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Taste of the Town
Thomas Keller: culinary perfection personified
Seattle Times restaurant critic
So you think your last restaurant bill was high?
"Thomas Keller got $2,000 of my money on Sunday," said Ethan Stowell, who dropped his two G's on two meals in Yountville, Calif., 10 days ago. The young chef/owner of Seattle's Union restaurant took the trip to Napa Valley specifically to soak in the scenery at Keller's acclaimed French Laundry and its bistro sibling, Bouchon.
There he saw why Gourmet's editor in chief Ruth Reichl once described the French Laundry as "the most exciting place to eat in the United States." And he learned, first hand, what everybody's talking about.
While you might dream about being a celebrity chef in the vein of, say, Emeril or Mario, chefs across America want to be Thomas Keller.
"He's had a major impact on anyone who is awake in America, and cooks," says Jim Drohman, chef/owner of the Seattle bistro Le Pichet.
Food as art
The French Laundry and its New York incarnation, Per Se, have become America's ultimate culinary fantasy destination. There, the fortunate food-focused think nothing of spending four figures and at least that many hours on a four-star meal. In fact, they beg to do it and get very upset when they can't.
It's nearly impossible to get a reservation, causing desperate gourmands to lose all civility in pursuit of one of the 16 tables. Their most common plea, according to Keller: "Do you know who I am?" He wonders why people don't treat it more like an airplane reservation. If it's sold out, it's sold out. Do you look at your Expedia screen and scream, "Do you know who I am?"
So what is it that drives people to fly across the country just for dinner?
For me, when I ate at Per Se in September, it was something much simpler: beet soup, a bowl of pure beet essence that I will never forget. Those beets — like all of the ingredients used here — are exquisitely sourced, from only the very best purveyors. Our fish course was presented in a traditional French copper fish-poacher that probably cost more than my car.
That's what Keller's restaurants are about: Equipment like that, the rigorous classical technique required to make the most of the ingredients, and presentation that elevates great food to the level of art.
In person, Keller doesn't even understand why people would question the value of his offerings. "When you talk about money, it's an absurd point of view," he says.
Keller and Bouchon's executive chef Jeffrey Cerciello were in town Monday to promote their recent cookbook collaboration, "Bouchon," (Artisan, $50). That paean to French bistro cooking and classical technique was the gorgeous parting gift given to those who had the good fortune to score a $200 ticket to a sold-out Bouchon dinner held at Union.
There, Stowell got his chance to cook for Keller, preparing a meal with matched wines, using recipes from the Bouchon cookbook.
Early that day, over breakfast at Le Pichet, Keller likened a meal at the French Laundry to a ticket at the World Series, which fans gladly pay hundreds for. "Do you question the quality of that experience?"
When you go to a Thomas Keller restaurant, you pay to taste the culinary art at its highest level. Keller spun out ideas for furthering that experience even more. "My goal is not to have a menu at the French Laundry. You go with complete confidence in the food, the service, and the wine. What the hell do you need 850 selections of wine for? You're eating dinner."
Keller, 49, a native Californian obsessed with French technique, worked at famed French restaurants Guy Savoy and Taillevent. Time in France was followed by a lengthy stint in New York City. In 1994, he bought his own place, once a commercial laundry, in Napa Valley.
There, in a community where eating great food and drinking fine wine is the local pastime, he created his own restaurant dream: a country French idyll that has since spawned Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Bouchon Las Vegas and last year's much-lauded Manhattan monument to creative fine-dining, Per Se, which recently garnered a four-star review from The New York Times.
But let's face it. Most of your average people, even most of your average food fanatics, are never going to go to Keller's restaurants. Still, Keller's influence can be felt at a table near you.
"A place like that is kind of like haute couture shows in fashion," says Le Pichet's Drohman. "It's fashion as art, or food as art when it's taken to that level. Do people walk around in haute couture fashions? No. Do people eat at restaurants representing that level of the art all the time? No. Sure, you want to go and see it to experience it, but would you eat it five times a week? No. But every field needs its artists to influence the more practical people down the chain, people like me."
Local chef Shannon Galusha spent two years in the pristine kitchen at the French Laundry before returning to Seattle to work at Fullers, Campagne and, most recently, 727 Pine. He speaks from experience when he says that Keller, whose reputation as a technical perfectionist is well-known in the trade, is "a very driven individual" who "encourages empowerment" while directing those working under him.
"He's someone you'd want to model a career after," says Stowell. "He's done exactly what he wanted to do and he's done it through hard work, not through marketing. His whole career focus has been on quality cooking. I wish there were more cooks out there doing that."
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company