What’s Slowly Cookin’, Good-Lookin’?
French Laundry überchef and modern master of the vac-pack gourmet snack Thomas Keller pops up at Harrods and chews the fat with William Sitwell
IT STRIKES ME when I meet Thomas Keller, in a posh tearoom in Harrods, that he doesn’t look much like a chef. He’s tall and slim, his hair — with distinguished wisps of grey — is swept back, and he cuts a svelte figure in a well-cut suit. His is the demeanour of a serious academic. You wouldn’t choose to fool around in his classes — he has those eyes that tell you: ‘Pay attention and you might learn something.’
Then again, most chefs don’t look like chefs these days. As policemen get younger, so chefs get slimmer, no longer the hearty, well-rounded men who look like they really eat what they cook.
The likes of Keller, celebrated for the French Laundry in California and his New York establishment Per Se, have to do rather more than cook food. So we touch on how the role of chef has changed as we start talking.
‘Being a chef today is very different than in the past,’ he says. ‘For example, I’m sitting here talking to you. In the past we didn’t have to talk to the media and we didn’t run businesses. Now we write books and we have to smile for photographers. Paul Bocuse [a legendary French chef] once told me that in my father’s time chefs ended their careers as drunks. Look at how far we’ve come.’
Today’s chefs have to manage teams, understand design aesthetics, deal with the bureaucracies of food safety and shareholders and the peaks and troughs of running a business, not to mention buy and cook food. But Keller sees a wider sphere of influence. ‘What appears on a menu in a chef’s restaurant soon finds its place on a supermarket shelf,’ he explains. ‘Chefs have brought exposure to all sorts of ingredients.’
But rather than ingredients, like it or not Keller will be remembered for being a strong proponent of what is known as ‘sous-vide’ cooking. This is the technique in which food is vacuum-packed before being heated in a water bath, a development of the ancient technique of using a bain marie. In sous-vide cooking, the heat is low enough to cook the food properly and no more.
As the scientist and author Harold McGee has put it: ‘Sous-vide cooking has opened up new realms of texture and flavour that weren’t discernible before and still aren’t fully understood.’
Keller didn’t invent the method, but he championed it. ‘I don’t believe there’s anything that’s new in cooking,’ he says. ‘We just manipulate it. Sous-vide is 75 or 80 years old. We can say that we had an impact or influence, but if we think we are doing something new then we have to re-examine who we are.’
Born in 1955 in California, he learned to cook from his mother, who managed a dining room in Florida. He is the only chef in the US today to have three Michelin stars for two of his restaurants.
His trip to London came in advance of an ambitious ‘pop-up’, when Keller was to re-create his French Laundry experience in Harrods’ Georgian Restaurant for ten long days. Before dwelling on this we turn to the worldly concerns of this celebrated chef. ‘My biggest fear is how we are going to feed everyone in 50 years’ time,’ he says. ‘Every day it becomes harder and harder to find great ingredients as produce becomes scarcer and scarcer.’
However, Keller is one chef who will not be feeding the world. ‘I’ve decided to serve less people. I have restricted the numbers of guests — it’s the only way I could improve quality, and I am comfortable being an elitist.’
Most humble souls won’t get to eat his food. But then again, this is an approach to dining in which, for the customer, being hungry is a side issue.
Illustration by Rebecca Kay Buckland
Dishes on his tasting menus go like this: ‘Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar, Moulard of Duck Foie Gras, Peanut Génoise, Concord Grape Gelée, Celery Branch and Petite Sirah Reduction.’ His sweet, butter-poached Maine lobster comes with ‘Cauliflower, Royal Blenheim Apricot, Young Coconut, Marcona Almonds, Cilantro and Tahitian Vanilla’. You get the picture. This is super-complicated cooking in which expensive ingredients are cooked with subtle ingenuity.
No one goes to the French Laundry for a slap-up feed — although you do need stamina to make it through his menus. But Keller defends his style of cooking by saying: ‘We live in times that are complicated and harsh. Don’t ask me to have an impact on the world, but you can criticise me for offering an escape from reality. We all need a recluse somewhere. I just want guests to have the memory of a great experience. On your deathbed, what do you have left? You have your memories.’
For the few lucky enough to get into his Harrods pop-up, doubtless their exit from this world can be calmed by thoughts of Keller’s ‘Caramélia Chocolate Crémeux’ made with ‘Gros Michel Banana, Candied Pine Nuts, Dentelle and Salted Popcorn Ice Cream’.
It’s not worth dying for, but it is worth eating before you die.
William Sitwell is a contributing editor at Spear’s and editor of Waitrose Kitchen