Chef Thomas Keller won’t be opening a restaurant in Toronto any time soon. Nor will he be opening one in any other city on his promotional book tour, in case anyone asks. But you can’t blame us for being curious: The 57-year-old chef is behind world-famous restaurants like The French Laundry in northern California as well as Per Se in New York, and has an esteemed list of alumni that have worked under him, including Alinea’s Grant Achatz and The Black Hoof’s former chef, Brandon Olsen. Over some flatbread and artichoke hearts, Keller sounds off on his new baking cookbook Bouchon Bakery (based on his bakeshops of the same name) and the one gadget that will make everyone a better baker.
How’s everything in New York right now, post-Hurricane Sandy? Are your restaurants and staff all right?
The restaurants are OK. New York is not. When we have a disaster like that, we always insist on staying open to service people who have nowhere else to go. We may not be able to offer a full service or menu, but at least we’re there.
In your intro for the cookbook, you write that bread is universal. Could you expand on that?
Anytime someone walks by a bakery and smells it, they’re attracted to it no matter where they come from. That’s the meaning of what universal is. It attracts all different cultures, economic boundaries, and age groups. Bread, cookies, and muffins… most countries have chocolate and bread in a different way. It’s a universal flavour profile.
We’re in your friend Daniel Boulud’s dbar and nearby is the new Momofuku. Both places were analyzed a ton before they even opened. Surely, you face the same thing when you open a place?
When you’re in the restaurant business, you’re scrutinized 80, 300, 600 times a day depending on how many guests come into your restaurant. They’re always thinking about what you’re doing and enjoying or not enjoying your food. The interest is wonderful but, at the end of the day, I don’t know who they are.
So where do you look for feedback?
Internally. If someone walked up to you and said that article is really shitty, what would you say? You don’t know who that guy is, or his credentials or what he reads. If it’s someone in your office who says your article isn’t good, then you’ll ask more about what they think. If you’re looking for criticism, the best place to look for it are from the people you work with who know you the best.
Speaking of people you work with, what was it like creating the book?
All our books take two years to write. Every book since The French Laundry Cookbook has been a collaboration with a chef or a group of chefs. There’s a big-time gap between the (first book) French Laundry and (the follow-up) Bouchon because I never wanted to write another cookbook. Then one day I realized I was being a little irresponsible and selfish because I have this wonderful team that produced a cookbook, and a great publisher.
These are Sebastian [Rouxel] and Matthew [McDonald]’s recipes [Bouchon Bakery’s executive pastry chef and head baker, respectively]. It’s a big thing to get Sebastian’s name on the cover. Without my name, the book wouldn’t exist—that’s the reality of it. But I can’t say I authored a book about pastry when I’m not a pastry chef. This is about their skills, their dedication to their craft, and ability to teach. I was there to facilitate that. This is definitely a team effort.
And let’s just get this question out of the way: Any more restaurants in the works?
I don’t know if I’ll open any more. I don’t need the ego and I already have enough shirts and a nice car. I go on vacation when I want to. There’s really nothing I can’t do today that opening another restaurant is going to let me do tomorrow. So if it doesn’t change my life, then why do it?
What other question do you get asked a lot?
People always ask on book tours where I’m going to eat. If I’m in Chicago, they ask if I’m going to see Grant [Achatz]. I can’t see anybody. My whole day is full of signings and appearances. That’s how it is, but it’s great. I’m going back to New York tomorrow, if I still can.
Back to the book: There’s a big emphasis on weighing ingredients instead of using spoons.
This is precision cooking. It’s just like chemistry, but we’re using teaspoons, tablespoons and cups? I don’t understand it. When people use those, their recipes don’t always turn out well and then they blame the book. It’s not necessarily the book’s fault, or maybe it’s because the author never demanded the reader to get a scale, but a scale is less stressful with a better chance of success.
The other thing people should realize is that they should start with the easiest thing in a cookbook. Always. Take the chocolate-chip cookie recipe and make it 10 times. If you try the hardest recipe in the book for the first time, your chances of success are diminished and then you won’t use the book. Always start with the easiest recipes and then build up from that. The importance is to keep practising. That’s how we got good at what we do.