Chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller says his mother was his first mentor. He likes a spoonful of Skippy peanut butter (Natural) before hitting the gym, and he believes chefs can find inspiration anywhere if they just stay aware and open to it.
The famed chef on Saturday answered questions posed by Basil Larkin, vice president of sales for Hestan, which has helped equip the kitchens at Keller’s eight restaurants, including The French Laundry and Per Se in New York, and the more recent TAK Room.
Here’s what Keller had to say on inspiration, his mentors and advice for young chefs.
How has the profession changed since you started?
It has been over 40 years and when I look back … what has changed the most is the quality of our ingredients and there lies the foundation of being a really good cook. If you don’t have good ingredients — I don’t care how good a cook you are— you’re not going to be able to achieve the results that you hope to achieve. So it’s always about the ingredients. It’s a very simple equation: ingredients and execution.
What inspired TAK Room?
We’ve been working on this since 2008, so for the past 11 years. It was a restaurant style that I’ve always embraced, one that I lived through as a youngster. It’s from a period in American history after WWII through the ’60s, restaurants that were called ‘continental-cuisine’ restaurants, so the great ones in that period were The Stork Club, The Colony, The Brown Derby, Chasen’s, The Blue Fox … where you went to a restaurant for not just the food but the social interaction, the entertainment. The food was a very important part, but it was about that sense of place or being part of a community. So [we’re] trying to revitalize, rejuvenate that kind of atmosphere. It’s a casual restaurant where you could go more than once a week, you could see your friends, you could bring your family, you could entertain, you could listen to great music and have a lot of fun with the service staff there to also engage.”
Who have been the mentors in your life that have impacted your career?
The first one is my mother; we probably all can claim that. Our parents, and especially our mothers, are so influential in our lives. I was blessed to have an extraordinary woman who taught me so much about life, about determination and commitment to anything that you’re doing.
My older brother Joseph was my second mentor. He taught me how to roast a prime rib, how to glaze a lobster tail, how to make an omelet, and those were critical things in my first job.
Then my professional mentor in larger way was Roland Henin. And I met Roland Henin in July 1977 and up until that time I was a cook … because I enjoyed cooking and it afforded me an opportunity to travel around the country and be part of a team. It sort of satisfied that desire to be part of a sports team, like in the kitchen. In 1977, [Henin] asked me if I knew why cooks cook.
He was an intimidating chef and I was a little bit timid at the time, so I cowered back and said I wasn’t really sure. And he said, ‘We cook to nurture people.’ And as soon as he said that, I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ Because if you actually think about it, it’s a very important ideal to embrace. At the same time, we nurture our guests, we nurture ourselves.
It’s wonderful to have different types of restaurants. We have The French Laundry and Per Se, which are at the top of their game, but we all forget that the purpose of our restaurant is to nurture you.
How do you get your inspiration?
That’s an interesting question. I think inspiration is one of those things that happens very rarely in life. I think I’ve been inspired maybe three or four times. The [Salmon] Coronet was a true inspiration, the Oyster and Pearl was a true inspiration [and] maybe Coffee and Donuts. But you have to realize that inspiration can come from anywhere, and the most important thing to do, if you really want to be inspired, is you first have to be aware of the world around you.
The story of the Oyster and Pearl is: I was in a grocery store in Napa Valley, soon after I moved there, and I don’t go to grocery stores very often because I have everything I need to eat at the restaurants. But I was in the store and a purple box caught my eye … It was a box of tapioca and on the box it said pearl tapioca and I thought where do pearls come from but oysters. And I bought the box and went back to the restaurant and then what I thought was logical: making tapioca pudding. We’re all very used to sweet tapioca pudding, and make it savory and topped it with oysters … then make it luxurious by putting caviar on top.
But awareness is key. Awareness leads to inspiration. Inspiration leads to interpretation … A leaf falling from a tree can be interpreted into different things. If you’re a chef you can interpret something that’s culinary, if you’re a poet you could write a poem, if you’re an artist you can draw or paint a painting. Anything can inspire us … Inspiration can happen at any moment and you want to be there to embrace it. Most of the time we like to think we’re inspired but we’re really influenced. You pick up a cook book and you see wonderful recipes and wonderful photos and you say that inspired you, well, yeah, maybe that inspired you, but maybe it’s more that it influenced you.
What advice to you have for young chefs?
Patience. There’s so much to learn and understand and so much to practice so you become really good. We look at what an athlete does to become really, really good, and they practice all the time. And they do it every day. And we see the results of the work they do. We all want to be that superstar, but, believe me, you have to be patient with your career and work hard at it to become that superstar.
I thought about this a lot and my ambitions sometimes overwhelmed me and I wanted to be more than I actually was, but I wasn’t really ready for it. And that results in failures. And failures aren’t bad in that you learn something from them. You learn you weren’t actually ready, and you have to practice some more.
The other word is persistence. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something. You can do anything you want, just be persistent. You’ll never get to where you want to be if you quit.
I’m not sure what’s next. We are writing a new cookbook, which is coming out and I’m debating with my publisher about the name. I want to call it “It’s Not The French Laundry Per Se.” We’ll see if we actually get that.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
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