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At the Market With Chef Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller admiring some juicy tomatoes.
Thomas Keller admiring some juicy tomatoes.

Chefs do some things outside of the kitchen. Some of these things are interesting. To chronicle what some of these things are, we'd like to welcome you to a new series of features called "Out of the Kitchen," wherein we'll hang out with chefs (and other interesting food people) outside of their kitchens.

[Photos: Joshua David Stein /]

Tall and loose-limbed Thomas Keller moves with the slow lope of an Old West sheriff. He's the Wyatt Earp of the kitchen, and as he passes, all others clear out of his way. But no leathery sneer nor grim frown holds Keller's face, rather a small tight smile and large brown inquisitive eyes are his default settings. One might even call them puppy dog eyes. Recently, as Keller prepared for a cooking demonstration at Gastronomika 2010, he strolled through the streets of San Sebastián — a light rain slicking the flagstones — on his way to the market. He alone among chefs hadn't yet planned his demo. "We'll just see what inspires us," he said.

Keller was having a good time in the city but cares little for the wizardry of others. "I love Ferran [Adria]," he said, "but what you get with him is a bunch of equations. What about the ingredients?" And so Keller and I and David Breeden, the Brylcreamed born and bred Tennessean sous chef at Per Se who could have stepped out of a Coen Brothers film, headed to La Bretxa, San Sebastian's indoor central market to be inspired by ingredients. Keller explained along the way that his presentation, dubbed "The Philosophy of Elegance," wouldn't be about food anyway. "Why would I show them food? It's an absurd notion, to me. Showing them something makes it all about me. I don't cook for me. I cook for you." With that we descended the escalators into the market.

Through the broad aisles bordered by market stands Keller shambled, blown here and there like a pussywillow in the breeze. He stopped at a produce stand, eyeing bright tomatoes and artichokes still stalked. "Where are these from?" he asked, holding a pair of plump avocados. "Malaga," said the merchant, "in the south of Spain." Keller took eight. Perusing the stands, Keller looked toward Breeden for ideas. Passing a coven of broccoli, Breeden conferred with his QB. "What about broccoli with pomegranate?" Keller nodded. "Some almond dressing?" Breeden added. Again Keller nodded and into the plastic sack went the broccoli.

As they made their way through the market, the question Keller most often asked was, "Where is it from?" It was like a refrain or a joke or a catchphrase, but it was clearly what was most important to the chef. We were trailed by a camera crew, there to document Keller's perambulations, and this caused much wonder from the merchants. "Who is that?" some asked me. "Es un famoso chef americano," I replied. They nodded gravely, though I wonder if they understood what I meant through my deeply mangled and mispronounced Spanish.

Far from the vegetables the men strayed into the tiled fish market. Here the heart of San Sebastián: Monkfish, red mullet, mackerel, cod, and the inimitable hake laid splayed on ice, shiny eyed and fresh. Breedan jetted across the slippery floor to a stall. "This is really nice fish!," he said, "It's just pristine. You don't get monkfish like this in the United States." Breeden called Keller over from his wanderings to consider the mackerel. "Chanterelles, some uni, and broad beans would be nice," said Keller. "And with the mackerel," said Breeden, as if following Keller's train of thought as it wended through a culinary forest dark to all but those inducted into the secret rites of the French Laundry, "pickled onions and compressed white mushrooms." "And apples," said Keller. "Ah," agreed Breedan, "apples." And so it was.

The men left the market, laden with fresh produce and fish. Keller was in a good mood, like a kid after a successful run at Toys R' Us. "The great thing about markets is that you have products in them that are fresh and geographically local," he said with what passes for excitement with Keller which sounds as even in tone as the unexcited Keller. Then — spotting chanterelles in a wicker basket a few feet away— he said, "Oh, wow, look at this!" and bounded off down the aisle, at a slow and stately canter.

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