Interview: chef Thomas Keller

Chef California

Thomas Keller, the iconic chef who helped redefine fine dining when he took over The French Laundry in downtown Yountville in 1994, is a busy man. His Thomas Keller Restaurant Group operates Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills, five branches of Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc, and Per Se. In Beverly Hills alone, they launched a weekly Sunday Suppers series, picnic-friendly dining options in support of adjacent Movies In The Park series, and from August 7-15, they featured dishes like Salade Niçoise, Sole Meuniére and Tarte au Fraisés, selected from Julia Child’s cookbooks in honor of her 100th birthday. On July 30, we met Chef Keller on the Bouchon Beverly Hills patio, and he explained his connection to Julia Child, food-themed movies, mentoring and more.

How did you decide which Julia Child dishes to feature?

Julia Child means so much to me and so much to our industry, and in many ways, so much to our country. When you think about what Julia accomplished for us as a culture and society, she opened up our eyes to food in many ways. Where we are today is because of three individuals: Robert Mondavi, Chuck Williams and Julia Child. When you think about that trilogy, you think about Chuck, who came back from World War II and established Williams-Sonoma and gave us all these wonderful kitchen tools to work with, high quality tools. You think about Bob Mondavi in the early ’60s in the Napa Valley, he started us on wine and opened up our eyes to quality wine and quality winemaking, with integrity. And you think about Julia Child, who gave us the courage to cook without worrying about making mistakes, without being intimidated. She has given us so much in our country and our profession, that when you think about, what are the recipes that you want to feature for her 100th birthday, it’s really kind of hard to decide. We did like we normally do – we have a collaborative forum – and talk with the chefs. We talk with Bryan Podgorski, the chef de cuisine in Las Vegas. We talk with Michael Sandoval, the chef de cuisine in Yountville, and of course Rory Herrmann here, the chef de cuisine at Bouchon. I said, “Okay, guys, you start to look through Julia’s books and make some recommendations. Each one of you give me a list of items that inspire you and speak to you about who Julia was.” That’s where it all started. Then there was conversation after that, coming up with dishes that we could do in the restaurant, where seasonality was very important. And we didn’t want to be dishes that we felt wouldn’t be in season, and number two, make sure that we were accomplishing dishes that were across the board, from locality, to Beverly Hills, to Yountville, to Las Vegas, that would fit the format and the philosophy of Bouchon.

You have this kind of dinner and a movie format now too.

Dinner and a movie, that has been a collaborative effort with the City of Beverly Hills, who’s our partner. We really appreciate what they’ve done and how they’ve come to the plate here in the garden, which is such a beautiful garden. And one of the original visions for the garden was to have those kinds of community events, whether it’s a concert in the park or Movies in the Park, or things like this. It really works out well with the Montage being next door. We really have this wonderful little community here, between Bouchon, Bouchon Bar, Bouchon Bakery, certainly the Montage, Scarpetta, their new bar on the park. And you have this wonderful kind of dynamic dining and drinking scene here in Beverly Hills, in a very European way. You have the colonnades. You can sit in the colonnades. For me, it’s such a peaceful, inviting and interesting place to sit. And certainly when you have movies or you have a concert, it adds that different element to it that makes it even more exciting.

What are some of your favorite food related movies, other than Ratatouille, of course?

Ratatouille would definitely be number one, just because of the history and amount of efforts and time we took with it. You think of some of the other ones. I think of Goodfellas, when they’re all in prison and they’re slicing up the garlic. The guy’s teaching the youngsters how you make a great tomato sauce. He’s got the razor blades and he’s slicing the garlic ever so thinly, and that is the secret to a really good tomato sauce. And then you talk about Big Night. That was just an incredible movie, when they’re bringing out the timpano, the big domed pasta. And you really feel for them. They’ve worked so hard, and the anticipation of the food critic coming, and he doesn’t come, and how that just crushes everybody. It crushes the restaurant, it certainly crushes them individually and really impacts their relationship as brothers, enormously. They overcome it. Those would be two of my favorite movies. You’d have to go La Grande Bouffe, where they’re killing all the chefs, which a great movie, the old French movie. Those would probably be three of my favorite food movies. I’d probably stick with those three.

With Julia Child…

Well, there’s one, “Julie & Julia,” which I loved. I loved Nora Ephron, and I loved the movie. For me, knowing the story, knowing it intimately, and knowing Julia, I wanted really all about Julia, but that’s just a personal approach.

How many opportunities did you have to cook with Julia over the years?

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Joshua Lurie

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

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