My Creations, Places I like

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Walking With Giants: Thomas Keller

    This is an extension from by Bocuse d'Or USA weekend a few weeks back (see Bocuse is Loose for the first part), and as promised I'm going to share with you some of the highlights of the various book signings I got to partake in.

    Our rec center (where everything was held) was packed that day with famous chefs, culinary students, professors, press, Bocuse competitors, and the mass public. Cookbook in hand, my friends and I anxiously awaited in our cleaned/pressed chef whites for our first book signing of the day--Thomas Keller. Arguable one of the country's best chefs for the past 10 years or so. No big. Even people who don't know food know who Thomas Keller is. He's just that mega famous. Keller has been the mastermind behind establishments such as Per Se, The French Laundry (both 3 Michelin Stars and the only American chef to have 3 at two restaurants simultaneously ), Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Bouchon Bakery. Along with having two 3-Michelin Star restaurants, Keller is also the President of the Bocuse d'Or USA team which selects a team to represent The United States in the Bocuse d'Or competition in Lion, France every 2 years. Here is his wikipedia page if you would like to learn more. I simply don't have the capacity to discuss all his accomplishments.

    After about an hour waiting in line, I am three back from the front. I start to notice my hands getting all sweaty, and I feel butterflies in my stomach. "WHAT IS THIS THE THIRD GRADE??" I keep telling myself in my head to calm myself down. Now I'm next. I open his Ad Hoc cookbook (a cookbook for home cooking without he use of an immersion circulator or other fancy equipment) to the page he wishes to sign and try my best not to pee my pants.

    I get called up, he says hello, I say hello, I ask him how his day is going. While he signs my book I say to him, "It's tough making your dishes look as good as you do..." What?? What the hell am I doing? Why do I have to be so awkward? He's just a guy! He pees and drinks coffee just like the rest of us (I bet he pees gold though). Without looking up he replies, "ohh no its not so hard, you just have to practice. Practice practice. Practice every day and you'll get it." Keller looks up after signing, or looked like doodling, on my book and smiles. "How bout a photo", he says noticing my stupid light blue Cannon Powershot (I kid you not, its a cannon powershot...why am I such a dork?) dangling from my wrist. I was so nervous I didn't even remember I had it...Talk about herp derp!

My book

" Peter: It's all about family. ~ Thomas Keller"
     He wrote something different depending on which book you presented him with. He wrote, "It's all about family" in the Ad Hoc cookbook because its designed for the home cook and sharing food with family; and wrote, "Its all about technique" in the French Laundry cookbook because that cookbook is geared towards the modern techniques used in his restaurant. I thought that was pretty cool.
Roasted beet and potato salad with soft boiled egg from his book. I WANT THIS IN MY MOUTH

    The man is intimidating, I met other chefs that day and I was fine, for some reason TK will make you feel small. Not that he's a shit-head, he is just mysterious and displays a very serious face most of the time. My friend Eric (our group leader) was introduced to TK when he walked in the door prior to the book signing and said he froze, couldn't think of a thing to say. For our vocal Asian group leader who has eaten at almost every restaurant worth eating at in New York, to say nothing, you knew you were in for it. "Hookay, sankyuu!"
    You hear a lot of negative things about Keller from other people but most of it isn't very accurate. Being the best, and being notorious for having next to impossible standards in the kitchen, its no surprise people will be scared and say negative things. When he had to cut the cook signing short to sit at the judges panel for the competition there was still a line of over 100 people who did not get to have their books signed. After the 4 hour competition, Keller personally signed every single one. That's gotta say something about the guy, right? If not, here's a few other examples of why he's not such a madman after all:
TK being weird
    It's funny to see such a serious man act so goofy in his book. There's a few other gems in this book of Keller cooking with a crazy smile on his face or other acts of weirdness. I'll end with a quote by Grant Achatz from his biography, Life, On the Line: A chef's story of chasing greatness, facing death, and redefining the way we eat (fantastic read for anyone) that helps portray what Thomas Keller is all about:

"I entered the French Laundry kitchen and saw a tall lanky man sweeping the floor. His back was toward me and he didn’t hear me enter, so he kept doing his job for a few seconds. I peered past him looking for chef Keller, waited a few seconds for the sweeper to notice me, and when he didn’t, approached him. 'I’m Grant Achatz, here for a tryout. Is chef Keller in?'
'Yeah. That’s me,' he said, letting out a laugh. 'You’re early, Grant.'
He stuck out his hand and shook mine vigorously with an exaggerated up and down motion.
I thought to myself, 'Holy shit. He’s the first one here, and he’s sweeping the floor. What kind of restaurant is this?'"
     Grant's book is filled with all sorts of great stories about Keller. Another favorite of mine talks about when Grant landed a job with Keller as a commis (basically an extern) and called Keller a few days before his first day of work to ask if he could somehow get a table for him and his father. His father was driving out to California to see his son and what the restaurant where he would work was all about. As the owner of a world renowned restaurant, your not really supposed to give a shit about the bottom rung new employee, especially when you know next to nothing about said employee. Sure enough, Achatz and his father show up at the restaurant with a specially reserved table and fully comped dinner. Grant to this day says he has no idea why Keller did that for him. It just shows Keller's true side: that's how you take care of your staff from the top employees all the way to the shit taking newbies... 

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