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Chef and cookbook author Thomas Keller describes his recipe for success

May 2, 2011 |  7:00 am

In front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Cooking Stage on Sunday, Los Angeles Times Food Editor Russ Parsons interviewed renowned American chef Thomas Keller, who owns the landmark restaurants Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Both restaurants have received three Michelin stars, and Keller’s empire of restaurants also includes Bouchon in Yountville, Las Vegas, New York and Beverly Hills, and Ad Hoc, also in Yountville.

Keller has written several cookbooks, including “The French Laundry Cookbook,” “Bouchon,” “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide” and “Ad Hoc at Home.” He talked about his influences, including the book “Ma Gastronomie”; his failures and successes; and the way he has approached writing his cookbooks.

Here’s an excerpt from the conversation.

Russ Parsons: When did you start cooking? What was the nature of the chef’s job then?

Thomas Keller: It was 1977; I was 21 years old. What attracted me the most was the physicality of it. It required strength, stamina, quickness, it was like being part of a sports team. I still feel like it’s a sports team. Working with other young men at that time in our lives, we were really pumped on testosterone, pushing it out, then partying all night.

Then I met my mentor Roland Henin, who made me aware of what cooking was all about and that was about nurturing people. I remember that July 1977 that I realized cooking, no matter what level you are doing it, is about nurturing people.

Parsons: Who else did you look up to?

Keller: Chef Henin gave me my second cookbook (my mother gave me my first) by a great chef who died in 1955 and had a restaurant called La Pyramide in France, Fernand Point. It was not so much a recipe book as a book about a man and a commitment to his restaurant and the lifestyle of owning a restaurant and being a chef.

[“Ma Gastronomie”] is still a book I use and give to all young cooks.... It’s inspirational, just his stories, the way he wrote his recipes isn’t anything you’d recognize today -- no cups, no grams. [The recipes are] more of a narrative. They allowed you to interpret this narrative at the level and skill set you have. It became your dish as opposed to his dish. The more you stayed with it the better you became, the better your skills, the more it became your dish, but through his voice.

Parsons: When starting out, what did you think a chef’s job was? How has it changed?

Keller: In those days, chefs didn’t own their own restaurants. They were owned by restaurateurs –- they were managers, maitre d’s. It was a different environment to work in. It wasn’t one that allowed you to reach your full potential. Kitchens were small and ill-equipped, they were uncomfortable environments to work in. All of the money was spent in the dining room. And the pitfall or shortfall was that the food suffered.

In our country, think about Charlie Trotter being one of the first chefs to own his own restaurant, and Wolfgang Puck. These are great American chefs who were courageous enough to own their own restaurants. There was an enormous shift in the way restaurants began to operate, from a chef’s point of view as opposed to a restaurateur’s. A chef has a broader understanding of what makes the diner happy: food, service, wine, the environment. We’re able to touch on each of these departments in a meaningful way, to help elevate those.

The difference from 30 years ago to today is extraordinary. It’s why the U.S. has gotten to a place on the world culinary stage where we have enormous respect for what we’ve achieved.

Parsons: There’s a tendency for people to think your success was preordained, that of course the French Laundry is what it is -– it’s Thomas Keller. But that wasn’t the case....

Keller: My first restaurant was Rakel in New York City. It was a great opportunity for me, a great restaurant in an area of New York that was up and coming, called Hudson Square, up until 1989 when there was a recession....

Then I was invited to become executive chef of Checkers Hotel.... I moved to California and for 18 months everything seemed to be on track. Then the hotel was sold, the vision changed, and I was the one cut out of that vision....

I found the French Laundry one fateful day in 1992. I fell in love with the property. It was a closed restaurant, and I thought if I could somehow buy this restaurant, I would. I embarked on 18 months of working to raise money. My biggest asset was my ignorance. Had I known what I was getting into at the time I would have been, “There’s no way I could do this.”

We opened in July 1994, we didn’t even have sauté pans the first night. It was a total disaster. We just kept at it with “Let’s go to work tomorrow and do a little better than we did today.” Now the French Laundry has become somewhat of an icon in the American dining world. The legacy is based on the next guy doing a better job than the one before him.

Parsons: At a certain point a lot of opportunities come your way. How do you decide what to do and what not to do? Endorsements? Television? Cookbooks?

Keller: I’m always pushing myself out of my comfort zone and continuing to experience new things, to grow and evolve. How much value do they bring to our restaurants, the integrity of the restaurants? … Writing a cookbook is about that. I embraced the opportunity to write the French Laundry cookbook because I wanted to tell my story, to represent the restaurant the way it was that summer of 1998 when we wrote the cookbook.

I don’t feel myself as a celebrity, but an extension of my suppliers, the quality of my products. I wanted to bring all this together in the French Laundry cookbook. It became a success right away, so publishers automatically want you to write another one. I said to my editor … “I don’t want to write another cookbook. I said everything I’m going to say.”

Two years later I realized maybe I’d been selfish, irresponsible. Down the street was Bouchon. I have the opportunity to let [chef de cuisine] Jeff Cerciello contribute to a cookbook.... We have to look at it not as an individual but as a group with common goals. Every book since then has been based on that decision -– I’ll give the opportunity to write a book to someone that might not otherwise have that opportunity.

Parsons: The French Laundry cookbook changed the paradigm. Besides it being an artifact of what the restaurant was at the time, how should someone approach cooking from it?

Keller: Something has to catch your eye and make you want to cook it. And then do it over and over again. It’s all about repetition. If you’re successful the first time you do it, it’s probably just luck. Find something that resonates with you. It may be one component in the overall recipe -- braised cabbage.... Extract something you can use in a number of different ways and do it over and over again. Or the potato gnocchi. It’s an interpretation of what a true gnocchi is....

There are many variables in a book –- it’s not too difficult to cook from because it’s from the French Laundry –- there will be number of recipes that suit you very well, that you’re comfortable doing. “Bouchon” and “Ad Hoc” are considered more approachable, whatever that means. “Ad Hoc” has sold more copies than “Bouchon.” Both books are equal in level of difficulty. But in “Bouchon” a lot of the titles are in French. In “Ad Hoc,” the recipe titles are in English.

Parsons: What does success mean to you?

Keller: Success for me is not about fame and fortune. Fame is what other people give you, not something that you establish for yourself. What is fortune? Having more than you need? I don’t know, I’m comfortable with one restaurant. Success is about memories. Years ago a couple came into [the French Laundry]. They said, “Thomas, this reminds me of --” and they gave a very emotional description of an experience they had at a restaurant in France. And It’s about the memories we have –- at the end of the day it’s our memories that we hold near and dear to us.

-- Betty Hallock

Photo: L.A. Times Food Editor Russ Parsons, left, interviews chef Thomas Keller. Credit: Betty Hallock / Los Angeles Times