It’s a question that certainly bears asking: “Why Thomas Keller as a starting point?”
On the surface, Keller’s renown springs from the rarefied air he inhabits in the world of fine dining. His flagship restaurants, The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City, are legendary for their refinement, flawless execution and impeccable surface. A night spent in the throes of a near five hour meal at either establishment is said to be as near to gustatory nirvana as an individual diner may experience in their lifetime.
It is also as much a myth as it is culinary aria, and to explain Keller’s lasting popularity, well… there simply has to be more to it than that. I am musing about that rarefied air not from experience; a memorable meal at Bouchon in Yountville, California is the closest I have come to either flagship (I made my wife drive by The French Laundry; I just wanted to see it, so powerful is the myth). I can only draw from the considerable aura that surrounds his restaurant work, which is so voluminous and consistent that I can write the first paragraph with 100% confidence.
This begs another round of questions, because for all of the acclaim he has drawn for his contribution to fine dining, a populist is what he is. Why do young home cooks identify as strongly with Keller as do the fortunate and wealthy few who can foot the considerable bill at his flagships? How does a paragon of fine dining end up as such?
The answer is a simple as his tasting menus are profound: Because he is so at heart.
Cook your way through any of Keller’s cookbooks and you will discover that his essence is in the home kitchen, and the lessons that can be drawn from the purity of his approach to cooking are just as applicable to the home cook as they are to the restaurant chef. The same lessons that led to the creation of his famous “Oysters and Pearls” dish, a complex and beguiling combination of tapioca, oysters and caviar, also led to his utterly simple recipe for gazpacho in The French Laundry Cookbook. Planning in advance, proper technique, attention to detail and a focus on getting the simple things right are not the sole provenance of a fine dining operation after all. That is the foundation of Keller’s approach, and whether you are following his recipe for stock or the one for boning out a pig’s head, they remain constant.
It is in those recipes that the key to his populism is unlocked. Legions of home cooks have gained access to his great myth through The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon and Ad Hoc at Home. For every meditation on the importance of foie gras contained in his books, there is an equal paean to the importance of trussing a simple roast chicken. In the process of translation from restaurant to home, he demystifies the complicated techniques while stressing the importance of the basic ones you have to know in a way no other fine dining chef has even come close to touching. In that vein, he makes tackling butter poached lobster or herb gnocchi, dishes that used to be the sole provenance of the chef, accessible to the cook. This is why so many home cooks – cooks who will never cross the threshold of the famous blue doors that front Per Se and The French Laundry – hold Keller in such high esteem.
Over the next few months, we will delve into those dishes: the complicated, the simple and the downright foreign (tripe). We will do so because we want to be better cooks and we hope to help you in the course of our examination in the way Keller has in the course of our evolution in the kitchen.
I can think of no better starting point than the opening recipe to Keller’s second cookbook, Bouchon. Mon Poulet Roti translates to “My Favorite Simple Roast Chicken.” Learn how to do it right and it will become yours too. At face value, it would seem to be one of the most basic things you could do in your kitchen: heat up the oven and stick a whole chicken in it for an hour. Don’t forget though, the foundation of Keller’s cooking consists of doing the simple things correctly. Trussing the chicken so it cooks evenly, seasoning the skin and cavity with salt and pepper, basting the bird with its jus and thyme only after it is removed from the oven. All are simple concepts and yet the omission of any of them will result in a markedly different and inferior dish. When done correctly, the results are so satisfying that it will become a staple in your weekly rotation, as it is in my home as soon as the weather cools down.
No one understands the satisfaction of a simple meal well executed better than Keller himself. Pay attention to the wording buried in his recipe for the roast chicken when describing how he portions the finished bird: “I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters… but I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip – until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat for myself. These are the cook’s rewards,” (emphasis added).
The cook’s rewards. Keller, ever the populist, knows his audience after all.