TORONTO — One of America’s most acclaimed chefs made a stop in Toronto recently to promote his new cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home.
Thomas Keller, owner and executive chef of The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon and Ad Hoc, spoke to a crowd of chefs and foodies at The Bram & Bluma Appel Salon of the Toronto Reference Library on Nov. 30.
The 50-year-old Michelin-rated chef, was invited to participate in a question-and-answer session with Alison Fryer — of Toronto’s Cookbook Store — who joked that she had “stalked Keller for 10 years and had tried to get him to Toronto” since he wrote his first cookbook, The French Laundry in 1999.
The lively session featured topics ranging from what inspires Keller to how his role within his empire continues to evolve.
Like all chefs, Keller’s remains most comfortable behind the stove. He was clearly humbled by the 450 fans that came out to hear him speak, hanging on his every word. ”The consequence of writing a book is promoting it,” he quipped referring to the work of a gruelling book tour. “Writing a recipe is very important. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but we do recipe writing every day; Ad Hoc took two years in gathering. Writing a book is not as easy as some people think. It represents a collective vision with a common goal.”
Ironically, Ad Hoc (the restaurant) was only intended to be a temporary burger joint until it grew so popular that it became a permanent fixture, and “now we’re doing ad lib,” he joked. Originally, the space was meant to house his restaurants’ staff. Interestingly, Keller’s restaurants all have unique histories. “When we opened Bouchon, it was because we (staff) needed a place to eat, since Napa closes down at 9 p.m. So, we opened a restaurant down the street from The French Laundry, and we focused on one of my favourite styles — the bistro. We opened the bakery because we wanted to improve the quality of the bread at the French Laundry and Bouchon.”
Keller says Per Se is only one of his restaurant that could be viewed as a true expansion, and he admits it was also his biggest challenge. Rather than sacrifice running himself ragged and falling short of the high expectations people had of him, Keller decided to close The French Laundry for five months so he could focus on the new operation. He ended up taking his staff from The French Laundry with him to New York to open the new eatery. “It was great — the French Laundry staff inoculated the new staff. Of course, it cost my partners $4 million,” he quipped referring to lost sales, “but it’s only money.”
In hindsight, the one thing he didn’t consider was what he would do. “It’s very strange. I find my comfort in the kitchen, but now I don’t have the structure, and somehow I have to come to grips with that. I’ve kind of put myself out of a job,” he joked.
In terms of inspiration, Keller says he’s inspired by anything and everything, but he admits he’s a Francophile through and through. “I love the city, and that the French [people] think of food all the time. They think of what they’re going to eat at lunch while they’re eating breakfast.” But, he says, more than anything what attracts him to all things French is the lifestyle.
As a culinary icon, chefs everywhere want to work at his restaurants. “We get lots of requests from chefs, and we want to be accessible to young culinarians,” the chef said, pointing out his restaurants do three or four stages every month. “Chefs have to commit to 30 days,” he said, it allows them to “understand at a deeper level.”
In terms of what he looks for in young chefs, Keller was quick to answer: determination. “At the end of the day, you won’t make it without it. It trumps passion,” he said. “You’d be hard pressed to be passionate all the time; what happens when passion wanes? It’s the desire to make it better that carries you through.”