The sold-out scene at the Isabel Bader Theatre in downtown Toronto on a recent dark and stormy night was akin to a Bob Dylan concert (firsthand experience) or a gathering to hear the Dalai Lama (only hearsay).
In this case, it was a packed house comprised of followers, fans, fellow foodies and a large contingent of up-and-coming chefs.
The man of the moment: famous American chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller who was in town to launch his latest book “Bouchon Bakery” and to be interviewed on stage by manager of The Cookbook Store and food maven-about-town Alison Fryer.
I certainly knew of chef Keller from his several weighty coffee-table cookbooks and via the stellar reputation of his restaurants, especially Napa Valley landmark The French Laundry and the more recently opened Per Se in New York City.
After honing his skills in professional kitchens in France and New York City during the 1980s, Keller quickly made his mark by opening a French restaurant in 1994 in a former French laundry – quelle surprise – in the Napa Valley. He now has six successful, renowned, high-end restos located in Napa, Las Vegas and New York. Add to that three popular Bouchon Bakery outlets and you’ve got a mini-empire.
Keller is a tall, slim man with salt and pepper hair. On this night, he was looking dapper in narrow pants, a tailored jacket and scarf jauntily draped around his neck. He had a mild case of laryngitis but managed to be chatty, articulate and charming for the more than hour-long talk. Before and after, he spent at least twice that amount of time signing books and rolling pins while chatting with each person in a long line-up of ardent fans.
Keller sees his role, at age 57, as a mentor and teacher who still loves to cook but is more restaurateur than working chef.
He is known to run a tight ship where innovation and creativity are encouraged along with a strong belief in the importance of technique.
He has won all manner of prestigious awards and is the only American chef to have been given simultaneous 3-star Michelin ratings for two restaurants: The French Laundry and Per Se.
Alison Fryer introduced him, then added, knowing that many in the audience had dreams of working in a Keller kitchen: “No resumes today, please.”
Keller began with two mantras. The key to being a good chef: “Practice, practice, practice.” His goal these days: “To elevate the standards of the profession.”
His philosophy re: running a restaurant: “The importance of bringing the dining room and kitchen together in a common purpose.”
As a mentor and teacher, he wants those he trains to eventually be better than him – but this takes work on the trainee’s part.
“In the old days, training used to be two weeks,” he said, adding: “When a child learns to ride a bike, you don’t tell the kid you’ll take off the wheels in two weeks and let him fall off.”
Keller sees his role as threefold: “I hire, commit to train the person, then mentor him or her. I see that as the responsibility of being a leader in my profession.”
“Hiring is the most important thing we do,” he explained. “Then we must commit to that person 100 per cent.”
If the trainee turns out to be better than him, he feels his work is done. “For me, this gratification has replaced the gratification of cooking.”
These days, Keller has a whopping 1,000 employees. “I now know only 10 per cent of them by name,” he said.
“It’s easy to open a restaurant,” he continued. “It’s hard to run and it’s a life-long business.” That’s why he’s not sure about expansion at this point.
He attributes his level of success to “our team” and loves the process of collaboration. He initiated the concept of a “cooks’ forum” by which his fellow chefs and cooks contribute menu ideas and have other creative input. “It teaches chefs in their early 20s to be leaders.”
His key advice to budding chefs: “Patience and persistence. Get really good at doing the same thing. Do whatever you believe in and enjoy this time – your options become less as you go up the ladder.”
Last but not least: “We learn more from our failures than from success.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I tried making chef Keller’s famous Buttermilk Fried Chicken using his brining, batter and then frying method. It was time-consuming and produced only fair results. I think the recipe found online could use more thorough testing. Stay tuned for more on that.
Meanwhile, here’s his deliciously sweet and simple potato dish.
Thomas Keller’s Scallion Potato Cakes
The title of this should actually be singular as, following the recipe from Keller’s cookbook “Ad Hoc at Home,” I found this made one 6-inch cake – a cross between a large latke and rosti. It’s easy to make and is a delicious accompaniment to any dish with sauce such as stew, pot roast etc. It is actually a panacke so I also have quibbles with the name.
1 large baking potato (e.g. russet)
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onion (about 3)
1 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
Peel and grate potato. Transfer to bowl of cold water; swish to release starch. Remove potato with hands, transfer to salad spinner and spin until dry. Place in medium bowl. Sprinkle with cornstarch; toss to coat.
Heat enough oil to coat bottom of heavy, medium skillet over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium. Add half of potato; arrange in even layer to form about 6-inch pancake.Top with green onions, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then remaining potato in an even layer.
Cook about 5 minutes or until nicely browned on bottom. Lift cake, add a little more canola to skillet, then flip it and cook about 5 minutes or until browned on other side. Eat while still hot.
Makes 2 side-dish servings.