Thomas Keller speaks candidly about a life-changing decision he made in 1997 while he was working under the wing of master chef Roland Henin. “He asked me why I was cooking. I could not come up with an answer. He then shared his philosophy that cooking is necessary to nourish and educate people.” With these few words, Keller came to discover his calling, something that eventually led to him opening a wealth of restaurants and training consecutive brigades of young chefs.
“In the United States in 1977, if you had said you wanted to be a chef, you would have been considered a loser,” said Keller. He knows something about the matter, having seen the profession transform significantly as he moved up the ranks over the years, seeing an impact on his career. Born in California in 1955, he learned the basics from his mother who owned a restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida; his brother Joseph built on this foundation. “My mother was my first mentor. She taught me to pay attention to the details and my surroundings. These are valuable lessons that serve me to this day,” he added. Young Thomas Keller initially wanted to cook in order to travel; Henin gave him the taste to go further and master the culinary world. After two years of training in France, Keller returned to the United States in 1985 with a rich palette of traditional flavours from the French kitchen in his arsenal… that he knew how to adapt and make his own. “I am American, and I create American-French dishes, not French-American ones. I allow myself a great deal of latitude in my interpretation.” When asked if he has reinvented French cuisine, he explains that it is nothing of the sort. “In our restaurants, we have integrated the profile of traditional and classic French flavours, especially in our restaurant The French Laundry, which is located in one of the United States’ most significant wine regions. Our French cuisine dishes in particular are created in tandem with wine, designed for a perfect pairing. Throughout the 1970s, with Paul Bocuse and other chefs from that era, another approach centred on the personality would emerge.” As Keller explains, the majority of chefs always follow the codes established by Escoffier. “Paul Bocuse began interpreting French recipes by adding his own personal touch, his personality. Today, Alain Ducasse, just like Daniel Boulud, are known for their culinary styles… and I am too. This is what distinguishes today’s upscale cuisine. There are very few three-star chefs who maintain a classical interpretation of French cuisine.”
While Keller’s journey has been paved with success, he has also known bitter failures that he treasures and considers his best allies. “The failures are important learning moments that must be recognized, analyzed, understood, and overcome. This is what makes you stronger. If you give up because you have failed, you could be giving up on what might become your future. I have failed plenty of times. I still experience failures today. These disappointments help us evolve and improve how we do things.”
Attention to detail, a desire to nourish body and mind, an understanding and a willingness to overcome challenges are all qualities that help define Keller and his temperament as a chef. But according to him, what does it take to become a master chef? “Recognizing your own limits, practice, and knowing how to surround yourself with talented people that share the same vision, the same goals.” Additionally, he underscores the importance of desire and consistency (over passion) and the need for an appropriate work environment (because, as he says, even if you have the best technique in the world, without the proper equipment, you will not be able to cook). And, of course, the right ingredients. “If I have the best ingredients, I will be a better chef, without a doubt.” For this reason, Keller works directly with fishermen, farmers, and market gardeners to offer his clientele the best possible products.
While today’s products are high-quality and easily available, the equipment increasingly sophisticated, and the clientele more and more refined, the fact remains that, according to Keller, the expectation is always the same, regardless of the type of restaurant—to offer a memorable experience. “There are no perfect dishes, no perfect food. It is all about the journey and making people happy.” Keller applies this golden rule in all his culinary endeavours, from restaurants to bakery-pastry shops. His French-inspired restaurants The French Laundry (1994) in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York (2004); Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California (1998), and Las Vegas, Nevada (2004); Bouchon Coral Gables, which is opening its doors in Florida in 2023; the Ad Hoc + Addendum (2006) restaurant; the child-friendly menu at La Calenda, based on regional cuisine in Oaxaca, Mexico (2019); the Regiis Ova Caviar & Champagne Lounge (2021); and The Surf Club Restaurant in Miami; and Bouchon Bakery in Yountville and Las Vegas. At each and every location, the customer experience counts foremost.
Over the years, Keller has been able to surround himself with teams who understand his approach and, like him, nourish the body and heart. This is what it takes to be recognized as a master chef.
Cover Image: Photos Deborah Jones
This article is presented by Gaggenau.
Mixte Magazine would like to thank Gaggenau for its sponsorship. This article was written with no input from Gaggenau, which has no affiliation with the chefs profiled.
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