After serving years as pastry chef for several Thomas Keller projects, Sebastien Rouxel is now the executive pastry chef for the entire Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. He's also the co-author of the brand new Bouchon Bakery cookbook, out now from Artisan (see a preview / buy on Amazon). As a young chef in France, Rouxel worked his way through a traditional French apprenticeship program before heading to the US, where his wife eventually sent Thomas Keller his résumé — much to Rouxel's surprise.
After five years in California working at the French Laundry, Rouxel headed to New York to help open Per Se, and eventually began overseeing the openings of Bouchon Bakery locations. Below, Rouxel discusses the new book, the new Bouchon Bakery coming to Las Vegas in November, and his fears about the disappearing art of traditional pastry: "Traditional items, products, pastries, they get forgotten. That's the thing about Bouchon, everything we do, we're going to take the care and make things properly."
So all of Keller's books are known for being very detailed and at times very complex, but some are more accessible than others. Do you think this book falls into the French Laundry/Under Pressure vein of books, or is it more approachable like Ad Hoc at Home?
The idea was to make it accessible to everyone: home cooks, and of course professionals. But the main thing was try to be like the Ad Hoc cookbook and make it accessible for somebody at home. So we were trying to be as clear as possible.
In doing that, do you think the recipes stayed pretty true to how they're made at the bakeries? Or did you have to make accommodations?
We had to make a few accommodations because when we work in the bakery we work with huge volumes. For this book, we made everything in a home kitchen, so we got a real feeling for it: the ovens are different, the mixers are sometimes a little bit different. We had to make a few adjustments, but the recipes themselves for the most part are the exact same recipes we make at the bakery. That was the idea, for us. To make sure the end result is the same. But everything we made in a regular home kitchen.
What does your job as the executive pastry chef for Thomas Keller Restaurant Group entail?
I have been working with Thomas for fourteen years now, so I run a lot of his properties. I ran the French Laundry for five years, I came back to New York and opened Per Se and was there for almost six years. As chef was expanding, he asked me to oversee all of his pastry departments and make sure I work with the other pastry chefs, make sure we stay consistent. And then the bakery started to expand as well, and so he asked me to oversee that project too.
Tell me about the process of opening a new Bouchon Bakery.
So, for the second opening in Rockefeller Center, we were so close to the Time Warner center that we didn't have to transfer anyone from California to here. We already have our staff working with us at the bakery prior to opening. So you know it's the same idea: everyone is being trained before they get to the new place. We don't send anyone to a new bakery with no training and no idea what they're doing. And yet each bakery has their own chef in charge of their own bakery. They have a team, they have sous chefs. It's working well because everyone is independent.
How do the dishes offered at each Bouchon Bakery vary from market to market? Are the offerings different in New York as compared to, say, Los Angeles?
There is some of that. We have a couple items that every bakery does, but we also want to make sure our clientele gets what they want. So for example there are items at Time Warner that are very popular, and then you go to Rock Center and they have a different feel, different requirements, they want something different. We want to make sure we accommodate all of our guests. If there are special requests or anything like that we make sure that we do that. We don't just say this is what we offer, we actually make an effort to take care of them.
If you go to Las Vegas they don't really care for holidays. Christmas, for instance, or Thanksgiving. Nobody wants to take a Christmas Bûche de Noël in their hotel rooms, you know? But it's the opposite in New York. They're very popular, holidays are something special for people there.
Speaking of Las Vegas, there are some TKRG project going in there, correct?
We always have things going on. We're opening a second bakery in Las Vegas. We have one right now in the Venetian, they asked us to open a second one because they have a new wing. The Palazzo. So they want us to open another bakery on two floors between the Palazzo and the Venetian. That's the project we're working on right now, and it should open sometime in November.
This one is on two floors, but I think it's pretty small. It's going to be different than the other one — they're all very different. The decor. But the feeling is the same.
[Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater]
The book discusses this philosophy of working clean, a philosophy you say extends beyond the kitchen and is more of a mindset. Can you describe what that means?
For us to work clean, it's something that we care about very much. And I do believe that as a chef, in a restaurant environment, if you start by having stuff everywhere, then you start knocking the bowl of sugar over, knocking the flour over. If you're dirty yourself, you're going to start wiping your hands everywhere, on your apron, on you clothes. But if you think about it, if you take the time to organize and clean, you'll realize you work a lot better, you have time to focus on the items that you want to make, and less on the stuff you have around you, which can be distractions. You feel better too when you're done in the kitchen and it actually looks the same way it did when you started.
There's a fantastic story in the book about how you started working for Thomas Keller. Do you mind sharing it?
Well, when I moved to New York I was working in restaurants, but at some point in my career I was like well, I need to be challenged a little more. I was looking for a chef and a restaurant that was driven and was doing fine dining like I was doing in Paris. So I was trying to understand who was doing that kind of food in America, and I didn't know much then. I knew who the chefs in New York were and that was about it. And then one day my wife mentioned Thomas Keller, and I was like I have no idea who that is. She knew who he was, and she knew he was becoming one of the best chefs in America. So she saw an ad in the New York Times stating that Thomas was looking for a new pastry chef. She took the opportunity to send my résumé without saying anything to me. She cared about me progressing in my career and also she was looking to move to California.
So one day I came back from work and there was a voicemail and I just pressed the button and it was Thomas Keller saying, "I got your résumé, I'm very interested in having you over to the French Laundry for you to see the restaurant and get to meet each other." And I was like what? I never applied for it, I never sent him anything, it must be a mistake. And she told me afterwards that she'd done that, and a few weeks later I was on a plane to Napa Valley. I went there, spent a weekend, got to work there with him a little bit, and at the end of the weekend he just sat me on a bench outside in the garden and he was like, if you want the job, it's yours. And I was back to Napa four weeks later.
What's going on in the Bouchon Bakery kitchens these days? Any particular techniques or flavors you're playing with?
For me, what I care about the most is keeping the traditions alive, and making sure they're done properly. There are a lot of different types of cooking out there, and I feel like a lot of the traditional items, products, pastries, they get forgotten. Or disappear, or are not done very well. And that's the thing about Bouchon, everything we do, we're going to take the care and make things properly. If it's puff pastry, if it's croissant, if it's something a little bit more involved, we're going to make sure that each step is done properly. We're making sure the food tastes good, it looks good, and it's real. It's nothing fake, there are no gums or stuff like that. That's the kind of thing that we care about. More traditional. Like the book says, it's a feeling for when you were a child. It's a very family feel. When you're at home, you want that kind of food. That's the idea of the bakery and what we do here.
Pastry and sweets seem to have a power to evoke nostalgia in people.
Sure, and I think that's the idea. Like if you're going to fine dining restaurants, that's a little bit different. We explore a little more techniques and different types of plating and that kind of thing. But when our customer walks into the bakery, that's not what they're looking for. We have tried that in the past. Sometimes we've tried to do something a little more modern. But you could tell, that's not what they're looking for. They want macarons, they want croissants, that's what they're looking for.