Thomas Keller is a busy man right now, between opening his new Bouchon Bistro (the third) in Beverly Hills, going on a national book tour for his new cookbook (the fourth), Ad Hoc At Home, and running what can be described as a small empire. It's a very organized empire. It has lots of labels, which are often in French. The gleaming metal doors to the new walk-in refrigerators at Bouchon, set to open next Wednesday night, each have their own labels: Poisson, for example, for the fish station's own walk-in. There are also labels underneath the kitchen clocks reading “Sense of Urgency.” But it's the kind of organization that makes sense, the way that a mis en place makes sense, at once an efficient work station and a beautiful, vaguely Renaissance still life.
Keller made some time yesterday to talk to us about the merits of such organization, what it feels like to open his first restaurant in L.A., the possibility that he may yet open a Bouchon Bakery here, and his first culinary memory, involving a broiled lobster. Check back tomorrow for Part 2 and a recipe from the new book.
Squid Ink: What it's like to open up a restaurant up in Los Angeles, especially after not having been here since you worked at the Checkers Hotel dining room in 1991?
Thomas Keller: Certainly it's scary. I mean my last time here, although it was great being in Los Angeles–I love Los Angeles–it wasn't the best career move I ever made. Nonetheless it got me to The French Laundry, so in hindsight coming to Los Angeles was the best career move I ever made. I'm very nervous, a bit frightened. It's opening a restaurant. You're putting yourself out there; people are going to come and judge you on the quality of their experience. We're working really hard to make sure that our guests have a really great experience and part of that is to make sure that our staff has a great experience. Building them a restaurant where they can work comfortably and be organized and efficient and have a good time is paramount to my philosophy of opening restaurants.
SI: Why Beverly Hills?
TK: It was really where we found the space. We weren't really looking, then we were looking, and then we weren't looking, and then it just came up. It seemed to be a good synergy. We're right next to the Montage, Wolfgang's across the street. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills, is in the center of things; people can get to it from the east, from the west. It's a brand new building, and it allowed us to be a part of the opening of that building, which is really exciting. It just seemed to work out right.
SI: You didn't end up opening a bakery?
TK: It was a space issue. Originally we were going to open a bakery where the wine bar is, but looking at the design of the kitchen, we felt like it would consume too much space. So we decided to change it to a wine bar. We felt like that was more consistent with Bouchon, with the food and with the hours. A bakery opens at 7 in the morning; it's manned 24 hours a day. Having said that, now I can tell you that there is a smaller space right next to Bouchon which we're trying to get for a bakery. Hopefully the city will be as excited about that. It's not a confirmed deal. We're working on it.
SI: You have a camera at The French Laundry kitchen. Will you have one here?
TK: We have a video feed between Per Se and the French Laundry. We're going to have a video feed between all three Bouchons–Bouchon Yountville, Bouchon Las Vegas and Bouchon Beverly Hills. Three-way. By early summer it will be all five-way. So each restaurant can view the other restaurants. Only the kitchens. It takes a while to get that technology installed. Not from our standpoint, but from whoever does it, from ATT or whomever.
SI: So what's your first culinary memory?
TK: I don't know, it's hard to say. Probably peanut butter. When you say culinary memory, are you talking about the moment I realized that I wanted to cook or the first thing I remember eating? There were many moments like that, but my brother Joseph probably aided my first culinary memory. He was a big fan of Graham Kerr and Julia Child when we were growing up, and he would try and practice a lot of dishes. Things like a lobster tail with mayonnaise on top broiled under the salamander. It's funny because years later I was at Nobu and I hadn't tasted that flavor profile for such a long time, and then he does this dish with shrimp or langoustines–or crab–and he puts mayonnaise on it and puts it under salamander and broils it. And I tasted it and realized that was exactly what it was: My brother taught me how to broil a lobster tail like that. I think that was exactly when I thought that there was some really amazing food. Before that, cooking in my childhood was Hamburger Helper or things like that, at home, that we made quickly.
SI: Many people say that Ad Hoc At Home is more accessible than your other cookbooks; do you think that's a fair characterization?
TK: I don't know. It's hard for me to say that. People say, even from The French Laundry [Cookbook], can the home cook do this? Define the home cook first. I know some home cooks who are pretty damn good cooks. And have pretty great kitchens and equipment and can do anything. I think we tend to dumb down the abilities of the home cook. I think that's one problem. I think all the books have been accessible on some level. There are lots of little recipes in The French Laundry that are very accessible. Bouchon is a casual book, very accessible things in there. Under Pressure is probably the only one that isn't accessible, just because of the equipment involved. Ad Hoc from its concept, the type of restaurant [it's based on], makes it seem more accessible, and therefore gives people more confidence and courage in accomplishing those dishes. That's the most important thing: the level of confidence and courage. You're going to trust yourself and try the recipes. And certainly Ad Hoc has the format, the ideas, that are accessible more than the other books. It has things in there that are a little more familiar: beef Stroganoff, fried chicken, pineapple upside-down cake. But each recipe, no matter what level you're doing, is a process, and I think you really have to enjoy the process of cooking to be successful. Otherwise you're just a 30 minute gourmet. I'm not knocking those; I realize the pressures that families have to get food on the table every night. So there are great opportunities for all different types of cookbooks. This may be a book that you do on the weekends.
SI: What's your favorite kitchen tool? You don't seem to like tongs too much.
TK: A palate knife. You can do a lot with a palate knife: move food around, as opposed to using tongs. The palate knife for me has been a universal tool. And in a pinch you can actually paint with it.