Michael Ruhlman, left, and Thomas Keller at Cleveland's Fabulous Food Show
*Update, July 12th, 2010* this article has been updated (at the bottom of the post)
Last night I had the pleasure to sit in on a conversation with Thomas Keller, moderated by Michael Ruhlman. For those of you who don't know, Michael Ruhlman is a Cleveland-based food writer who has written a few very practical cookbooks, and has also worked with Keller to create his cookbooks. I kind of hope one day I get a similar break - through a friend of a friend, Ruhlman was recommended to write Keller's cookbooks. Perhaps one day some amazing chef will ask me to write his cookbook, and then I will be a full-time writer. *dreamy sigh* Thomas Keller is widely considered to be the best chef in the US, running the French Laundry in Yountville, CA and Per Se in NYC, along with a handful of Bouchon bistros sprinkled about.
We saw Thomas Keller a few years ago at the Bouchon bakery. He was sitting outside with a few people, and was kind of hiding in a bush. He watched me take pictures of my croissant. But of course I didn't speak to him. The French Laundry cookbook has had a huge impact on my life; I learned more from reading Keller's detailed recipes and ideas than I learned from the Professional Chef.
Keller was mild-mannered and kind, but had an undeniable fastidiousness that made me think he is probably really hard on his underlings in the kitchen. I couldn't imagine him yelling at minions, more like a demanding but loving boss who you never want to disappoint. And when you do disappoint him, you probably feel so bad about it that he doesn't need to yell.
One of the things I loved the most about Keller is that he carries no pretension around. He talked openly about eating hot dogs and peanut butter (his favorite guilty pleasure)*; raised by a single mother who rarely had time to cook, his story is pretty similar to most men I know, come to think of it. Keller talked a lot about taste memories, and how for special occasions, his mother made beef stroganoff with cream of mushroom soup in a can (my mother made it, too, and I thought it was simply divine as a child) .Keller says he is a good chef because of practice, repetition and experience.
Keller talked briefly about eating locally and seasonally, although he primarily focuses on local fruits and vegetables. When it comes to other products, however, it is quality that matters. For this reason, Keller supports small producers with superior products, such as Elysian Fields lamb. Having had a small piece of ribeye while eating at the French Laundry, I can attest to the quality of his choices.
It was kind of funny when Keller talked about New York, and how hard it is to get good vegetables there. It made me happy that we live in such a great agricultural area. We don't realize how good we have it to be in a more temperate zone of the country with amazing soil.
Chef Keller talked at length about the importance of salt, and when asked what every kitchen needed to create great food, he listed simply salt and pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and vinegar.
Keller encouraged attendees to vote with their dollars; every time we purchase a horrible product, we ensure its survival. He suggested that shoppers get to know people at their grocery store and demand better products. "Better products make a better chef," he said, which sounds simple but it is so true. Being a good chef or a great home cook isn't all about your ability to sear a steak and make a pan sauce, it's also about choosing the best possible products.
I am sorry if I wasn't clear in this post, I am pretty sure that peanut butter itself was his favorite guilty pleasure, not "hot dogs and peanut butter" together. I probably should have put a comma there, I apologize for any disappointment, but I'd love to hear if you tried the two together to see what Keller got out of it... If you have no idea what I'm talking about, see slide four over the Huffington Post.