Thomas Keller – The Man and the Mystique
This is my living memorial for Thomas Keller a chef who I have never had the pleasure to meet. Meeting the man would be an honor, because his creative genius and philosohy has helped influence my career as a professional cook. I need to note that all the photographs in this post are reproduced from his cookbooks. In other words I took a picture of his pictures with my camera.
Michael Ruhlman in his book, “The Reach of a Chef,” asked Tim Ryan president of the Culinary Institute of America to define greatness in any artist. His response was “great artists are excellent craftsmen, they are innovators that do things no one has done before, their innovations are perceived to be of value, and they are influential because others start to do what they started.”
Thomas Keller is at the cusp of his career, regarded by his peers as a chef among chefs, not one, but two, three star Michelin rated restaurants confirm this. He is a man on a mission, a purist dedicated exclusively to constantly perfecting his craft. His purpose is personal; his motivation turned inwards could be viewed as selfish to a fault. Thomas Keller and his restaurant empire epitomizes American fine dining, they exist in the rarefied air reserved for the few with the talent and ambition to cook as none before them.
From afar he is viewed as a culinary mastermind, a demigod in the kitchen, up close he is over six feet tall with wavy hair streaked with grey. Dark pensive eyes stare from a face that seems deep in thought, as if the machinations of normal people are a distraction to be tolerated fleetingly. An American icon, his place among luminaries such as James Beard and Julia Child is assured because like them, he has inspired a generation to revel in the bounty of American ingredients. He has demonstrated how exhilarating it can be, when ingredients are taken by a master technician and transformed into a sumptuous feast that tempts the eye and teases the palate. In October 1997, the New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl in speaking about the FrenchLaundry said “this is the most exciting restaurant in America.” A meal here, she exclaimed, “is a wild ride, an exhilarating flavor carnival.”
Success and acclaim did not happen overnight. In fact his journey towards this final culmination when ambition meets careful preparation began thirty- four years earlier at the age of nineteen. As fate would have it the chef at the Yacht club where his mother Betty Keller was manager had just quit. Deciding that her son needed to learn a trade, and begin the journey towards self-independence and manhood she convinced her son to accept the job as the Yacht Club’s new chef. Smiling at the memory Thomas remembers the first time he made a hollandaise sauce’ “I was so excited, I ran out and told Captain John the dock manager. I was twenty years old; I’d never made a hollandaise sauce before.” The story does not end there, because for the next two years, each day he made that hollandaise he would try to make it better than he’d ever done before. This personal glimpse into the psyche of young Thomas Keller sows the seeds for what would later develop into his relentless pursuit of finessing everything he touched, down to each minute detail. His quest to improve on knowledge learned, would lead him to the kitchen of his mentor, Chef Roland Henin.
This meeting was the beginning of a relationship in which Henin was the teacher and Thomas the eager pupil. Thomas recalls that” Henin was the first person to teach him the fundamentals of cooking: how to make stocks, how to roast, how to braise. He taught me how to peel a tomato, things that nobody took the time to show me before.” From this foundation Thomas went on to work in the kitchens of other classically trained French chefs. He did this for several years until he decided that the time was right for him to refine his training in France. The knowledge learned in the kitchens of these masters of French cuisine would give Thomas the technique, the how to, that would serve him well in years to come. This was one half of the equation that helped Thomas Keller become the man and chef he is today.
To learn more about this great chef, the impact of Betty Keller on helping to shape and guide her son’s life cannot be denied. It was his mom who helped to instill in her son characteristic traits that would make Thomas Keller a legend among chefs. When speaking about his mother
he says, “She showed me tenacity, hard work, cleanliness.” His determination to succeed, to expect the best and accept nothing less, he learnt from his mother. It is the combination of technique learnt by working in the kitchens of great chefs and the values he learnt from his mother that has made Thomas Keller into what he is today. Despite his exalted stature Thomas still enjoys performing even mundane tasks. One of his line cook’s Grant Achtaz of Alinea fame, recalls the first time he met the chef. Remembering his first day of work, “on the day I arrived in Yountville and appeared in the kitchen, the first thing I saw was the chef sweeping the floor, and I knew that this kitchen would be different.”
These words would ring true and as several of the cooks who have left to start their own careers as executive chefs will attest, working with and for Thomas Keller has irrevocably changed their lives. As Thomas Keller continues to cook, he will also continue to influence future generations of chefs who will look to his example for guidance and inspiration. His philosophy is simple and he uses a childhood memory to give it voice. “I was very lucky to have been raised by my mother in such an ideal way as to allow me to understand the details of things. A lot of it is based on having to do certain chores around the house. You clean the bathroom, which was my job. There was only one way to do it. Everything had to shine. Everything had to be just perfect. Her definition of perfect which became my definition of perfect.