All Articles
All Articles
FOOD + DRINK

Interview: Thomas Keller

FOOD + DRINK

Interview: Thomas Keller

Life lessons, groomed gardens and butter-poached lobster at The French Laundry

by Josh Rubin
on 08 October 2012
french-laundry-22.jpg

When invited to The French Laundry, the answer, without hesitation, is a resounding yes. As a destination restaurant with a long waiting list, you never know when the opportunity will present itself again. American Express recently asked us to check out their By Invitation Only program—mentioning a harvest dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant as one of their offerings—and we jumped at the chance. I have been to Chef Thomas Keller's culinary oasis before, but a meal there is so extraordinary it always feels like the first time. And the chance to both interview Chef Keller and photograph in the gardens and kitchen—special sauce that Amex was able to offer because of their long-standing relationship with Keller—was a treat on par with the harvest meal prepared especially for Platinum card members.

A one-time saloon and French steam laundry, the building sits in California's fertile Napa Valley a short drive north of the Bay Area. Chef Thomas Keller has been the proprietor since the restaurant opened in 1978, and is recognized by many as a leader of America's subsequent food revolution. Nowadays, the kitchen is run by Chef de Cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth while Keller tends to other ventures, which include New York's Per Se, Ad Hoc in Yountville as well as Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery's multiple locations.

french-laundry-04.jpg

Adjoining the restaurant is a three-acre garden that is pruned and kept like royal property. The unfenced plot supplies the kitchen with everything from eggplants and melons to shishito peppers and cultivated snails. Around the grounds wander furry-footed chickens and pristinely dressed wait staff. The interior is an amalgam of different buildings that have been joined over the years, with seating for around 50 spread out in disparate rooms. The experience is not unlike dining in a private home—assuming, of course, that the private home is staffed with some of the best talent in North America.

french-laundry-07.jpg

And then there's the food. "The Oysters and Pearls have been on the menu for the past 17 1/2 years," says Keller, referencing one of the restaurant's most buzzed-about dishes. The recipe centers around oysters, caviar and tapioca, and is a scrumptiously clever take on the biological phenomenon.

french-laundry-20.jpg
"I've been butter-poaching lobster for over twenty years, and it all comes from my memory of eating lobster with my mother."

As an East Coast resident, I have a healthy skepticism for eating lobster in California. Keller understands this, which is why he has sourced his supply from Ingrid Bengis-Palei—known simply as "Ingrid" to culinary insiders—and her Maine traps since 1986. "Poached lobster—this is a dish that just resonates," says Keller "I've been butter-poaching lobster for over twenty years, and it all comes from my memory of eating lobster with my mother. When you take a boiled lobster and drawn butter and dip the lobster in the butter, there's nothing better than that flavor."

french-laundry-25.jpg

Keller's renowned "butter-poaching" technique yields a sinfully decadent crustacean. The method isn't entirely complicated, though you'll need to know a way to shell the lobster raw, something that Keller spent a long time figuring out. Picture fresh lobster cooked in the very oils that season it, the pinkish skin oozing with drawn butter, and you'll have an idea of the kind of genius Keller possesses.

french-laundry-24.jpg

We sat down with Chef Keller, hoping to find answers to a few needling questions. Almost without prompting, the seasoned chef became a font for information, advice and opinion on the state of American cuisine, the makings of a long-term venture and the politics of sustainability. What follows are highlights from our interview with Keller in the front room of The French Laundry.

french-laundry-06.jpg
The evolution of American cuisine

In the 35 years since I started cooking, I've seen what has happened in our country, which is quite extraordinary. There's one other country that parallels our rise to culinary recognition, and that's the UK. 35 years ago, if you asked anybody around the world in any sophisticated food culture—France, Italy, Japan—the recognition of American cuisine would have been related to fast food, and the UK would have been related to boiled beef.

We have some of the best farms, fishermen, gardeners—some of the best ingredients around. We certainly have some of the best chefs and some of the best restaurants. It's extraordinary to have watched that happen in basically two generations.

french-laundry-16.jpg
Making it happen—support, environment, tools

Basically it's all about support, and the support network has to begin with our farmers, our fishermen, our gardeners and our foragers. The support for them has to be a commitment from the chefs, from the restaurants. It's about a common goal to make sure that the guest has the best ingredients that we can possibly source. When you think about cuisine, it's a very simple equation. Regardless of the restaurant, the equation's the same—it's about ingredients and execution.

When you come into a good environment, you tend to work better. You have to build an environment in which people are very comfortable. The idea of the chef as the proprietor has really changed the way restaurants run, and so the environment of the kitchen is as important for any chef as the environment in the dining room.

Tools are very important, making sure they have all the tools they need. Give them everything that they need in order to execute at a very high level—whether that's the kitchen, the dining room, the sommeliers or your administrative staff.

french-laundry-10.jpg
Better than you are—hiring, training, mentoring

There are three basic things that we have to do. One is hire people. And that is something that today... there's not a huge commitment to hiring people today. In most cases, you need somebody so you hire somebody. The hiring process is really the most critical part of building the team because you have to hire the right people. If you don't hire the right people, they're just not going to be able to do their job. So making sure that we take the opportunity through the interview process, through the search process to make sure that we have a pool of talent that we are able to choose from.

french-laundry-12.jpg

Number two is making sure that we train. When I was a younger cook, and I still see it happening today, training was qualified by a time period. You have two weeks to learn how to work the fish station. What happens if I don't get it in two weeks? Well, you have to. It may take them three weeks, it may take them three months. You keep them an extra week or two to make sure that they really got it and you have 100% confidence in them, and they have 100% confidence in being able to do the job—because their confidence is just as important as yours. Each person has a different capacity for learning and training.

french-laundry-23.jpg

It's a continuing mentoring process—not just in your profession, but in your life. The person should understand what's expected of them. And if you do that, then that person is going to be with you for a long time. Unfortunately, in America and in many other cultures, we're beginning to forget about our long-term goals for our short-term goals. The mentoring process is a lifelong process, and one that fascinates me.

If you do those three things correctly—if you hire them, if you train them, if you mentor them—then what's the result of that? They become better than you are. If they're not better than you are, then you haven't really done your job.

french-laundry-01.jpg
Sourcing and sustainability

We talk about sustainability. We talk about carbon footprint. We talk about farm to table. We talk about all these things today without any true understanding of what they really mean. We've been serving John Mood's hearts of palm for 16 years now, and it's nice to know that I'm connected to John and his wife and that plantation they have in Hawaii—it's a fantastic thing. The shishito peppers are from our garden. The yellow peaches are coming from Jacobson Farms.

french-laundry-05.jpg

Sustainability is such a misunderstood word because most people relate it to ingredients—that's just not true. That's where the media typically misses the whole point about sustainability because they're always talking about ingredients. You have to realize that it's not about ingredients, it's about people and communities. The fishermen in Maine have been fishing those water for generations, so who's really concerned about the sustainability of what they do? Should I be? No. They are. My job is to be able to choose the right people to supply me with my ingredients. If I choose correctly, then they've already taken care of the responsibility part.

french-laundry-26.jpg

In Scandinavian countries, there is a significant incentive for companies to reduce their carbon footprint. They don't go to their chefs and say, "You have to grow your stuff across the street." They don't put that responsibility on a chef. They put that responsibility on the areas where it can have a significant impact, and those are the larger industries. Point being, sustainability is really about supporting those communities, and my choice as a chef is to support people that have integrity and responsibility to their ingredients.

See the rest of the photographs from our meal after the jump.

Images by Josh Rubin

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking
Loading More...