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Cool Under Pressure

Chef Thomas Keller has earned his stripes as an iconic American chef. (Just don’t call him a celebrity.)

By David Hagedorn | Photographs By Deborah Jones

It’s not easy to pin down Thomas Keller, the busy chef at the helm of an empire that includes two Michelin three-star fine-dining restaurants—The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City—but we managed. Here, he shares his thoughts on the American food scene, sous vide cooking, and his lustrous career.

Sous-Vide: Had any good meals lately?

Thomas Keller: Family meals at the restaurant are my favorite. Brown rice, broccoli rabe with mushrooms, and sautéed salmon was our family meal last night [at Per Se]. That was pretty good.

SV: What about other people’s restaurants?

TK: I’m not the kind of chef who goes out to other restaurants all of the time. The last good meal I had out was at Yakitori Totto here in New York. Everybody’s raving about Le Coucou. Daniel [Rose] is doing a tremendous job there. I do find it interesting that people complain about the richness of French cuisine—Daniel opens, and everybody’s raving again. Good for us, right? The only reason that it kind of goes up and down has to do with media running from one cuisine to the next.

SV: When did you first recognize that you were passionate about cooking and wanted to pursue it as a career?

TK: I became interested in the kitchen as a youngster. My mother ran restaurants, so being in a kitchen was normal, comfortable. Learning to cook was a process, like an athletic game. I was never going to be a superstar in athletics, but the brigade, fraternity, and team attitude in kitchens really resonated with me. It wasn’t until 1977 that I met Roland Henin, a French chef who explained to me why cooks cook: to nurture people. That was something I really embraced.


SV: You took over The French Laundry in 1994. How has the American culinary landscape changed since then?

TK: Anywhere you go today you can find extraordinary chefs working with extraordinary ingredients. It’s magnificent that we have gone from being in the basement to being on the top with the best restaurants and the best products in the world. We’ve elevated ourselves pretty quickly and continue to evolve, improve, progress. We embrace our gardeners, fishermen, farmers. My job is to take a beautiful halibut and not screw it up, and have people walk away with a memory. That’s an extraordinary responsibility.

SV: One thing that has changed is that sous vide cooking has become widespread in restaurants of note. You were an early adapter. How did you come to embrace it?

TK: It was part of our repertoire at Rakel restaurant [1986 to 1990]. Poaching chicken breast, calves’ livers, and duck breast—compressing them in plastic—all of these things were forms of slow cooking and sous vide. The actual machine became something we started using early on in The French Laundry kitchen around 1996 or 1997. Around 2000, Bruno and Gerard [Goussault and Bertholon, respectively, of Cuisine Solutions] helped us understand the fundamentals—proper cryovacing, proper temperatures. They have been an extraordinary group for sharing and extending knowledge of sous vide cooking.

SV: How extensive is your use of sous vide on the menus of your various restaurants?

TK: Every day there is something sous vide, but it doesn’t overwhelm our menu. In Under Pressure [Keller’s 2008 opus on sous vide cooking], I warn people that you don’t want to lose your skills, because as important as sous vide is, it can be overused. When we started making butter-poached lobster at The French Laundry, we did it in a rondeau on top of the stove, constantly adjusting the temperature under it and paying attention to the nuance. When we opened Per Se years later, we put a sous vide tank on the line and did the lobster there. Seven minutes and it was done. Perfect every time. New York City had an uproar about HACCP
[Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a food safety management system] plans and we had to go back to cooking the lobster the French Laundry way. The cooks said, “Wow, this is so cool!” So you have to be careful. Sous vide is still an important part of our repertoire, but a good chef has to know how to glaze a carrot correctly.

SV: After having used sous vide for more than 20 years, what would you say are the most successful uses in your restaurants?

TK: There are fewer examples of unsuccessful uses, really. Root vegetables work well. Eggplant is extraordinary, peppers. There are only a few things you don’t want to do sous vide.

SV: Such as?

TK: Dessert is difficult to do, but using the vacuum sealer to compress fruits, but not cook them, is incredible. Green vegetables are something you’re just not going to cook sous vide, but compressing spinach leaves and sautéing them so they maintain their structure is great.

SV: What were some of the “Aha!” moments in your sous vide experiments over the years?

TK: Foie gras became something for us that was a revelation. Marinate it, cook it sous vide, and then form it into how we want to use it. There is so much less waste. This was a game changer compared to the way we used to cook foie gras. The braised short ribs—that was a game changer. Who wouldn’t want to cook a short rib that way?

SV: A dear friend of yours and ours, chef Michel Richard, passed away last August at 68. You once asked him what he’d like to be most remembered by in the culinary world. What is your answer to that?

TK: As a leader, someone who made a difference, not as a celebrity. I hate that word. It’s nice to be remembered, but anybody who has integrity in their profession wants to be a leader and exemplify an attitude and a work ethic so that those who come after us are better than we are.

SV: Can you recount for us a memorable meal that you shared with Michel?

TK: Just sitting at the chef’s table with him were the most memorable times, listening to the stories and talking and being exposed to that energy, the love for what he did and for the people around him. Food is about the memory and that can come from the simplest dish. Simple is really, really hard. We need to stop using words like amazing and extraordinary everywhere we eat. Stop looking for amazing—you should want more good. I’d like to have really good food, everywhere, all the time.