Chef Thomas Keller is running a little late. The back bar at Seattle’s Bastille restaurant is bustling, awaiting the arrival of the evening’s guest of honor. While the kitchen prepares a delicious array of bites from the chef’s latest cookbook, ad hoc at home, a crowd of media types mingles about, noshing on lobster rolls (page 84) and crab cakes (page 83).
When Keller finally makes his appearance, he arrives able and ready, offering his thoughts on the cookbook and its namesake, ad hoc, his casual dining location in Yountville, California.
The restaurant doesn’t have a menu, as I’m sure most of your mothers didn’t have menus at home. It’s very market-driven. And I think the popularity of it is just that – it’s easy, it’s recognizable. There are dishes on the menu that remind us of different times in our life, comfort food. It’s not just my memory – it’s a collective memory. The co-authors really had an impact on the book as well. It’s a family-style book, written about a restaurant that is really a family-style restaurant.
Pressed for time, he asks for questions from the crowd:
How do you juggle all of your restaurants?
I don’t really juggle the restaurants as much as I try to keep up with the people who run the restaurants. Each restaurant has a Chef de Cuisine. Dave Cruz, the Chef de Cuisine at ad hoc, came from Bouchon – he was there for four and a half years as sous chef – so I had him in mind to be the Chef de Cuisine at ad hoc. Same with Jonathan Benno at Per Se, Timothy Hollingsworth at The French Laundry, Rory Hermann at Bouchon Beverly Hills. For me, it’s not about juggling – it’s more about giving ownership of those restaurants, those kitchens, to someone else. And, of course, when you take ownership of something, as I always say to my team, if you treat it like it’s yours, one day it will be. It’s a cultural and philosophical approach that really works well.
What’s inspired you to have that kind of generosity in your restaurants?
As a chef, I think we’re generous by nature. We’re giving people. We love to nurture people. It’s hard for us to say no. I think that just comes from the way I’m wired. The generosity is just hospitality, and in this industry, that’s what you do. We give of ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s just an understanding as I continue to grow, learn, and mature, what the best way is for me to do what I need to do and to pass that knowledge on to the rest of the team.
My restaurants aren’t named after me, and that’s a really important decision I made. I don’t want to have my restaurant stop being a great restaurant because I’m not there. If it’s not a great restaurant because I’m not there, then I haven’t done my job. The restaurants really need to have my support, but they also need to have the ability to perform at a high level on their own.
Do you have a method for finding kitchen talent?
We’re always continuously looking for the next generation. I’ve always used the analogy of a sports franchise – they’re always looking for the next talent, they’re always training, they’re always mentoring. It’s our responsibility to do the same thing. If I was the franchise player of The French Laundry for a number of years and I didn’t start to think, ‘Who’s going to take my place?’ and begin to mentor others, then I wouldn’t be acting responsible. It’s passed from first generation to second generation to third generation – the responsibility to continue to identify individuals who come to the restaurant, mentoring and encouraging them every day, giving them feedback every day. Whether they stay with us or not is irrelevant. If they go out into the industry with some of the training we’ve given them, the training we feel is invaluable, we’re elevating the standards of the entire industry. If we can have a positive impact on the industry standards, then we’ve really done our job.
Before departing, Bastille’s executive chef Shannon Galusha, a former chef at The French Laundry, notes the evening’s dinner menu for those attending the sold-out event following the meet-and-greet. As a line forms at Keller’s table for autographs, I arrive with my cookbook in hand, throwing out the one question I’ve had all evening.
“So, with the opening of Bouchon Beverly Hills, do you foresee a Bouchon Bakery in Southern California as well?” I ask as he signs the first page.
The revered chef smiles, passing the book back to me. “Oh, I think so.”
**A big thanks to Kim and Rebecca at Kim Ricketts Book Events!