Interview: chef Douglas Keane

Chefs California

Douglas Keane (center) had two serious sous chefs at The Strand House: Sang Yoon and Neal Fraser.


Regardless of the concept, what does a dish have to be to go on one of your menus? What is a Douglas Keane dish?

I switched very much to the Japanese way of thinking over the last three years or four years. It’s not just fat, acid and carbs. I’m not a guy who preaches fat by any means, and I’m not afraid to use carbs, but I don’t think it has to be on every dish in an 8-10 course menu. If I’m thinking about the guests, to keep them occupied and to keep them into a meal, I add acid or umami to make their mouth want more and to make them salivate more. To me, where’s the acid or umami? What’s the textural profile they’re getting here? And not just textural contrast. Is there some great texture in chew with crawfish or abalone if it’s cut a certain way? Slimy textures, as well, can also be very appealing in the mouth, especially if you can put the right acid or umami with it to balance it.

How I write a menu, I write it with the five flavors of the mouth. At Cyrus, I would greet everybody with sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami canapés. When they sat down, we kind of let them know, here’s how we write our menu. Over the next three or four hours, you’ll experience these things, so know what they are and know how they play off each other.

What was the last dish that you created and what was your inspiration?

The most recent dish was a dessert, a play on black sesame panna cotta. The inspiration was, we screwed it up. We were working on it together. It didn’t come out right the first try, but we were able to work on it and make it perfect. It was more of a balance of savory and salty dessert.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?

Pure attitude…I don’t care where they worked before. I really don’t care, because they come in pre-programmed, especially if they worked in high-end places. I want attitude, willingness to learn and accept criticism and just do anything. I strictly hire on that. Not that they do it wrong anywhere else, but I’m going to teach them differently anyways, so I don’t really care what they know. The only other thing I care about is if they have some sort of skill level, that they know how to butcher some meat or fish, or have some basic knife skills.

Are there certain questions you ask, or certain skills tests you give to potential employees?

The questions are more to ask about their commitments to other jobs, how long they last in certain places. Every job can be fucked up in some way or the other. No kitchen is perfect. You can get miserable any place. You can get miserable at The French Laundry. You can get miserable at Le Bernardin, even though you’re in the best kitchens in the world. It’s how you deal with that frustration, especially when we’re in an age where you can go on the internet, click a button, and move on to the next page. People that stay a year, year and a half at a place, what went wrong there? Sometimes there’s a perfectly good reason. Something happened, or a family member got sick, so you don’t just judge it by the time. If they have a few pops where they only worked for three months or six months, we usually don’t even bring them in for an interview…You have to show an ability to deal with the kind of stuff that happens in any kitchen.

A field test, we’ll make them cook something and cut something. I used to have them stage for a day, a whole day of prep.

Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?

That’s a great question. Yeah, I don’t like whole cured anchovies by itself. Maybe on a pizza, but a whole anchovy is too salty, too fishy.

I think you could steer clear of those pretty easily.


What was the last meal you cooked at home?

We just put in a pizza oven, so my wife and I made some pizza. It was great. I have not mastered the dough, which is fun. My wife makes much better dough than me.

Is your wife a chef too?

No, not at all. She just has fun with the pizza oven. She works the fire. We put a grill in too. I’d never really grilled much, it’s never been my thing, but I have a blast on the grill. It’s got a rotisserie, so I spend a lot of time outside. I’ve had the last five months off, so I’m actually home cooking four or five nights a week, which is great.

Are you recipe testing at all?

No, I’m not right now. I’m about to start doing some more stuff. I have a prep kitchen that I kept. I put my office in there. Probably in the next month or so, I’ll start recipe testing again.

What are the steps you take to achieve balance in your life?

My passion is cooking, and that’s kind of consumed me for a long time, but equally important, as I’ve realized, I’ve got to take time for working out, and my other hobby or passion is animals. I have a dog rescue that I’m really strongly affiliated with. I spend three or four hours days down there. It’s a really cool cause. It’s called Green Dog Rescue Project. We take dogs other shelters don’t want that they plan to put down, take them to our space and rehab ‘em. We try to put them into a pack, so they’re healed as a pack. I got certified as a dog trainer two and a half years ago now. I absolutely love it. It’s my favorite choice to go down there and work one-on-one with the dogs and build a bond and see them take strides.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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