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Q & A With Thomas Keller, Part 2: The Best Meal He Ever Cooked, The Importance of Fernand Point + Lightbulb Moments

Chef Thomas Keller
Chef Thomas Keller
Deborah Jones

Thomas Keller's Los Angeles Bouchon Bistro, which opens a week from tonight, will serve the same menu, more or less, as his other two Bouchons, in Yountville and Las Vegas. But Keller says that even though the menu has stayed pretty much the same, the space has evolved with each new Bouchon. "They become more and more sophisticated," said Keller the other day, as he drove from the Williams-Sonoma in Santa Monica to the Beverly Hills address of his new restaurant. "This one is on a level of Per Se with design."

After signing books for three hours at the Williams-Sonoma on Monday, Keller toured his new space, and then that evening threw a party for local food people. And then he threw another party after that one just for L.A. chefs. Who needs sleep. Keep reading for the second part of our interview with the chef. (Here's the Keller interview, part 1.) And later this afternoon, check back in for Keller's chocolate chip cookie recipe, from his new book Ad Hoc At Home.

Squid Ink: What's your favorite cookbook?

Thomas Keller: Ma Gastronomie [by Fernand Point]. Only because there are no recipes in it. It's a narrative where chef Point walks you through the idea of cooking, the idea of the dish. You actually execute the dish at the level of competence you have at that moment, which makes it your own dish. And then it evolves: the better you get, the better the dish becomes. That's really a great way to learn how to cook. You interpret things at the level you're at, and you continue to get better. And the dish becomes better. Repetition is another thing that's really important in cooking. Success comes from repetition: the more you do it, the better you get. So if you don't succeed at a recipe, it doesn't mean that you'll never succeed at the recipe or that the recipe's not good. It just means that maybe you should continue to do it more.

SI: What's your favorite ingredient?

TK: Salt. Salt has always been my favorite ingredient. There's nothing else that's more at the foundation of great cooking than salt.

SI: Who was the most influential person for you, in the kitchen?

TK: Fernand Point. Only because his philosophy of cooking, and the way he wrote his book, and the stories behind it, really influenced me to become serious about cooking. It wasn't just a cookbook. Of course Roland Henning gave me that book. He was my mentor. Before Roland it was my brother Joseph, and before that it was my mother. It's hard to really say which one was the most important, because without one of them, without many people in between and after, you wouldn't be the person you are.

Who do you think is the most interesting chef working in Los Angeles right now?

TK: I wish I could say; I don't know them all. There's David Myers, there's Walter at Church & State. Josiah, Wolfgang. Alain Giraud, whom I've always admired. It's a very difficult answer to give.

SI: Is there anything you won't eat?

TK: Not really, I mean I'm not into exotics or bugs, but I haven't found anything yet that I wouldn't eat. But I'm not one of those people out in Southeast Asia looking for whatever, fermented chickens in their shells.

SI: Anything going on in the food world that bothers you right now? I don't mean people.

TK: Trends I hate. It's going to end. Who wants to be part of a trend? I certainly don't want to be part of a trend; that's what we try to avoid. I think what scares me the most is what's happening to our food. People are dying from food: E. coli, allergies... And then of course there's the disappearance of our food. Beluga caviar. There was a time when sturgeon inhabited every river around the globe. They used to give caviar away on the sidewalks of New York City just to get people to drink beer. I wonder what the next generation is going to be able to eat, what the next generation of chefs is going to be able to cook. Then there's the whole thing of being afraid of where food comes from. Look at that. How do we grow more responsibly; how do we become more sustainable. Now with that said, I'm buy lamb from a guy in Pennsylvania and ship it all the way across the country. There's a balance, between supporting the farmer who is doing the right thing, and your carbon footprint. There are so many things that you have to think about today being a chef that you never had to think about before.

SI: What's the best meal you've ever cooked?

TK: Tough question. Tough question. Certainly there was my father's last meal, but that's also in retrospect. When I was cooking it, you know, I was just making barbecued chicken for my dad. But looking back now, it was an extraordinary moment. Or there were the meals I cooked for Julia Child. She was an extraordinary woman, an icon in our country; she ignited our interest in food. Some of the meals I cooked for her. The meal I cooked for Ruth Reichl at The French Laundry. Some of the meals I've cooked for Russ Parsons. The point I'm trying to make now is that some of the best meals were not necessarily the best food I ever cooked. There's a certain amount of emotional connection with cooking for someone that you know that makes it that much more satisfying. That's why I think that cooking is a very emotional thing. Even though we do cook every day for people we don't know, we try and put as much effort into it as possible, but there's a bit of the emotion that you miss.

SI: You have these amazing "lightbulb moments" in Ad Hoc At Home. How did you come up with those? Was it another epiphany?

TK: Yes and no. I was part of a team that wrote a book in 1991, 1992, here in L.A. and we called it Mastering the Modern Classics. We had these moments in there that we called Bright Ideas. That book never got published of course, because the four of us were nobodies. We had great fun doing it. This was a resurgence of those ideas, bright ideas, lightbulb moments. The lightbulb moments were there [in my life]: how to store fish was a lightbulb moment for me. It wasn't something that somebody taught me. I think we all have those realizations. Something so basic that we don't think about it, but it's important.


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