Q&A: legendary chef Thomas Keller on his culinary empire

Q&A: legendary chef Thomas Keller on his culinary empire

Thomas Keller at his first Toronto appearance (Photo by Renée Suen)

A crowd of 450 (including top Toronto chefs Ted Corrado, Mark McEwan, Bonnie Stern and Donna Dooher) gathered at the Toronto Reference Library on Monday night to hear from Thomas Keller, who was in town to promote his new cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. In the book, Keller, the only American chef to receive Michelin stars for two restaurants (The French Laundry, Per Se) at once, reveals recipes from Ad Hoc, his restaurant in Yountville, California, which serves a different prix-fixe menu every night. We wrangled some alone time with the chef to talk about his culinary empire.

It’s your first time in Toronto. Will you be exploring much of its culinary scene?
Unfortunately, I got in late last night and am leaving early tomorrow morning, so I won’t really get to see much this time. The one restaurant that is on my list is The Black Hoof, which I heard from a friend is very good.

What are your plans after the book tour?
We just opened our third Bouchon, in Beverly Hills, so for the next year and a half, we’ll make sure it gets the foundation it needs to thrive.

There are six restaurants and three bakeries in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. How do you decide where you open a restaurant?
Cooking is about product and execution. When you go somewhere that is not your own country—for example, Toronto—it’s hard to control. I’d really have to learn where the food comes from before being comfortable to open up a restaurant there and feel confident that it’s going to be good. I always say that if I’m going to be a brand, I want to be Hermès—it’s a company that has extraordinary integrity, doesn’t compromise on quality, is respected for what they do, and they haven’t really diverged from their main source of business, which is leather and scarves.

What restaurants have impressed you most?
I have great respect for the extraordinary chefs around the world, including big names like Grant Achatz of Chicago, Heston Blumenthal and Fergus Henderson in the U.K.

What do you think about food trends?
I’m only against trends because the true definition of a trend is something that has an end. So why would you want to be trendy? Why is arugula in this year and out next year? I mean arugula’s still arugula—it’s great! It’s been around forever. There are certain trends that are very important, don’t get me wrong, but the overreaching definition of trend is something that, when you apply it to food, doesn’t make sense.

What are your favourite dishes?
The idea of a beautifully roasted chicken is compelling—the aroma, the flavours. Who doesn’t love roast chicken when it’s done really well? Sometimes I have great anxiety when I see a steak, an omelette, roast chicken and tripe on a menu. There are so many good things that I don’t know what to choose. So it’s almost better not to have any choices when I order.

Is that the premise behind the chef’s tasting menu?
Sure. Luxury to me is about not having to make the choice. Going to a restaurant, just sitting down and having the chef cook for you is great. When I go to dinner at my colleagues’ restaurants, I never see the menu or the wine list, and it’s just a wonderful experience.

If you had to create the ultimate dinner party, who would be there and what would be on the menu?
I’d like to have my parents; [the late chef] Fernand Point—he was an icon not only in our industry, but somebody who has continued to inspire me; Harry Truman, who was our last great president and somebody I really respect; and Audrey Hepburn, an extraordinary woman not just in her beauty but in her thoughtfulness and compassion. I’d serve simple food: probably a garbure (a rustic French winter soup), a great salad, a roast chicken of course, and whatever vegetables were in the earth, then something lemon and something chocolate.