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Thomas Keller on Creativity and Casual vs Fine Dining

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Right now: The final interview from the Eater Lounge at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen: Chef Thomas Keller.

[Photo: Raphael Brion/]

Let's start by talking about your new projects. First, Addendum: It's an extension of a restaurant. It started out to be a chicken shack and it turned into Addendum to keep in in the same theme as Ad Hoc. We'll be doing picnic lunches basically, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11:30 AM or noon until we run out. We have a beautiful garden behind Ad Hoc so we've renovated what was a historic shed into Addendum.

And Bouchon Bakery Los Angeles? We're opening a Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills. We've done bakeries with all of our Bouchons now, so it's become an expected part of Bouchon. We've done it in Las Vegas and Time Warner and now LA. Probably the smallest of the bakeries that we have.

And the Bouchon Bakery cookbook: That we turn in early fall and it will come out probably in October 2012. It follows the same spirit of the bakeries which really revolves around a child's point of view. The bakery to me has always been about a point of wonder for children. There's bread and sweets all out on display, so the book will, in some ways, come from a child's point of view.

These days there seems to be a trend towards casual restaurants. Chefs, yourself included, expand on their more casual concepts. Do you think you'll open another fine dining restaurant? I think it's a case of selective memory. Casual restaurants have been around forever. I would disagree wholeheartedly that there are more casual restaurants now. There's the same spectrum of restaurants there's always been from a chef's point of view.

I'm actually unique, to have two fine dining restaurants on each coast. These days, fine dining restaurants are different now than the last generation because they've become personality restaurants. You don't go to a French restaurant, you go to a Jean-Georges restaurant. So it's difficult to have more than one personality restaurant.

The effort's the same. The standards at the French Laundry and Per Se are the same standards at Bouchon, same standards at Ad Hoc. The standards don't change. That's what I think is a misconception these days. It's just as hard to put the effort into Bouchon as it is at the French Laundry. The quality of the food, the standards of the food are the same. So are the expectations that I have for the cleanliness, the organization, the efficiency, the training, the hiring. All those things. It can't change. Why would you want it to change? We have certain standards that we maintain. Just because at the French Laundry we serve the rack of lamb, Bouchon serves the leg of lamb, and Ad Hoc serves the shoulder of lamb doesn't mean that the quality of the lamb is any different. It all comes from the same producer. Same quality there, just a different cut, different price.

You have fine dining restaurants in New York and Napa Valley, what about Los Angeles? No. No, I can't say I'll never do a fine dining restaurant again, but I don't have any plans for it. And certainly not in our country. If I did another fine dining restaurant it would be in another country, which more or less scares the hell out of me anyway. Because if you think about any restaurant, it's a very simple equation: whether it's Ad Hoc or Per Se or Daniel, it's all about the quality of the ingredients and the quality of the execution. The ingredients are easily definable. They're the food that we get. The expense of the restaurant is directly related to the amount we spend on food and the amount that they spend on their labor. The better the food, the higher the quality of food, the more expensive it is.

This idea that we have, that we want to have the very best and pay the very least is something that is kind of ingrained in Americans. It's kind of a bizarre thought, right? I want the very best caviar you have but I want to pay the very least for it. So what does that do? So the guy who's selling you the caviar will get you the caviar that's the price that you want and tell you it's the very best. You're going to walk away and say I got the best caviar available and I paid this much for it. So your tastebuds are going to be associated with that and say, "This is the best" when it's actually not. It doesn't actually have to do with the very best, it has to do with your perception of the very best because you paid what you wanted to pay. So when you talk about price with our producers, you open up that opportunity for negotiating the price and reducing the standards.

Ingredients are easily definable. Execution is a whole different thing. It's all about skill, it's about equipment, it's about tools, it's about the environment. There are all these different things that have to do with the people in there executing the food. You talk about a bistro, you talk about a bistro being a little simpler in the execution, or our ability to cook larger quantities of food, there are lots of things that fall into that parameter of Bouchon. That's why bistros cook things like that: blanquette de veau, coq au vin, beef bourguignon.

You think about what a good bistro is and you think about all the efficiencies that are established in the type of cuisine that they do. Doesn't mean the standards are less. It's just the dishes are a little more efficient, a little simpler, a little easier to cook. The execution was a little less intense, maybe they didn't need as many people or the skill level wasn't as intense. A more casual restaurant, it all kind of steps up or steps down, the number of people you need to execute, how you're executing, the environment, the tools that you need. So the execution point is a huge element that you need to analyze and understand.

You think about a typical fine dining restaurant, how many cooks do you have? At Per Se, we have upwards of 50. At Bouchon we have 35, 40. So it's a difference of 20 people. We do 80 people at Per Se and we do 250 people at Bouchon. Now of course the price points are drastically different as well, but the prices points have to do with quality of ingredients, quality of environment.

So we have a downturn in the economy, and I've been through three recessions, and everybody says let's open casual restaurants. But they're not talking about casual restaurants. They're talking about a specific price point. But when you don't have very much money to spend, you're looking for an experience that you're going to enjoy. So when we use that word, "casual," we're really talking about a lower price point. Because casual restaurant have always been around. Bouchon's been there for 12 years. When I was 28 years old, I thought the downturn was very interesting, because I had never experienced something like it before, but it's all cyclical. People still want to go out to eat, they still want to have a good time. And there are still people out there who go, okay, there's a downturn in the economy, but they think okay, where do I want to spend my money. Where do I get the most value for my money? People will still go to Per Se and they might cut back somewhere else.

There was talk of you opening a pop-up in London. What are your thoughts on the trend of pop-ups and food trucks? I don't believe in trends. The definition of trend is there's a beginning and an end. You don't want to be trendy. But there's this selective memory again. My first experience with pop-ups was back in the 80's, when Paul Prudhomme's restaurant in New Orleans burned down. While they were reconstructing the restaurant, he took his restaurant on the road. He came to New York City, did two pop-up restaurants in New York, he went to Chicago, he want to LA before he went back to New Orleans. Ad Hoc is now five years old, it was a pop-up restaurant five years ago. Is it a trend, or is it something around for a long time?

And food trucks, c'mon. I worked construction when I was in high school and there were food trucks. Maybe they're getting better. There are more of them. And it's a good way for a young chef to make some capital before they go on to do what they're doing next. Whether that's opening a restaurant, or opening a fleet of food trucks. There are taco trucks in the Napa Valley that I've been going to for twenty years, some of the best tacos I've ever had. You see more of them now, they're more diversified. But it's not something new.

Here's a question Andrew Zimmern had for you: Look at how many people have come out of your family tree. What's the most important thing that you've passed on to your tribe?
Certainly, the standards that we live by and the idea that you have to come to work every day and do a better job than we did the day before. Just that one basic philosophy has continued to help us progress. It's the idea that you have to evolve. I see that with Grant [Achatz], Corey [Lee], Jonathan Benno.

The other idea is to have a really clean environment. So many restaurants we've all worked in, they're not up to the quality of sanitation that they should be. That's something that's been paramount for me, because at the end of the day no matter how great the food looks or tastes, if you get sick it's unacceptable. It's the basis of what we do, to be serving wholesome food. I don't care where you're working. That's something that's been very important to me. Whether they're chef de cuisine or own the restaurant, or they're going from being chef de partie to being chef de partie at another restaurant. Treat the restaurant like it's yours and one day it will be. I'm the perfect example of someone who treated it like it's mine. Wherever I worked, my little corner, I treated it like it was mine. And ultimately I had my own restaurant.

Collaboration, also. Having the ability to engage everyone in the restaurant so everyone has the opportunity to have an impact. We have so many intelligent individuals in our restaurant. Lots of them are the young ones, and to give them a voice is so important. Give them recognition, give them the opportunity to take ownership of what they're doing. To teach them how to be a chef today so that when they do go on ,they're ready. That chef de partie, which is the second tier after commis, is really when we teach them how to be a chef, how to manage, how to order, how to write menus. All of those different things. Quality of ingredients. We teach them that. And as they grow with us, some of them leave as chef de parties and become chefs at smaller restaurants because of what we have given them. There are so many valuable things that I think they learn at the French Laundry. Not just because of me, but because of this culture that we have created there where everybody has the opportunity to make an impact.

I love seeing that a lot of these guys are closing their restaurants for vacation. When I was young and in New York City, there was always a section in the Times saying when all the great restaurants are closed for a week. And all of a sudden, that just disappeared. One year they didn't do that. And we do that too, we're closed 32 days a year, and everyone's paid. From the dishwasher all the way up. To give people a great working environment, giving them a life out of the kitchen — a five day workweek is very important. The idea of health insurance is very important. Giving a life balance, which didn't exist when I was young. When you took a vacation you had to quit. You worked at a restaurant for a year and a half, maybe two years and then you quit and you took your vacation.

But it's not something that was new or that I thought of. There's nothing new. We're dealing with the same things. People talk about creativity like they created it. There's no true creation. Everything that's been in the world has already been there. We've just been inspired to interpret it in a different way. You know? Tell me something that's new on earth. It's been in different forms, but you manipulate it. To me it's about awareness, you're aware of the world around you. It's not about creativity, it's about inspiration.

And where do you find inspiration?
Anywhere. I found inspiration in a young girl giving me an ice cream cone in Chinatown and I saw a cornet. How many times has someone given you an ice cream cone before? You're an American. You get them from the Good Humor truck all the time. I never saw a salmon coronet before that day. You have to be aware, you have to keep your mind open to anything because inspiration is a flash, it's a moment. If you're not open to it, you won't be able to recognize it and embrace it. It's also about interpretation. We can see a leaf falling out of this tree and we can all be inspired, but you're a musician and you write a beautiful song, and you're a poet, you write a poem. I'm a chef, I see a beautiful dish. Who knows.

Everything has to continue to evolve. And I think the more people you have around you that have that same philosophy of progression and revolution... At the restaurant we call it a rapid rate of evolution. We have so many people moving in the same direction that it's sometimes hard to control. When I see a new technique at Per Se, I ask, "Did you share that with the French Laundry?" We continue to push ourselves to push ourselves. It's the same loving competition where chefs across from each other want to outdo one another.

It's a wonderful thing, but for me now I walk into the restaurant now and I get the most pride when I see something and I smack myself upside the head and think, "Wow, why didn't I think of that?" It's the logical progression. You can see the evolution from where we began and it's pretty extraordinary.

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