[Photo: Deborah Jones]
Chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller has just released his fifth cookbook, Bouchon Bakery, out now from Artisan (see a preview / buy on Amazon). During a book tour stop in Philadelphia, Keller spoke with Eater's Collin Flatt about the book on its own, and as part of a growing library that chronicles his restaurants. First of all, Keller is "sure we will do" a Per Se cookbook, but he doesn't know when — and it might be called It's Not The French Laundry Per Se. He also discusses Bouchon Bakery's bread baker Matthew McDonald, why high quality store bought puff pastry is scary, and the joy he takes in creating memories: "The best thing I can have happen is a young child to have their first bouchon, and it creates a reference point for the rest of their lives."
Over the past few years, you've been methodically working through your restaurants, writing a cookbook for each. What role do you feel the cookbook plays in chronicling the life of a restaurant?
It's just that. A moment in time. A sense of team and pride. We really try to involve as many people as we can in these projects. And for the diners, it's a souvenir: they were there and take it home with them. People like to have stuff that reminds them of great experiences. George Carlin did that whole bit on "stuff," and it's certainly true. It's human nature.
We also hope it teaches people something. Even if you learn one or two things, that's a lot. If someone learns how to saute something, that's a technique that can be applied in many different ways. If you know how to roast, that adds another layer of skills. I think that when people try to learn too many things at once you end up making mistakes because you're overwhelmed. It's better to practice a few skills, and become efficient than to learn too much. The books represent a lot of things. The books after French Laundry represent an opportunity to for me to share the chefs in those restaurants.
French Laundry was my book, but the other ones were really collab efforts, the other ones really had significant impact. Everyone knows I am not a baker, so to put just my name on the Bouchon Bakery would be completely fraudulent. For the publisher just having my name on the book is good for commerce, as that's the most important thing to them. But, they embraced the fact that there's no way for me to claim I wrote that book.
I have had people come to me that said the French Laundry cookbook changed their life, which is so amazing to me. You don't write a book expecting such things, you just hope for the best. But, when that ends up happening, it's humbling, and inspiring to me, too.
Can we expect a Per Se cookbook at any point?
We've talked about it in the past. It seems to be the evolution of French Laundry is Per Se, so maybe we do a book called The French Laundry Per Se, or It's Not The French Laundry Per Se. As for a timeline, there's none set. It's hard writing a book. We have a great production team, but it's a long undertaking. I would say it takes two years. It's a two year commitment to make it, then you're signing books the rest of your life. And, I'm blessed I get the opportunity to do that, to be in the position I am in. I have five cookbooks, and I didn't think I would ever get to do one. I'm sure we will do one, but I don't know when.
Eater National also interviewed Thomas Keller Restaurant Group executive pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel recently, and in the interview he talks about the importance of preserving the old ways of making pastry and how he sees Bouchon Bakery helping to do that. Do you see traditional pastry disappearing?
Well, is it disappearing? Anything has the threat of disappearing. Certainly skills are one of those things threatened. The telltale sign for me was in 1985, we had just opened Rakel. Voila, this well-known commercial French baking companies, a wholesale bakery, came out with the first commercially produced high quality puff pastry. It wasn't these thin sheets of Pepperidge Farms stuff, it was high-quality restaurant grade goods. Everyone started buying them. You didn't need to make puff pastry for two days, it was always perfect. It dawned on me at this point that people could actually lose the skills to make puff pastry. It's convenient to buy it, it's high quality, so why bother making it? So, I made the commitment to keep making puff pastry and not buy it, and that's it.
Chef Rouxel also mentioned that Bouchon Bakery and bakeries in general have the power to bring back memories of childhood for customers. Family in fact seems to be a running theme throughout your books — this book has the pecan sandies recipe from your mom, the barbecue chicken for your dad in Ad Hoc at Home. How does that play out in the restaurants?
You always want to make an emotional connection to the book. Stories are important, and a cookbook without a story is just pictures of food and recipes. I like to start out each of my cookbooks with a story. Each cookbook should have those personal stories. You need to have those reference points. The line is between the American and French repertoire, so you need to walk that line. In other words, having a Nutter Butter in a French bakery would be odd. There's no historical reference. In America, we have references to lots of places in the world. When were able to put those all together, it works.
The food at Bouchon Bakery has a connection with the inner-child. A chocolate chip cookie has meaning to a 90-year-old and a 7-year-old. The croissant has the same thing, even in America. When we were young, Pillsbury made those pop-open tubes. And there's a fine line from what culture it comes from. It ends up being more about the quality of the experience. The best thing I can have happen is a young child to have their first bouchon, and it creates a reference point for the rest of their lives. And that's very special to me.
Tell me a little about your bread baker, Matthew McDonald, who co-authored the book along with you and chef Rouxel.
Matt, like Sebastien is one of the premier bread bakers in America. He has an understanding of bread that no one else has. More importantly he's a teacher. A great teacher. And if you can't teach, you're a dinosaur. Also, he's got a great feel for production in the bakery itself. Within a month of bringing him on, we had cleaned up all of our production struggles, which was amazing to me, and invaluable to us to meet the demand from our customers.
You've worked with the same team on a lot of your cookbooks — Michael Ruhlman, Deborah Jones. Can you tell me a little about working with the team, and why it was important to maintain the same voice across the books.
Each of the books partially has my voice, and this team has been able to represent that with integrity. And as a team, the longer you keep them together, the more efficient the process is. All of those people know what I like, and what works for us to get these books out. The production has been extraordinary. It's only logical to keep those people together, as the books will evolve and it has consistency across all the books. The voice would change, and you would start over from the beginning. You can read the books and they all have a connection to one another.
In the intro to the book, you mention that you almost shut down Bouchon Bakery in its early days to open a sushi restaurant instead. Have you ever thought of revisiting that concept?
Every day. Well not every day. I love sushi, but I'm not a sushi chef. You can only do so many things. Fortunately, Bouchon worked out the way it did.