Thomas Keller, owner-chef of The French Laundry, says he is ‘just the middle person’
In a world where the list of places you have dined are a barometer of your financial standing as well as good taste, it is not uncommon to find people who will fly across oceans for an exceptional dining experience.
And of course, they will have made reservations months in advance, eagerly counting down the number of days, just like a school child crossing days off the calendar to his much awaited summer break.
A lucky few in Seoul last week, however, were treated to the magic of Thomas Keller, the owner-chef of The French Laundry, without having to fly to the famed three-Michelin star French restaurant in the Napa Valley in California. Rather, the acclaimed chef and his team of 14 chefs and dining room personnel flew to Korea to present Keller’s brand of French cuisine.
In his own words, Keller’s creations depend upon ingredients of the highest quality.
“It is not about me,” he asserted during an interview at The Hotel Shilla’s French restaurant, Continental, the venue for the Thomas Keller lunch and gala dinners, last Wednesday. Not one of his restaurants and bakeries, including another three-Michelin star restaurant Per Se in New York, bears his name.
“I don’t name them after me,” he said.
“The real heroes are the producers. Our work is representing the quality of the food we receive from our producers, making sure that it is recognized.”
Thomas Keller, owner-chef of The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, California, poses in the kitchen of The Hotel Shilla’s Continental on March 14. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Citing the example of his butter supplier ― Diane St. Claire of Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont, who Keller says is up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and sells almost all her butter to him ― he explained how much he values his suppliers and how his cuisine depends upon them.
“I am just a middle person between the suppliers and the diners,” Keller said. “I have a high level of respect for their work and I am able to get the highest quality products because they search me out.”
Keller, despite his success and recognition on both coasts of the United States, doesn’t plan on opening restaurants outside the country. His insistence on highest quality supplies is the reason for his reluctance to expand overseas.
“I don’t want to open unless we can maintain the quality,” said Keller, adding that there are bound to be difficulties in getting suppliers in overseas locations.
In fact, the meticulously detail-oriented chef flew in virtually everything for the meals that he served in Seoul.
“We were not able to bring our flour,” he said wistfully.
The chef’s tasting menu presented at the Continental ― the elaborate French restaurant was given a contemporary look for Keller’s events and even the chintzy curtains were stripped away and replaced by green curtains for the occasion ― perfectly reflected Keller’s philosophy.
Gulf Coast cobia confit a la minute featured succulent cobia from Florida while both the Berkshire pork belly for the sweet melt-in-your-mouth En Feuille De Brick and the 50 percent Black Angus and 50 percent Wagyu crossbreed beef for the tender and flavor-rich Calotte de Boeuf Grille were brought in from Boise, Idaho. The stars of the evening were his ingredients.
Even the names of his creation reflected his respect for his purveyors. The dense and nutty cheese made with 95 percent sheep’s milk and 5 percent cow milk cream, named “Chaconne” after a Baroque musical term, is a creation of Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy in Sonoma, California, who is a music lover.
An American chef of French cuisine, Keller seemed to be paying homage to his American roots with the finale of malted chocolate mousse featuring caramel corn crunch, popcorn sherbet and salted caramel sauce ― reminiscent of Cracker Jacks of childhood, as one guest so aptly put it. With Cracker Jack and its close association with baseball, it is also a fitting tribute from the chef who likes to refer to his work as a baseball franchise.
Keller, who has the distinction of having two three-Michelin star restaurants, appreciates the recognition of his accomplishments.
“The recognition, the accolades are amazing.” he said. “I feel extremely fortunate to have made it. They reinforce your efforts, culture, philosophy and motivate the team.”
However, he also warned about complacency.
“They are all about what you did yesterday. We are always thinking forward. When we come to work today, we do a little bit better than we did the day before,” he said.
By Kim Hoo-ran (email@example.com