would be like the staff "family" meals you all make and eat at the restaurants. In the book, Dave Cruz (the chef at Ad Hoc) even quotes the passage from French Laundry that I'm thinking of.

 

TK:   Yes. [LAUGHS]

 

JM:  He admits he was a little disappointed in the idea of the new restaurant until he came upon that passage. Let me quote it:

Staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with by-products, using scraps to make something tasty, eye-appealing, and satisfying. But the message underlying that was "Can you be passionate about cooking at this level?" Staff meal. Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity, and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you'll be a great chef. Maybe.

 

Reading that, Cruz says, "the whole picture became clear to me." Would you discuss how the kind of passion and experience and inspiration you put into cooking transfers from staff meals to cooking for customers, or from Ad Hoc to Per Se?

 

TK:  I think they are very similar. All the restaurants are very market-driven, Ad Hoc as much as French Laundry or Per Se, because we change our menus every day. That's a wonderful way to operate a kitchen, to really look to the market for inspiration and ingredients.

 

Now, proteins are a lot more predictable than vegetables. We get our lamb from Keith Martin. We get our ducks from Sonoma County. We can almost do a calendar for the proteins. So the market that's driving us is about the vegetables, and being able to use these wonderful vegetables -- that are very seasonal, whether they're from our garden or somebody else's gardens -- in ways that really complement the menu.

 

Then we think about repetition. We think about the idea of repeating some of these things, not necessarily day-in and day-out, but season to season, year to year. Therein lies, for me, a great amount of comfort and inspiration. You've used Brussels sprouts all your career, but all of a sudden, today, Brussels sprouts now show up in the market again. You haven't used them for the past nine months, and you say to yourself, "Wow, this is amazing." Then you remember the aromas. You remember the textures of the Brussels sprouts that you like so much, whether it's just blanching them and coating them with butter, or caramelizing them with bacon, or whatever the technique that you want to use -- and that gets you excited.

 

Passion comes out of that. The passion is reignited every season. And it's not season like spring or summer or fall or winter. It's season like Brussels sprouts or asparagus or tomatoes. Seasons are driven by the product, not necessarily the time of year -- although the time of year drives the product. Fava beans you may only have for three or four weeks. You don't have all of the spring and all of the summer.

 

But what really drives you through is not the passion, it's the determination to continue to do it well. Because the passion is going to ebb and flow. When the Brussels sprouts come, you're passionate about that for a week, but you're going to have them for a month. So what drives you? It's the determination to continue to use those Brussels sprouts, because consistency is the most important thing at any restaurant. Fine dining, casual dining, family-style dining -- they're all about being able to execute consistently high-quality foods to a very high standard.

 

Now, when we think about what cooking is, again, it's all about repetition. We've done it all before. So passion is great. But determination is really the key that drives everything, because you have to be determined every morning -- every day when you come to work -- to do a better job than you did the day before. We think about that, not only in French Laundry, or in Bouchon, or in Ad Hoc, but in every facet of our lives: how can we do better than we did the day before?

 

JM: The vegetables in Ad Hoc at Home are marvelous -- the Swiss chard and broccoli rabe and creamed corn and all sorts of cabbages. You really showcase these big, rich flavors that you don't normally . . .

 

TK: You don't normally associate with vegetables.

 

JM: Yes.

 

TK: Vegetables to me are -- I don't want to say the most exciting part of cooking, but certainly a very exciting part of cooking, because they continue to change. They come into season and they go through different phases. The young Swiss chard, the old Swiss chard, the stems -- we're able to utilize these things in different ways. We really can't intellectualize about how we're going to do this.

 

In a way, again, it is very comforting. Take the stems off the Swiss chard, but braise the Swiss chard leaves for a long period of time, and then leave the stems a little crunchy, or pickle them, then add them back so that you get this contrast not only in texture, but a contrast in flavors as well. The acid adds that seasoning element that salt would add, because all of a sudden you've got that enhancement through the pickling. Yes, the vegetable portion of this book is probably for me one of the most exciting parts of it.

 

JM: In the beginning, you have a page or two about being organized, in which you talk about mise-en-place and all that. There you say something very interesting to me, about how you try to visualize each step of the way when you are cooking. Would you elaborate on that idea?

 

TK:  Let's take peeling asparagus, for example. A lot of people don't peel their asparagus, or when they do peel their asparagus, they're not really being effective at peeling their asparagus. So I started to think about "What is the best way to peel asparagus?" You have all of the trimmings from the asparagus, and they're all getting down in a little pile, and it's very difficult to peel asparagus if you're holding the asparagus to the table. Not only is it difficult to peel it, but then you've got all of the trimmings around. So elevating the asparagus spear seemed to be the most effective and efficient way to do that. Elevating it on a little box or a little container or whatever you have, so that your wrist can actually move freely and you can move your hand, and at the same time, all the trimmings are falling around, and if you put a piece of paper underneath that, when you're finished, you just grab up the piece of paper, put it in the compost, and you're done. You try to think of the most effective, efficient, organized way, and a way that also lets you clean up very simply -- that's how visualization helps.

 

JM:  Let me read you another passage from the French Laundry book. I loved this when I read it the first time, and still do. "It's easy to cook a filet mignon," you write, "or to sauté a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter à la meunière, and call yourself a chef. But that's not really cooking. That's heating. Preparing tripe, however, is a transcendental act: to take what is normally thrown away and, with skill and knowledge, turn it into something exquisite." Would you elaborate a little on that idea?

 

TK:  Any food like tripe is a process, because it goes through different phases. Take the  aroma. You get tripe in, and the aroma is almost off-putting. It's not pleasant. Right? You're thinking, "Am I going to eat this? Really?" You're just going, "OK, here is something I'm really going to have to change big-time for me to get behind eating this thing." You go through the process of soaking it, and scraping the impurities off of it, and blanching it, and getting whatever the garnish is -- your vegetables -- together to make your tripe, your aromatics, your liquids, and so on. And the evolution of the aroma itself is a complex process. You started out raw, and you're starting to smell the rawness of the vegetables, the rawness of the wine, if you have wine for the stock.

 

And the tripe itself is still not very pleasant. Yet how that transforms itself over the period of the three, four, five, or six hours that you're actually cooking it is something that is so seductive, just in its smell! Then all of a sudden, you look at it and you say, "My God, what happened to this? It looks so appealing now."

 

Then you taste it, and texturally it's also very compelling (especially if you tried to taste the tripe when it was raw!). Not only that -- you feel this nourishment that's coming from the complexity of the dish, from all the different components that you have in there. You've taken each component and you've transformed it, and all together these individual components have been transformed into a unique single dish. That transformation by cooking is what I love so much, as opposed to just sautéing a filet mignon or cooking a piece of fish.

 

JM:  You're running I don't know how many restaurants...

 

TK:  Six.

 

JM:  ...six restaurants, and you're an author, doing these big book projects and spending a lot of time talking to people like me to promote them. [LAUGHS] It's very different from being in the kitchen, focused on transforming tripe or peeling asparagus or whatever the task at hand might be. How does that feel to you at this point in your life?

 

TK:  Well, you're asking me how I feel about managing all the restaurants and the books and all the things that I'm doing now, as they relate to what I did -- which was, you know, standing behind a stove for thirty-some-odd years. It's uncomfortable. As I've said, I love repetition and rituals, and that's what made me realize that I wanted to be a cook -- the repetition and the rituals. That's so much a part of a life in the kitchen. You come in at a specified time in the morning, you've got your prep list, you know what to do, you know when you need to do it, you know when the family meal is going to be, you know when you have to make your hollandaise sauce, you know when you have to butcher your fish -- and you do it so often, as I said before, that you become really good at it. So there's gratification, there's satisfaction, and there's a great amount of pride in being able to do a job well. Any job worth doing is worth doing well. But to be able to do that, you have to do it over and over again.

 

But now I don't do that. I'm outside of that, and it's very uncomfortable for me, because I don't know what my day is going to bring. I'm sitting here talking to you, for example. I mean, it's not something that I ever trained to do. I do it more often than before, but it's not something that I do a lot, so I'm always a little bit concerned about being able to do it well. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don't. Kind of like when I was a young cook: sometimes I could dial in the salmon and sometimes I made a mistake. So I haven't got to the point where I'm really confident and comfortable.

 

Although I do know (and I realized this a while back) that I can't be in the kitchen forever. It's impossible. I look at history and I look at some of the last generation of chefs, the generation of chefs before that, even some of our generation of chefs, and what I see is that if you're going to be in the kitchen past the age when you can actually physically do the work, then the quality of the work that you're going to do is going to be diminished, and at that point, you've lost your ability to have an impact. I think when we lose our ability to have an impact, then we have to step aside. I wanted to organize my life so that I could continue to have an impact beyond my days of cooking for our guests, or for my staff and colleagues. The only way to do that was to organize myself so that I could pass the cooking on and have somebody take my place.

 

In thinking about all of this, I found myself thinking about sports franchises. You look at baseball clubs, and you say, "Well, how do the New York Yankees win twenty-seven world championships?" Well, they continue to foster young talent, continue to give opportunities to young talent, continue to identify young talent, train young talent, so that as young players come up through the system they're able to take over. Who's the next Derek Jeter? Who was the last Derek Jeter, and the Derek Jeter before that? Each one is great in his own way.

 

That's something that has brought some comfort to me, being able to say, "OK, if I can't be the one that's in the kitchen every day having an impact, how can I have someone in the kitchen that's going to have an impact like me?" And being able to recognize that while another chef is not going to do exactly the things that I would do, sometimes he'll do things that are better than the things that I would do. Many times I see that -- I'll go into the kitchen and go, "Pshew, how come I didn't think of that?" Well, I didn't think of that because maybe I didn't have the environment that they have.

 

I think about what my responsibility is now, and I see that my responsibility is to give opportunity, to give our staff a place where they can work, a place that helps them grow and progress at a faster rate than I could grow and progress, so that they'll continue to have an impact. We have to continue to mentor and train the next generations, so that as Jonathan Benno leaves this restaurant, Per Se, there's Eli Kaimeh ready to take his place, and then Eli will be training his replacement.

 

So we are looking at this generationally. Hopefully, one day we're going to impact the entire industry with some of our standards. Some of our habits, some of our culture will start to be disseminated and will help elevate the industry in general. That's what we really want to do. We want to have an impact on the industry, to help it progress to better standards, better places. Ultimately, I am no longer in a position to impact the guests' experience on a night-to-night basis, or a plate-to-plate basis, like I used to be. But I find gratification and satisfaction and great pride in being part of a group of people that can impact our guests in a meaningful way. Giving opportunities to the young cooks is one way that I do it.

 

We've talked a lot about The French Laundry Cookbook. When I wrote that book, as you know, it was a success. And like with any success, the publisher then wants you to write another book. [LAUGHS] Sequels to movies, sequels to books, whatever. You do one thing right, and soon enough it's "Let's do the next one."

 

But I didn't want to write another book. I wrote my book. I told my story. The rabbit story was important to me. The hollandaise story was important to me. Those are my stories, and as much as there was a collaborative effort on the book, that book was really about me and some of my philosophies and some of the things that I wanted to say. And it became apparent that I didn't want to write another book because I didn't think I had anything else to say.

 

Then one day, two years later, I woke up and said, "This is ridiculous. Am I being selfish?" Susie is there, Michael is there, David is there, Ann [Bramson, publisher of Artisan Books] is there -- the whole team is there. Then I thought, well, we have Bouchon down the street, where Jeffrey Cerciello is the chef. If I don't want to write another book, that's OK, but for me to ignore the opportunity may be selfish or irresponsible. Let me just pass it on to Jeffrey. And Jeffrey wrote Bouchon.

 

Yes, I'm part of Bouchon because of my connection historically to that kind of restaurant, to France, to my feelings about France, as much as I'm part of Under Pressure. For that book, Jonathan Benno came to me and said one day, "Chef, we have to write the first book about sous vide cooking."  I said, "OK, you, Corey [Lee] and Sebastien [Rouxel] write the book. I'll be part of the book, but this is your opportunity to write a book." So I'm giving people an opportunity to do something that they may not have had the opportunity to do before. In the same way that Per Se became Jonathan Benno's first opportunity to be chef de cusine. Now, would he have this kind of opportunity had I not given it to him? Possibly. Would he have been in a restaurant like Per Se and been the first three-star Michelin chef de cuisine in America? Maybe not. Maybe, maybe not.

 

That gives me a huge sense of pride, and a huge sense of satisfaction. To return to your question, I'm looking at things a little differently now. Even though I miss being in the kitchen, being with the team, working every day, I know that physically I can't do it, as Derek Jeter is not going to be able to play shortstop forever. At some point he'll have to stop. He won't be able to do it. There will be somebody younger who will be able to do it better. Then the responsibility of the Yankees franchise is to make sure that they've mentored and trained that person to take Derek's place, so that when he leaves, they're as great a team in the future as they were in the past.

 

That's kind of the way I'm thinking about things. As much as I'm uncomfortable being out of the kitchen and sitting here talking to you [LAUGHS], I know that I'm going to have to explore that next level. Because if I don't, I'm going to get stuck in a place where I'm not going to be impactful at all.

 

JM:  Like your three previous books, Ad Hoc at Home is beautifully designed, a joy to read and peruse. Obviously, these books are tremendously complicated projects. There's a lot of creative intelligence in the prose, in the pictures, in the setups, in the design. How does that work?

 

TK:  Using the basis of the team that we used for The French Laundry Cookbook -- Susie Heller, Deborah Jones, Michael Ruhlman, Level Design, of course Ann Bramson and her group -- and then adding the restaurant itself (or the chefs themselves) has proven to be a really good formula. And Susie and I have been friends for a long time, and I like to help her keep busy [LAUGHS].

 

And Michael. We've become really good friends in the course of these books, and Michael has become a great writer. He hasn't become a great writer because of me -- he was bound to be a great writer anyway. But it's really nice to have somebody with whom, in the beginning of his writing career, I struck a chord of friendship and understanding that allows us to now have conversations over the telephone in short amounts of time, in which I'm able to give him the whole spirit and understanding of what we're talking about when we're talking about beef stroganoff, for example. He can take that, because he knows me, and he can write the story, and then we can talk about it and edit it and get it down right. Therein lies a wonderful way of working together, much in the same way that you're working with your sous chefs in the kitchen. So it reminds me of that kind of synergy, where your sous chef knows what you want, knows what you're going to do. You can tell him "Do this like this," and he's going to elaborate on it to the point where he's going to bring back the dish and you'll say, "That's exactly what I was talking about."

 

So this wonderful production team is there, and it's intact. So when we were thinking about writing another book, Ad Hoc seemed to be the right subject. Ann wanted me to write a book for home cooks, but I didn't really want to write a book for home cooks, because I'm not a home cookbook writer. But Ad Hoc is about food that has reference points and has comforts and has familiarity, and that can be interpreted in a way that may be a little more approachable for a home cook. And in Ad Hoc at Home we try to teach home cooks some of the techniques, some of the ideas, some of the philosophy, some of the efficiencies that we use in the restaurants.

 

Salt is the perfect example. How do you season something? We teach young cooks how to do that here, at Per Se. So why can't we translate that to teaching somebody at home? How to pick up salt . . . how to season something . . . knowing what we are seasoning for. Those things -- principles and techniques -- became part of this book, but we translated them from the restaurant to the home kitchen.

 

It's a team of collaborators, and Susie is the producer. She keeps us all on track. It's a wonderful thing to watch from the outside, and experience from the inside, the way Susie lets everybody do their jobs, not micro-managing them. Deborah Jones is the photographer, and she has a keen, expert eye for food. If she tells me to do something, I'm not going to argue with her. [LAUGHS] And when Susie says, "This is the timeline," I'm not going to argue with her. When Michael says, "We need to talk about this story," then we need to talk about the story.

 

We're doing things together -- you need common visions, common goals to produce a book like this. In the same way, we have our philosophy in the kitchen; it's a common goal -- we're one team. If one person falls down, then we all fall down. We all have to watch out for each other, we have to make sure that we're OK; it's that common vision that results in something that is far greater than any individual could have done on his or her own.

 

[LAUGHING] Did I answer the question?

 

JM:  Indeed you did. Just one more: do you think about people using these books? How do you envision them using them?

 

TK:  It's kind of an abstract thought for me. Although it really became very personal when we wrote The French Laundry Cookbook; somebody wrote me a letter, a young cook I think it was, whose girlfriend gave him this cookbook for Christmas. It was under the tree, wrapped up, and he unwrapped it, and he was ecstatic. I visualized that. I could relate to it because I remembered when I got my first cookbooks. Roland Henin gave me Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, and we'd go through it, and I remember thinking, "This is the most amazing thing I've ever received." The impact it had on me was enormous.

 

So, again, I had a reference point to the experience described in that young man's letter -- I could relate it to my own personal experience. It was then that I realized that, yes, we can have an impact on people; we are having an impact on people. Because for me, up to that point, the pleasure had been in the process of making the book. I didn't care if I sold one book, because the actual process of making the book was something that was so gratifying to me. It was the summer of 1998, we were much younger, we worked at my house; we had loupes to look at the pictures, there was no digital photography -- we went through so much that was satisfying to me.

 

After that, reading a letter from a young culinarian who said, "You know, chef, you've really made my day; this was the most amazing gift that I've ever received, and it's going to be with me." There have been countless letters like that, and countless opportunities where I've talked to people about what they've gotten from the book.

 

I don't know what people are going to get from the new book. I have no idea. I put it out there, and hopefully they take something away, even if it's not the technique, even if it's just the story, or an idea. Even if it's being in love with a photograph. Whatever.

 

I can't even tell you my intention for the book. We wrote the Ad Hoc cookbook for lots of different reasons. Because I like to keep Susie working. Because I've got a great team. Because Dave Cruz may never have had the opportunity to write a cookbook. Because the opportunity was there and because I wanted to tell stories about different things. And we have some great recipes. lLAUGHS] So let's put it all together, and we'll give it to the world and see what they think.

 

I think if you can take one or two things from a cookbook, it's successful. People learn how to season something themselves. They learn how to big-pot blanch vegetables. My mother would put green beans in a small pot and put the top on it, and cook them to death. If people learn from us how to big-pot blanch all their green vegetables, and therefore have beautifully well-cooked, seasoned vegetables, that's already in itself a huge thing to learn -- a little technique will have a huge impact on their cooking.

 

 

November 5, 2009

 

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