Chef Q&A: Thomas Keller

Becky Paskin - 30/03/2012

Revered the world over, innovative chef Thomas Keller is probably the most awarded chef in history, with a Legion of Honour, several James Beard awards, Michelin stars and two stints as the S.Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant for The French Laundry in California. Reputed to be somewhat of a perfectionist, the talented chef invests much time into training and mentoring his staff to ensure standards remain impeccably high across his six-strong stable of restaurants, which include Per Se in New York. You recently ran a pop-up version of The French Laundry at Harrod's in London as your first foray in the UK. How was the experience for you?

The pop-up was extraordinary. It was an amazing event moreso because of the historical aspect of it - it's never been done before by us or Harrods. Most pop-ups are done in someone elese's restaurant space on the fly for a commercial purpose but this was done just the opposite to resemble a restaurant that already existed. We did an amazing job of replicating it. When you're on the fifth floor of Harrods you don't have a lot to work with, but we tried to make the space resemble the real thing as much as possible. We even had astro turf for the garden space. It's kind of corny but it's an attempt and we couldn't put real grass up there. It's kind of Disney-esque but a lot of things are staged in department stores - people go to look at the windows because of the staging. So the concept fit well within the environment we operated in. It was also incredible when you just think about the different groups of individuals that were part of that process, none of whom ahd ever worked together before. We had chefs and dining room staff who came from all of our restaurants who don't typically work together; working with the Harrods team who we've never worked with before and also a third team of 14 servers from the UK put together especially for the event. How these different groups of people came together for me was one of the proudest moments I've had.

Were you pleased with the reviews The French Laundry pop-up recieved?

I never expected any reviews - I thought it was a bit strange for magazines and newspapaers to review a restaurant that was not permanent and sold out from the time we opened so people wouldn't have a chance to make a reservation, but we got one from every major newspaper in London. To try and compare our restaurant to others already in London was a bit awkward for me. There was one newspaper that said the pop-up was the best restaurant in London. I've got colleagues there like Gordon (Ramsay), Heston (Blumenthal), Marcus (Wareing) and Jason (Atherton), and it was just a slap in their face to review a restaurant that’s not even permanent or one that anybody can get into, and try to qualify it in comparison to restaurateurs and chefs who have made their careers in London. Writing a story I get it, but to give it three, four or five stars – there's no point.

Would you ever like to do it again?

No, we’ve been thinking about touring The French Laundry for several years, and I don’t know if it would be The French Laundy or not, but it's already been done before. Paul Prudhomme already did it in 1983 so it's nothing new. Everything's been done before.

Where does your desire to continuously break new ground come from?

I'm a one off person and once I've done it I don’t necessarily want to do it again.

The French Laundry dropped out of the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list for the first time last year  – after previously being named number one on two occasions what did that mean to you?

It bothered me for a moment but we are not defined by other people. We don’t live for an award, it's just not who we are. The awards we receive are wonderful - to be the first chef to have back to back wins was extraordinary; it was a very proud moment. To be the only chef ever to have two restaurants on the list let alone in the top ten is an extraordinary accomplishment, but it's not about me, it's about the team we have and with that credit comes a sense of responsibility not to the award but to the guests and each other. That’s the cause. Our culture and society get caught up in this idea of awards and it deteriorates and diminishes the reason to do things. I have 15 James Beard awards for everything but they are just sitting on the shelf. I'm the only chef to win the Wedgewood award, the only American chef to have three Michelin stars and the only male American chef to have been given the Legion of Honour in my profession. Was I proud to be a part of those things? Yes, but how can they define who I am? I can't let that happen. At the end of the day who really cares. I want to think about what I'm doing tomorrow, because we are going to come to work knowing we are going to do a better job than we did yesterday.

How has The French Laundry developed in the past year?

The French Launcdry is one of those unique restaurants that develops every day. We change our menu every day and by doing that we continue to build on what we did yesterday. The nuances of what we do continue to develop but part of the important thing we do is working with our suppliers and making sure that we continue to support them, give them what they need and continue to progress as well, because when they become better so do we. Cooking is a very simple equation: it's about ingredients and execution, and if we are not supporting the people who supply us those ingredients then they are not going to be able to do what we need them to. If we can bring those two elements together through support in significant ways then we should have a successful evening. At the end of the day it’s a sport franchise, a baseball team, and it's about making sure you have the right individuals in that team to perform at a high level and ensuring they have the right tools they need to perform.

You’re a very busy man, how do you divide your time between your restaurants and still maintain standards?

It's not about me, it's about the team I have working for me and their commitment, determination and desire to work at very high standards. If you hire the right individuals, train them and mentor them and give them the tools they need then they will be able to perform at a very high level and that’s the most important part for me. It's not about any one person.

You made an advert for American Express lately that ran during the SuperBowl - how did you get involved with that?

It was nice to move outside of my normal scope of work and experience something else, like making Spanglish or Ratatouille. American Express has been a great partner of ours so when they asked me to become part of their new membership effect programme I was happy to help.

What are you looking at in terms of expansion?

Nothing right now, but there are opportunities everywhere and it’s a matter of having the time. Its easy to open restaurants but it takes a lot nore to maintain them. Someone's always writing a letter suggesting somewhere to open. In 19 years I've opened six restaurants - that’s one every three years. That’s quite conservative when you compare me to some of my colleagues who have opened three times as many restaurants than I have in half the time.

What's been your ultimate lifetime goal?

I've achieved more than I could ever dream of. My goal was just to have one restaurant one day and I failed that three times before I got The French Laundry. My goal now is that my restaurants today have what they need. It's an interesting time to be in the restaurant business. When I started out there were no celebrity chefs in America, or even the world outside of France. There was no respect for food so when I started cooking it was simply about the act of cooking and not about becoming famous. I decided to become a chef after cooking for three years and I was then enlightened by a chef who showed me that we cook to nurture people and make them smile. That’s the moment I became a chef – because I realised that I'm a nurturer at heart. I want to make people happy and what better way to do that than feed them. If I wasn’t a chef I'd be a doctor or a teacher - something where you can have a positive impact on people.

What's in the future for Thomas Keller?

My partners ask me whats my exit strategy, but as a chef I don’t have one. I won't be a chef all my life but the one greatest thing that’s happened to our profession in the last 30 years is chefs have been liberated from being in the kitchen all the time. The last generation of chefs who were in their kitchens died in their kitchens. Chefs work really hard to reach a level in their career where they hopefully have a successful restaurant and work it with determination and desire, but at some point they reach an age where they can no longer physically do that. In older generations chefs didn’t have options - they physically stayed in their restaurants and started to diminish. And most of those guys would have trained and mentored the next generation who would have gone on to eclipse them. Today if we are lucky enough and have a little bit of talent and are in the right place at the right time with the right idea then we are given opportunities to do other things that liberate us. We can now establish a culture and business that continues to perpetuate the ideals and standards that you begin with and evolve into a place that is better than you ever thought it would be. And that for me is what I want to do. None of my restaurants have my name on it – what would happen if I wasn’t here, or I sold it, or died? It would cease to exist and what kind of legacy is that? There’s no place I’d rather be more than in the kitchen and I’m not ready to sit back just yet.

Have people eclipsed you in terms of skill?

Yes, I don’t know about everybody but quite a few have and my job is to make sure that when youngsters come into our restaurants, whether it's in the kitchen or dining room, that they have the knowledge and training that’s going to help them be better in their next position. If I hire the right individual and mentor that person then they are better than me. I'm proud of them all.

You have a reputation amongst those that have worked with you in the past for being somewhat of a perfectionist. Do you think your reputation is accurate?

I never think anything’s perfect because if you get to the point where you think something’s perfect you soon realise it's not. You can never achieve true perfection. That’s one of the things that drives us - how do you make it better? We use green tape in our kitchens to tape things down and between 1994 and 2004 we used to rip the green tape off the roll. But when we opened Per Se in 2004 one new member of the team was taping down the pass for the first time and he took a pair of scissors and cut the tape. It was monumental because no-one had never done it before. For an entire decade no-one had the thought to cut the green tape istead of tearing it. So while we are always striving for precision and perfection none of us thought to cut the green tape. You look at something forever and it's hard to see how to improve simple tasks. From that point on we’ve always cut the tape. It’s now become an extension of The French Laundry – you’ll see it at a lot of restaurants.