Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller's acclaimed restaurants include the Napa Valley's French Laundry and Bouchon and New York's Per Se. He recently published his fourth cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home.

From his conversation with James Mustich at Barnes & Noble:

James Mustich: There's an autobiographical thread that runs through your books, not only within each volume but across all four. The first, The French Laundry Cookbook, opens with a rather peculiar -- for a cookbook at least -- evocation of the melancholy that to some degree inspired the cornets that would become something of a signature dish at French Laundry. You said you had to be sad to see how to put the ice cream cone through such a playful and sophisticated transformation.

Thomas Keller: It's interesting. You talk about the four books we've written so far -- I say "we" because, of course, it's a collaborative effort, and it's a great team of people, both from the culinary side and from the writing and production side. You know what goes into books. The French Laundry Cookbook was a moment in time. Everything evolves, and certainly a restaurant like the French Laundry -- or Per Se -- is in continuous evolution. So that book caught a moment in the life of that restaurant; it's about what I was thinking about at that time.

Bouchon, the second book, is about history. To talk about Bouchon, you have to talk about bistros; you have to talk about France. We were really trying to make sure that when we wrote the recipes we talked about food in a way that related to France and the history of those restaurants (of course, when we wrote the recipes, we modernized them).

Under Pressure, which you mentioned before we sat down that you find to be the most daunting, is probably so to a lot of people, because it was written for professionals. It's a book about the new sous vide cooking technology that we're all embracing now, as we've all embraced other technologies that have come along in our lifetimes, such as the microwave and the food processor. Who knew what to do with a food processor before someone put it in front of you and said, "This is how you use a food processor"? Who knew about a microwave before somebody said, "This is how you use a microwave"? So we felt that it was really a good time to be able to explain to other chefs what we've learned about cooking sous vide, using that technique in an à la carte restaurant.

Now, of course, we've done Ad Hoc at Home, which is really a book about, again, history, but history in this country, as experienced by a group of chefs, not just myself, who have memories about the food they ate when they were children, or when they were growing up. It's how they relate to that food and what it means to them now -- and of course, ultimately, about how it brings people together around the table to share this food and to create memories for themselves, which I think is very important.

So, to go back to that moment in my life that you asked about -- when I wrote the story in The French Laundry Cookbook about conceiving the cornet, and what triggered that for me: I was leaving New York, the city which I had loved for so long, which I thought was the center of the universe, where I thought I was going to be forever. Under the stress and pressure that I was going through leaving New York, not knowing what was coming up in my future, because things didn't work out the way I thought they would -- at that moment, in that state of anxiety, sadness, and a kind of detachment, I saw the cornet.

I had lunch with my friends, which I had done countless times before, and we went into a Baskin-Robbins, which we'd done countless times before, and I saw something that I'd never seen before in an ice cream cone -- and it was the cornet, which has become such an icon of ours, of the French Laundry, of Thomas Keller. So much so that you see them in many places now, interpreted. Now, people say "Thomas Keller created the cornet." Well, I don't like to take that kind of responsibility. [LAUGHS] It was an ice cream cone; to me, that's what it was. It was an interpretation, and an inspiration.

JM: Do you find that inspiration comes more powerfully out of sadness?...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue