Legendary Chef Thomas Keller has set a new paradigm with his Yountville restaurants The French Laundry, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and ad hoc, as well as his New York restaurant Per Se. He has won countless accolades over the years and is the only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings from the Michelin Guide. That’s why we were thrilled to work closely with Chef Keller to create the new and exclusive All-Clad TK Collection, which makes the most of All-Clad’s Copper Core, d5 and Tri-Ply cookware constructions.
Here, we ask Chef Keller all about his food philosophy, go-to ingredients, and what inspires him in the kitchen. Read on, then try his recipes here.
There are so many different people. All of us are influenced by all aspects of whatever professions we’re in. When I started cooking, I was reading books and magazines – that was a big part of my exposure. Gourmet, Food & Wine, and then Cook’s magazine in the early ‘80s and Food Arts later that same decade.
But really, the person who most influenced me was my mother. The things you learn at home are what’s important: work ethics, paying attention, details, efficiency, keeping things clean and organized. My mother was the first and most important person in terms of my success in my career.
My brother Joseph was my first mentor. When I was starting out he had already been cooking for several years and taught me things like how to make an omelette, broil a steak, roast a prime rib, blanch green beans.
Finally, Roland Henin became my professional mentor. He taught me the importance of cooking, which is to nurture people. That’s the real reason we cook. Those three people were the most influential, but of course there were countless others as well.
What do you think are the most important skills or techniques to learn in the kitchen?
How to use a knife is number one. It’s not very difficult; the most difficult thing for most people is their fear of knives. Most accidents happen because people are afraid. You have to be confident and be close to it.
Learning how to stay organized is number two. Organization and process are key – you have to understand the process so you can stay organized.
Also, making sure to clean as you go. Making sure your environment is one that allows you to maintain a sense of calm, because chaos and clutter are never calming.
What do you love about living and working in the California wine country?
California has the best produce available in our country. Being in northern California, we are close to amazing produce, either from our own gardens or from close by, and that is extraordinary.
Also, people come to Napa Valley to do two things: eat and drink. We are blessed with extraordinary restaurants. Our guest base is wide open to experiences and wanting us to feed them. Whether they’re sophisticated or mid-development or early on, starting out in their flavor profiles – they’re all coming here. That means we have a wealth of guests who want to experience what we do, which is very unusual.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in wine country?
There’s the taco truck at Pancha’s, which is really good. And my own restaurants, Ad Hoc and Bouchon. I really like Press, one of our steakhouses – I love what they’re doing up there. I also like Ciccio here, which is a small, Italian, family-style place, with easy-to-eat food and very fresh. I love what Chris [Kostow] does up at Meadowood, it’s extraordinary. It’s another three-star experience in Napa, but still such a departure from what we do here.
You work on the west coast and in New York. How do the food scenes differ?
I don’t think it differs a whole lot at our level. At this level, we deal with the same guest base; we’re not dealing with New Yorkers, we’re dealing from people who come from all over the world to dine at these restaurants. We didn’t really have to change what we do.
As for food, in New York we’re resourcing food from some of the same farms, fisherman, gardeners and foragers as we do here, so being able to extend that was good. We are blessed in California to have the best produce anywhere. In New York, we struggle a little more with our produce, and a lot of it comes from California. It’s just a common thing: in the summer months we have great produce from upstate New York or Pennsylvania or Connecticut or other agricultural states nearby, but in the wintertime we’re pretty much stuck.
We are trying to be inspired by our food; that’s where true inspiration comes from. The strawberries [our culinary gardener] Aaron picks for us in the morning – you don’t want to do too much, because you could serve them just as they are and it would be perfect.
Inspiration comes from ingredients, as it should for somebody at home. The idea of going to the grocery store with recipes and missing what is truly fresh and inspiring – really, I think that’s one of the oversights of what we do. You want to go into grocery stores and markets and be inspired by the food, and take it home and say, what am I going to do with this?
How do you work with the farmers and gardeners at The French Laundry Farm?
We’ve always had a farm at The French Laundry, since 30 years ago. We’ve expanded it over the years, but we use it the same way we’ve always used it: as a source of ingredients. Not our only source, because it would be impossible to grow everything we use. We use it in selective ways to help us be inspired and to help us teach young cooks where their food comes from and who grows it.
We’ll sit down with Aaron and talk about the upcoming season: what to plant, what we want to try. We have avocado squash this year, a small zucchini that looks like an avocado. We got the seeds from that and planted it, and it’s fun to work with.
In the garden now, we have tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, which we use in abundance, not just at The French Laundry but also at Ad Hoc and Bouchon. We have beans, sunchokes, zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, beets, Swiss chard – that’s all in the garden now. At the end of the night, Aaron takes inventory of everything and sends it out to the chefs via email. The chefs put their orders in, and the gardeners come out and harvest everything and send it out to the different restaurants.
How have your food and philosophy evolved over the years with new restaurants and projects?
It’s always an evolution. If you’re not evolving, you’re losing ground. We evolve at a rapid rate at our restaurants, because we encourage, allow and expect a collaborative effort from our team. Everybody has a voice, and as leaders, we have to be able to listen to that voice. If you can listen and have those conversations, you’re going to have evolution at a much faster pace than if you were trying to do it yourself.
That’s the cornerstone of our philosophy: anyone can have an impact. You have to give confidence and courage to the younger staff to be part of a collaborative effort. That differs from other restaurants they’ve worked in – we want to hear from them. As they become more experienced and knowledgeable, let’s have conversations and figure out better ways to do things.
True inspiration comes from within rather than out; otherwise it’s just interpretation. We all think, you’ve got to get inspired. You see a picture or read a recipe, then you take that and do it yourself and interpret it in another way. There’s a difference between inspiration and interpretation. True inspiration doesn’t happen every day, and you can’t turn it off or turn it on.
What restaurants and/or chefs are you excited about today?
That’s an easy question, because I’m always excited about whatever chefs are doing. Cooking is cooking, and we have to stop the push that there always has to be something new. There is nothing new. In our culture we tend to over-emphasize what’s new. That’s detrimental to what we’re doing.
Ultimately, we have to go in every day and cook. There’s so much hype around what’s new all the time rather than what’s important. New is not important; new is just new. In the media, their jobs are based on new things, which is superficial and meaningless to me. What’s important is that my team is going to come in and do the same thing they did yesterday, and they have to be comfortable with that. The important thing is not that we’re trying to do something new, but that we’re trying to do something with integrity, benefitting ourselves and nurturing others. People can go out and look for new stuff somewhere else.
Are there any particular ingredients that you always look forward to coming back into season?
I look forward to the same things every year. At the beginning of the year: asparagus, peas. As the seasons progress, it’s tomatoes, summer squashes, peppers, eggplants. In the fall, heartier things. We plant five tons of sunchokes every year, and potatoes.
What three ingredients do you always have on hand in the kitchen?
Salt, vinegar and olive oil.
It’s the benchmark of what All-Clad represents, and I’m extremely proud of it. We’ve been working toward this point for over a decade.
The universal lid is something I’m extremely happy about. Now we have a set that nests, that’s more practical in shapes and sizes and configurations than ever before. It’s something I’m comfortable and confident taking into a professional kitchen. Before, with the copper core collection and the others, there were pieces we could use in a professional kitchen but never a full line of cookware we could use as the only cookware in our kitchen. It’s really designed from a professional point of view; we convinced them we can’t call the sauté pan a “fry pan” anymore, because we don’t fry in those pans, we sauté in them.
Making in-roads is difficult, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done together. Finally, we’ll represent to the consumer something I truly believe with integrity is a great set for the home cook – the last cookware set they’ll ever buy.