Internationally renowned chef, restaurateur, and author, Thomas Keller holds a total of 7 Michelin stars, a Legion of Honour, numerous James Beard awards, and his three Michelin-starred restaurant, The French Laundry has been twice voted World’s Best Restaurant
The most celebrated and indeed decorated chef in America is not the easiest person to interview. When we meet in Dubai, Thomas Keller is straight off the plane from San Francisco and is not yet mid-way through a full day of back-to-back interviews, photo shoots and cooking demonstrations. While he’s certainly not unfriendly, he does have a tendency to seize upon a question or turn of phrase that doesn’t sit well with him and run with it.
As an interviewer this quite rightly means that you need to be constantly ready to substantiate or defend your line of questioning and in doing so show Keller the respect that he both commands and wholeheartedly deserves. At 62 years of age his place on the list of culinary greats has long been established: he is the only American-born chef to run multiple restaurants with three Michelin stars (The French Laundry and Per Se) and the accolades bestowed upon are far too many to list, but suffice to say, all the important ones are there. He has been made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, is the bearer of a number of James Beard Foundation awards and as well as being recognised several times over by the Culinary Institute of America, is also on their board of trustees.
“Keller’s place on the list of culinary greats has long been established: he is the only American- born chef to run multiple restaurants with three Michelin stars”
Keller is in Dubai for the launch of the UAE’s first Bouchon Bakery at The Beach, opposite Jumeirah Beach Residences. He says that he hopes that the spot will become an integral part of the community, in much the same way the original Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, Napa Valley has. “We want people to come here not because it’s a Thomas Keller restaurant, but because it’s a great place to stop and have a conversation with friends or read the newspaper or treat your child to a Nutter Butter. A bakery is about community, and that’s what we want to express.”
When asked if his approach to setting up a relatively casual spot such as Bouchon Bakery differs to that of a more high-end concept, his response is swift – cutting even. “You know, it’s not really a concept. It’s not something that we pull out of the air and say ‘this is the concept we want to do’. When we opened the first Bouchon Bakery sixteen years ago it had a real purpose. At the time we had French Laundry and Bouchon restaurant and we really wanted to bake our own bread in order to elevate what we were offering our guests,” he explains. “We needed to bake bread. What do you do if you need to bake bread? You open a bakery. That’s how simple it is. I hate the word concept, because it makes it sound like we’re in the automotive business or something – like we’re conceptualising what we’re doing –, when actually restaurants are emotional and there always needs to be an emotional connection.”
The words emotion and memory pop up time and time again in conversation with Keller and these ideas are integral to his culinary style and approach; one of his most famous dishes is a whimsical amuse bouche of salmon tartare cornets styled to resemble the ice cream cones of our childhood. “At the end of the day a successful restaurant is not about fame or fortune, it’s about giving people memories. The bottom line is that our success is based on giving you, the guest, a memory,” he asserts.
Precise, dedicated, meticulous, a perfectionist: all these descriptors and many more like them have been attributed to Keller and these traits have certainly played a role in his remarkable success. While his food and cooking may be all about evoking and making memoires, his approach is pragmatic and measured. “What we want to do in our restaurant every night is have a great service – it’s like a baseball team, a sports franchise. We go to work every day having the opportunity to be successful or not. If 90 people come to the restaurant and 89 have a great time but one person doesn’t, then we’re disappointed in our performance because we weren’t able to be successful with that person. That’s how critical we are of ourselves. ”
Putting that sort of exacting pressure upon yourself on a daily basis must be a rather exhausting way to live, I suggest. “We’re the most critical people in the world – and when I say we, I mean our profession – when it comes to what we do. We know we can do a better job, every day,” he replies.
If he measures success by the impact a visit to one of his restaurants has upon the guest, it begs the question what do awards, accolades and particularly Michelin stars mean to him. “They reinforce what you’re doing, but they’re about what you did yesterday. We’re not really thinking about what we did yesterday. We’re thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” Keller says. “We don’t get caught up in the accolades. I mean it’s nice and I’m proud that we have three stars and of all the different things that we’ve done, but we need to keep moving forward and thinking about tomorrow. If we do the right things today for tomorrow, then the awards will come again.”
“If you want to be the best at what you choose to do, then you’re driven.”
The subject is clearly one he feels passionate about and he goes on to make a hugely pertinent point: “If you want to be the best at what you choose to do, then you’re driven. Accolades only reinforce that you’re on the right track – and sometimes they don’t even do that – you first need to have confidence and trust in the accolade.
“The different communities that think they can bestow upon you an award are a dime a dozen these days. I’m not saying that Michelin is, but if someone calls me up and says ‘I want to honour you by giving you an award’, I say to them: ‘Who are you, and what gives a food and wine event in Timbuktu the authority to give me an award?.”
When asked whether he still enjoys being in the kitchen, the reply comes immediately: “Of course. Absolutely. For me it’s all about my team and being part of a team.” Keller is known for his commitment to driving culinary excellence amongst young chefs and places what seems like a vast amount of pressure on himself to nurture the next generation of cooks. “If a chef comes into our kitchen who has the right attitude and personality to thrive, we have to give them the support, the tools, the training and the expertise they need to perform. If we somehow fail in giving them what they need, and then they fail, it’s our fault, not theirs.”
“Whatever level someone comes in at, once we hire them we’re going to train them, and train them and train them” he adds. “How long do you train a person for? Who knows. You train them and then you mentor them – both professionally and personally. And what happens if you do those things successfully? You get a person who is better than you are. Because if they’re not better than you are, then you’ve done a bad job hiring them, training them, and mentoring them. It’s all about that – making them better than you are.”
This is a big statement for any boss or leader to make. But for a man as revered and respected as Keller, it’s huge. He goes on: “I sit here today and tell you that Corey Lee, Corey Chow, Eli Kaimah, Jonathon Benno, David Breeden, Grant Achatz [all chefs who either work or have worked for Keller] are all better than I am. And I’m proud of that – because I’ve done a really good job. Why are they better than I am? Because I made them better. And if they’re not better, then I’ve done a bad job and I don’t want to do a bad job.”
“You need to challenge yourself to do new things in order to understand what you’re really capable of”
In 2017, twenty-one years after the restaurant first opened, The French Laundry underwent an extensive and costly renovation. Keller was 61 when he commissioned the revamp and although he shows no sign of retiring, he says that he embarked on the project with an eye to the future.
“When I decided we should do it, it was at a moment in my life when I felt – and I still feel partially – that to push myself I had to get uncomfortable, and that’s truly what I did. You need to challenge yourself to do new things in order to understand what you’re really capable of.
“We built a brand-new outside of the restaurant itself and two new buildings that are very foreign to us in the way they look, operate and function. It’s pushing us forward and has made us revaluate what we’re doing; the space is designed to be free flowing and to allow us to discover new ways of establishing our restaurant and take it to the next level – not necessarily the next level in cuisine, but in the evolution of the restaurant. So far, everybody loves it.”
Keller admits that despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the changes, he feels a sense of nostalgia for the restaurant that was. This is perhaps made all the more poignant thanks to the knowledge that 21 years into the future, he probably won’t be cooking there. “I wanted to give new purpose, new reason, new opportunities to those behind me. I don’t know where I’ll be in 20 years – I haven’t worked that out yet. I think it’s important for me to be part of this profession still, but it certainly doesn’t have to be inside of restaurant.”
On the subject of change in the culinary world, of modernity, food trends and fads, and the current proliferation of fast-casual restaurants and what this means for the more traditional style of fine dining, Keller is straight to the point: “A couple of weeks ago a journalist asked me what I’m doing to stay relevant – it’s one of those absurd media questions. Paul Bocuse said sixty years ago that your restaurant is relevant if it’s full and that’s still true today.”
From talk of Bocuse, the [late great] grandmaster of French cooking, our conversation turns to legacies and I ask Keller what he would like his to be. Once again, the answer is parried back at lightening speed: “Somebody else will decide that”. When pressed further, he says: “Hopefully I will be remembered as somebody who was a leader and had an impact on our profession. You want to have changed things, so that people have better opportunities than you had”. Thomas Keller has, without question, already achieved that.
WORDS: SARAH PRICE
IMAGES: BOUCHON BAKERY, FRENCH LAUNDRY