Anyone going to see/or see Thomas Keller tonight?
I'm pretty done. I'll probably tweak wording and such and tidy up conclusions, but I'mma go eat now. Has requisite photos AND video! Got a good and close seat, so the video isn't too bad.
Anyone else go?
Traditionally, Monday is a slow night in the restaurant business and is generally the industry’s night off. For the few kitchens open, I suspect they had the bare minimum of staff present last night. Most were either AWOL or took the night off – all because of Thomas Keller, a man who one friend calls “the best chef in the world.” This is a statement I wouldn’t challenge in a room of more than 450 people – from food enthusiasts to professional chefs – all interested in hearing a man whose precision in the kitchen propelled his restaurants to the top.
Keller is a tall man and looked a bit uncomfortable folding himself into the modern black leather chair on the stage. Seated opposite was our host Allison Fryer of the Cookbook Store. Later, Keller mentions that there are consequences to things and that the consequence of writing a book, is a book tour. But even he seemed somewhat taken aback by the massive turnout in the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram and Bluma Appel Salon and took shots of the crowd with this iPhone from the stage. He mentions he’s scared to death up there and talks about where he’s most comfortable – behind the stove.
He has long days on a non-stop book tour and thanks the student volunteers for helping him get through signing 400 600 books that afternoon. There’s an additional thanks to a Mr. Efficiency, in what I now think might have been a shout out to Mark McEwan, loitering at the back of the hall.
As the questions begin, he talks about how he learned the importance of writing recipes down and not getting lost in the spontaneity of cooking.
There’s a practicality to Keller’s vision of helming award-winning restaurants. He speaks of the triumvirate of accounting, front of house, and kitchen. He tells of skilled people in these key positions who not only manages, but leads. He continues on about succession in the kitchen, handing the crown over to those with the necessary vitality to keep up with the demanding life of a chef. Also important is identifying and nurturing these sparks, as Keller calls them, and training them to become worthy of being chef de cuisine. Alison asks about what he does with his time these days, now that he is no longer chef de cuisine at either restaurant. Keller replies “I don’t think that’s my place anymore, not because I don’t want to be there, but realizing that – that’s a generational thing.”
Keller speaks casually but emphatically about the sustainability and locality of ingredients. Walking in Pusateri’s earlier that day, he scolded a woman (in actuality or just mentally, I’m not sure) for buying peaches that were dehydrated and non-aromatic – clearly not local – and pointed out the fact that there were 12 varieties of beautiful apples from Ontario farms nearby. On his way out, he later spied the same woman blithely selecting (Chilean?) cherries, adding to the offense. He also berated his host for enjoying blueberry muffins out-of-season and advocated using dried berries instead (note: frozen wasn’t acceptable apparently). All this, a little hard for the Toronto audience to relate to, given that our northern region does not lend itself to the “seasonality” Keller celebrates in his Californian clime.
But this is Keller and his mantra of buying the best ingredients and the premium that goes along with it is just part of that philosophy. He knows it’s about the dollar, and that it goes both ways. He speaks about going to your supplier and demanding the best, but also refusing to buy out-of-season produce. To illustrate the almost over-the-top quest-for-the-best, this is the man who opened Bouchon Bakery in Yountville to improve the quality of bread served at his nearby restaurants (not complaining!). But then there’s this almost playful and seemingly spontaneous aspect of Keller, the man who opened Bouchon simply because he wanted somewhere to eat after service at The French Laundry.
At the end of the day, Keller says he’s a sentimentalist and that it’s about the memories. He talks about the electric stove that he hated with a convex burner and a concave pan and how he would get shocked if he touched the edge. Contrast this with the 10-burner range that was in TFL and is now restored, waiting for its next purpose in storage. One of the questions from the audience was actually a request – for Keller to tell “The Cone” story and the genesis of the ubiquitous salmon tartare (easy and fabulous recipe) and cornet (not so easy). I got caught up in listening, so you only get to see the last bit of the telling.
Thomas Keller is an amazing chef and my meal at The French Laundry was a turning point in dining for me. I wish I had had the foresight to bring the menu I have stashed away for him to sign. I made do with the book I had gotten with my ticket in. Though Ad Hoc At Home was the reason Keller was even in town, it was almost as if it were an addendum to his visit. While he couldn’t stay long, A gracious and enthusiastic speaker, the audience made it plain that he was welcome back to Toronto any time he wished.