The title of chef gets bandied about with great ease these days: being a chef has become a trendy profession and anyone with a passing culinary knowledge, who cooks for a living, often feels entitled to label himself as a chef.
Not so fast. In a classically trained kitchen, or in any restaurant kitchen around the globe, the chef spurs are earned with painstaking work, long hours and, often, sacrifices to one’s personal life that are unasked of most other professions. Not only does a decent chef need to master cooking techniques and show some knowledge, versatility and creativity in writing menus, he or she must learn how to run a kitchen, manage food costs, liaise with vendors, make aesthetic choices and on and on, leaving little time for the actual cooking. Most of all, a chef must be able to motivate and inspire people who often work in excess of twelve hours a day for little pay, and show them how to thrive. The teaching element cannot be understated when it comes to being a chef, for no other reason than to make sure one’s vision is executed to perfection. Night after night after night.
Thomas Keller has become the face of American haute cuisine and it’s probably true he has changed the way Americans eat, by virtue of the trickle down effect. The empire he has built with the The French Laundry in Yountville CA, and the Per Se and Bouchon locations in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, has stayed manageable enough to probably afford him riches but also to keep the quality consistent, any chef’s biggest challenge. Through twenty years of fame and acclaim, Thomas Keller has remained that rare breed of cool, style and humility. It’s impossible to imagine him trashing some minion in the kitchen, hurling epithets a la Ramsay. Above all, Chef Keller has either developed or was born with the knack for teaching.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the French Laundry, Food and Wine Magazine talked to fifteen cooks who either staged or worked at the French Laundry, most of them now famous chefs themselves, and asked them to share what they learnt during the time they spent alongside Chef Keller. Here are my favorite quotes, some tricks that can be put to good use in our kitchens.
You can read the entire article here.
- On the last day of my stage, Chef told me to hand him my apron. I thought I was in trouble. He folded it perfectly and then escorted me to his office, where a place setting was arranged at his desk for dinner. The food was perfect, but more than that, the sense of hospitality was overwhelming. I have hesitated to go back to eat at TFL since then because this was one of the most important meals of my life—one that can never be topped. —Michael Voltaggio, ink., Los Angeles
- When blanching fresh peas, I learned to add a pinch of sugar to the salted boiling water. It doesn’t make the peas sugary; it just reinforces their natural sweetness. Whether we were using the peas in soup, as garnish or on canapés, we’d use this trick every time. —Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO
- When I started my job at The French Laundry, I was working next to Thomas on the canapé station. He asked if I was going to rinse the onions. I had no idea what he was talking about. Why would I rinse onions? He’s probably a foot taller than I am, and he reached right over me and started rinsing the onions, with me trapped between his arms. He said in a soft voice, “You see, if you rinse the onions, it makes them less harsh.” Needless to say, I felt like a little boy. —Corey Lee, Benu, San Francisco
- The last day I worked at The French Laundry, I was breaking down peach pits with a hammer to get the little bitter almond inside; we used them for a foie gras glaze. It was always a pain to get the almond out intact. Thomas saw me and went out to his garden. He came back with a brick and dropped it on the pit, and the almond came out perfectly. He stayed with me for an hour cracking peach pits and talking. —Erik Anderson, Formerly of The Catbird Seat, Nashville
- Chef once helped me make a very special blanquette de veau. He showed me how to break down a side of veal, down to cleaning the bones for the stock; he was adamant about using every bit of the animal. We meticulously rinsed and blanched the bones. After the third blanching, he left, and I accidentally dumped the cooking liquid down the drain. When Chef came back, he was upset that we’d lost this “golden” stock that we’d worked on for three days. But he didn’t yell. He put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head—kinda like, “We all make mistakes.” —Grant Achatz, Alinea, Chicago
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