Thomas Keller: A Philosophy of Respect

by Jennifer Iannolo

Chef Thomas KellerI had an opportunity to speak with Chef Thomas Keller about his food philosophy a few weeks ago as he was en route from the east to west coasts. This is an edited excerpt from my interview which appeared on the Food Philosophy podcast, where it can be heard in its entirety. Enjoy!

Jennifer: Thomas, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this morning – I know you’re running in between cities right now. I’ve been talking to different chefs about food philosophy because to me, you are more food philosophers than anything else, so I wanted to learn more about how your philosophy has evolved with the French Laundry and now Per Se, and how you approach cuisine. I always think back to The Soul of a Chef with Michael Ruhlman, and how he talked about your thoughts on food – you said it doesn’t begin with a plate: it’s got to be a philosophy.

Thomas Keller: Right. We have several different lines of philosophy related to cuisine at the French Laundry. I think one of them certainly involves the law of diminishing returns. We’ve talked about that before, how palate fatigue is certainly aligned with the law of diminishing returns, and once you’ve reached a point where your palate is satiated, then the flavors, no matter how impactful they were in the beginning, are going to peak.

People also talk about inspiration, and where they find inspiration or creativity on a daily basis, or week to week, or month to month, and my point of view is that there really is no true creation. Everything is here for us to be inspired, so how do you become inspired? Certainly there’s no definition for that. There’s no formula for becoming inspired, and it really amounts to how aware you are of what’s going on around you, so that you can open yourself up to catch those moments, or think about them – and then it really just becomes awareness and inspiration. What happens after that is interpretation, because two people can be inspired by the same thing but interpret it differently. That certainly is very important – how you interpret something and how it relates to what you do. A painter and a chef can see something, and that one thing inspires them, but they interpret it differently because of what they do.

Then interpretation takes the next step, which is evolution: how something evolves once you’ve identified it. The evolutionary part of it continues throughout your life, because interpretation and evolution go hand in hand.

Jennifer: I also think about how you emphasize respect for the food, and I was visiting a friend’s kitchen not too long ago, and his chef was meticulously cutting a slice from a lobe of foie gras – he was almost sweating because he was focusing so hard and he said, “You know, I always think back to what Thomas Keller said about respect for the food. You don’t want to mess up a single cut.” And it’s that ideal – I think you’ve inspired so many young chefs that way, to think more carefully about what they’re doing in the kitchen, and how they’re treating the food, that each ingredient is so important because of all the effort that went into it. And I think that’s something that continues to be part of what’s happening in both of the restaurants. Do you show that by demonstration? Do you talk to the cooks about it? It’s obviously part of the philosophy, but how do you communicate it to them?

Thomas Keller: Well, I think it’s communicated in many different ways. Sometimes the young chefs come into the restaurant and they are already aware. They are very specific because they’ve read the books, and had some of the training. They embrace the philosophy or the idea of the philosophy when they get there, and then it’s just making sure they stay in the right direction. With others you have to be a little more specific, and tell them how it relates to what they do. And we do take things for granted so often, like how to relate to someone else or something else, or another life. We’ve written about the rabbit story in our cookbooks, which I think is very profound. Some people are reading that.

Also, in the Spring, Summer and Fall, the cooks are able to go over and harvest plants, to nurture and harvest them. I think that really works well because they see the amount of work it takes to nurture a small plant and watch it grow, then harvest it. It certainly makes you want to be very respectful and not waste it. Another way is that we build up these relationships with our suppliers, with people like Keith Martin and Diane St. Clair, who then in turn do seminars at our restaurants. So our cooks can actually see the individual, and they can identify a personality behind it, and therefore understand the lamb, how the lamb is raised, who’s slaughtering it, the whole purpose behind it, how Diane crafts her butter, and all these different things, which really make that full connection – that responsibility and respect for the food.

Jennifer: And I think for them to personally experience, too, just the effort of growing one plant is enormous at times. They want to nurture that one little living thing.

Thomas Keller: Right. We’re so used to just calling our produce company and ordering a case of leeks that we don’t really think about it. I mean, you throw some away, whatever, it’s ok. But you see the process of growing one that you get to pull out of the ground, and you want to make sure it’s used – every part of it.

Jennifer: In terms of when that then goes out of the kitchen and into the dining room, obviously it’s your philosophy on a plate, and it seems that you play a little bit with your guests in terms of their taste memory, and there’s some cheekiness and some irony going on there. How do you see that dialogue happening with your guests?

Thomas Keller: As it relates to speaking to the guests and what we do, for me, what’s key in that portion of our philosophy is reference points. We align our lives with those reference points – what is that new benchmark in an experience? It’s a movie, a piece of art, music, or a day at the beach. We have these points in time that we’re trying to recapture and reestablish. I think that’s certainly very important for us as it relates to the flavor profiles in our food, but sometimes we also like to play with the way we articulate that for our guests. You know, Tongue in Cheek, Macaroni and Cheese, Peas and Carrots, Coffee and Donuts. We don’t like to get carried away with it, but those are fun dishes, and people can relate to that. And their reference point is really established in their minds, so hopefully what we’re doing is sticking to that, but also relaying to our guests a whole new experience that relates to those reference points.

Jennifer: And it seems too that you’re very unafraid to throw something completely different at them to provoke them a little bit with some new incarnation you’ve created. Are you trying to test their limits?

Thomas Keller: No, I don’t think we cook for our guests any more. And I don’t say that in an arrogant way. I think our point of view is that we cook for ourselves and we cook to make ourselves happy and challenge ourselves. As much as I love the new concept of food and coming up with new interpretations of it, it’s not what I do.

Jennifer: You know, it’s interesting, because I’ve heard that also from Charlie Trotter about how a chef is definitely cooking for himself. And I think that’s where one begins to speak of food not as art, but as craft. I think it’s very interesting what’s being done in food now with molecular gastronomy, for example.

Thomas Keller: Well, remember, molecular gastronomy is something the media has used as a phrase to identify a new style of food. It’s not something any of the cooks that are doing it have ever said about the food they do. And if you look at true cuisine – I did a seminar with Harold McGee last February, and he went back to molecular gastronomy – that’s what cuisine is anyway. It’s all molecular gastronomy, and the phrase is being misused by the media in relation to identifying a new kind of cuisine. Therefore what they do is cause more confusion for everybody, including the great chefs that are doing their own interpretation of food.

Jennifer: Sure. And I think what I find most troubling of all right now in food is the media frenzy. It’s all about trendy, trendy, trendy, and celebrity, and I feel like we’ve just lost the food in that. I wonder how we get back to those roots – I’m not sure when it will happen, or what will cause the shift.

Thomas Keller: I don’t know if there’s a shift that needs to be made there. In America, we’re what, thirty years into our food explosion here, maybe forty? I think with that being said, we sometimes embrace things too, too quickly and then discard them too, too quickly as well. It’s our “disposable” kind of mentality. But you know, when I started cooking, there was no such thing as a celebrity chef, so it wasn’t the reason to become a chef. It was a real emotional connection for me. The celebrity chef, is it a good thing? You know, it probably is. I mean, it brought much more awareness to everybody about what good food is, from the grocery stores all the way up, and the restaurants that are available today at all different price points are starting to get really, really good, with really good food, and the practitioners of that are young cooks or older cooks who understand the life.

Jennifer: That’s true, and I think overall it’s good for food in that it’s raised awareness. It’s made people more in tune to food. I guess it’s just kind of hard to see when some people are so focused on the chef and his restaurant versus what they’re going to be eating. I get a little bit distressed about that!

Thomas Keller: But that’s our society.

Jennifer: Yes, it absolutely is.

Thomas Keller: Marketing, marketing, marketing. But it’s a wonderful thing that’s happening in our country in food.

Jennifer: It really is. And that’s one of the things I love about chefs embracing seasonal menus – they can share them with people and get them more involved with what’s locally available and on their plates, so that it’s not the cardboard tomato in the middle of winter.

Thomas Keller: Certainly that’s true for seasonality. I think “local” needs to be redefined in the modern era, because local doesn’t relate to geography any more. If you truly think about the opportunities that you have and the quality of the transportation today, local for me really has to do with the quality of the product. You certainly could get into the argument that local is better because of the transportation costs, how that relates to gasoline prices and the moral impact that we’re having in the Middle East. In relation to the quality of the food, local for me could be California, it could be Maine, it could be Vermont. I mean, in many cases, it is – Diane St. Clair makes her butter once a week and sends it to us the next day. Can I get fresher butter locally? Well, I really can’t.

Jennifer: Well I think that’s part of it too, that some people automatically assume that either organic or local is the absolute best way. But I’ve gone to farmers’ markets where some of the stuff is terrible. I think it’s more about knowing where to source things from. But at least training ourselves this way to eat more seasonally is really good, because then we’ll get away from those cardboard tomatoes and chemical tasting produce from the supermarket.

So for what you’re doing at Per Se, are you finding that it’s a different dynamic here in New York with our discerning Manhattan diners?

Thomas Keller: Well, not really. I think it’s like anything else. I think people go to see a Broadway play because they want to experience the play. They don’t want to have it interpreted in a different way in a different market. The Phantom of the Opera is the same Phantom of the Opera in New York as in San Francisco. It’s the experience that we want our guests to have. Certainly we’re very cognizant and aware of people’s dietary restrictions or needs or wants, but nonetheless, it’s hard to come in and say, “You know, I really want to eat here, but I only have an hour.” It’s like going to a play and saying, “Well, if you cut out the last act, I’ll come.” It just doesn’t work that way anymore.

Jennifer: [Laughs] Of course! At least now I think there is more of a dining mentality, that if you’re going to go to a restaurant like Per Se, it’s going to last a few hours, so it’s an experience in and of itself. I love that people are embracing that part of it. You’re about to have a degustation, and you mentally ready yourself for that experience. At least our culture has gotten to that point, which I think is really wonderful.

Thomas Keller: Oh, it’s great.

Jennifer: Yes! They also understand that twenty courses are small courses – they are not going to come out of there overstuffed. There’s a reason why all of these different tastes are happening.

Thomas Keller: Which lends quality to the experience.

Jennifer: Exactly. And I love how you came up with the name for the restaurant.* I thought that was great.

Thomas Keller: It’s funny how things kind of evolve into something, as I was saying.

Jennifer: So how are you finding the bicoastal life? That must really take its toll on you.

Thomas Keller: Yes, it’s a bit exhausting. I’m on my way home this morning. I was in Las Vegas last week, and then I came here, and now I’m going back home, and then I’ll be back here I think on the 11th or 12th of June and in between there I’ll be in Vegas for a couple of days. So it’s pretty hard, but for me it’s really rewarding to see Jonathan Benno (Per Se) and Corey Lee (French Laundry) – who are the Chefs de Cuisine of the new restaurants – doing so well, and embracing the philosophy and having the same vision that I have, and being able to inspire me.

Jennifer: I think back to Michael Ruhlman’s book – when you guys first started, and your first seventeen dollar profit – compared to now, and I just love that you’ve grown the way you have and that people have embraced what you’re doing in this way. I can understand your gratification for the growth of everything.

Thomas Keller: It’s fantastic, and it’s surprising. It’s all very rewarding.

Jennifer: And very encouraging.

Thomas Keller: It is, yes.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Thomas.

Thomas Keller: Thanks. Good talking to you.

*For those unaware of the evolution of the name for Per Se, in numerous interviews Thomas was questioned about the concept for the new restaurant. His response was typically “Well, it won’t be the French Laundry, per se…” The rest is history.

Photo copyright 2006 The French Laundry. Reprinted with permission.

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