Kitchen sync

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am

Thomas Keller gulps down an unappetising-looking, beige-grey drink made from a packet of what he describes as a 'vitamin-enzyme-protein thing'. His choice of drink, like the revelation that one of his favourite things to eat is blanched broccoli with canned tuna (Italian, of course, and packed in olive oil), is unexpected from a man who is arguably the most respected chef in the United States.

'It's just something to stay healthy; on these trips you have to be careful,' he says.

Keller is in Hong Kong for a four-day promotion at the Mandarin Oriental, for which the hotel received more than 1,000 reservation requests.

The event ending this evening features dishes from his Michelin three-star restaurants - The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, which Keller took over in 1994, and Per Se, which he opened in New York in 2004.

Often playful takes on classic combinations, some dishes have become iconic and are much copied. There's his starter of 'oysters and pearls' (sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar) and desserts of 'M&Ms' (double chocolate brownies with candied Virginia peanuts, Madagascar vanilla bean mousse and Mast Brothers chocolate ice cream) and 'toffee apple' (compressed Schmitt Farms apple, root beer soda, caramel genoise and beurre de Paris ice cream).

Guest chef stints are rare for Keller - he accepts one request every 12 to 18 months because they are 'extraordinarily difficult' to execute.

'But this is probably the most meaningful promotion I've done because we've been able to bring out our own ingredients and it's such a pleasure for us,' he says.

'We ask for a floor plan, equipment and staffing list so we know what's available. We can look see if they have what we need - if there's an ice cream machine or a bread oven, things like that.'

Even so, it took eight months to plan the promotion, and Keller arrived here with a team of eight.

'The equation for cooking is ingredients plus execution. If I'm working in a different country and I can't have my ingredients, then the only thing I can rely on is half the equation - I'm only giving you half the experience. If I'm using Hong Kong ingredients, you've eaten them all before - there's nothing different for you in that. All you're going to experience is, possibly, technique.'

Keller imported almost all the ingredients for the promotion, and as he looks through the dishes listed on the Mandarin Grill's dinner menu, it's clear he hasn't left much to chance.

'Oysters were sourced here, the caviar we brought, the tapioca we brought, the hearts of palm, brioche croutons, radishes, ginger aigre-doux we brought, the navel oranges and celery root are from California, the coffee is from our roaster, we brought all the dessert ingredients.'

In these days of publicity-seeking celebrity chefs, Keller displays a refreshing sense of duty to his 'industry' and an eagerness to help younger chefs rise through the ranks.

'My job is to help identify the generations that are coming up through our restaurants, whether they stay with us or go elsewhere.

'My goal is to increase the quality of our industry - it's not about me, it's not about my restaurant. It's about our industry and making sure that we teach people so that ... they're able to embrace it, understand it and go out and start their own restaurants. That's the important thing for me - that it continues. The important thing for them as they're going through the system in our restaurant is to make sure they identify, train and mentor their replacement.

'Every department head has to choose, train and mentor their replacement. Even if that person goes off to do something else, then he's raised the quality of the standard of the industry - that's all important. It's a very logical and sustainable approach. If I'm going to be in business and I'm going to have longevity and leave a legacy, then I need to make sure I'm thinking generationally.'

In the 16 years since The French Laundry opened, Keller's company - the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group - has grown to employ more than 900 staff for the two fine-dining establishments, two more casual restaurants, Ad Hoc and Bouchon, and three Bouchon bakeries. The chef divides his time mostly between The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, leaving him little time for cooking.

'A chef in my position today doesn't cook,' he says. 'Do I miss it? Of course! I love cooking. But even before you become an owner, you become a sous chef, then you cook less, and then as a chef de cuisine you cook even less. So the higher you rise in your profession, the less you do of it.'

The French Laundry and Per Se are known for their tasting menus which change every day, apart from a few signature dishes, such as the much-copied marinated Atlantic salmon cornet (an amuse bouche being served at the Mandarin Grill dinners).

Coming up with new dishes for the ever-changing menus isn't difficult, Keller says. 'What we do is we're looking for logical flavour profiles based on a philosophical approach to our food and where we are. We're in the wine country so we have to be respectful of that. People who come to our restaurants are coming to the Napa Valley to experience food and wine. So we want logical flavour profiles that are going to marry with the wines and enhance the food.'

Despite the fickleness of foodies constantly on the lookout for the next new thing, Keller manages to stay on top of his game.

'Staying relevant [in this business] has to do with evolution. People evolve and the restaurants get better. But it's not just about the food - food is the third or fourth thing that a guest embraces.

'The first is the service. You can go to a restaurant and the food can be amazing, but if you have bad service, you'll never go back. If you go to a restaurant where the food is good but the service is amazing, you'll go there once a week. We were at a three-star restaurant in Spain and the sommelier said, 'I don't have time to take care of you.' My experience right then, at the beginning of the meal, was diminished. Not by anything I'd eaten, but by the sommelier saying this to me. Do you think I'm going back to that restaurant?'

Keller, who's been speaking with a quiet intensity throughout the interview, gets really animated when asked to think of an alternate career.

'[I'd be] a shortstop for the New York Yankees [baseball team]. No, the San Francisco Giants ... It's all about balance; it's a great game. The pitching can be extraordinary. How many pro baseball players are there, and every one of them knows how to pitch a fastball or a curveball or a breaking ball or a slider. But why do you think some of them are so much better at throwing those pitches than the rest of them? Because they do it with just a little something different, a little spark.

'It's all about finesse. And that's what we try to do with food.'