Seven Questions for Bouchon’s Thomas Keller

The renowned chef on surviving the holidays, the most important ingredient in the kitchen and preparing for Ultimo.

Photo by Deborah Jones

Photo by Deborah Jones

What is your favorite holiday and why?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s a social occasion, with family and friends, [but] there’s no expectation for gifts and things like that. There’s not that added pressure. And it’s a holiday that [only] America really celebrates. I really appreciate that. It’s kind of our own holiday.

Any tips for the home cook during this season of entertaining?

Cook things that you’ve cooked before. Manage your expectations and do things that you know you can do well and don’t try things you’ve never done before for the holidays, when the pressure is already enough. So if you know how to make really good macaroni and cheese, then make good macaroni and cheese. The expectations we put on ourselves to make these extraordinary feasts are sometimes a little bit unrealistic. If you learn how to do a few basic things, you can translate that into doing a few others.

What’s the most important thing to remember in the home kitchen?

Recipes aren’t that important. Learning skills is important. So learning how to use a knife is critical, cooking vegetables, sautéing a piece of fish, roasting a piece of meat. [Just like the saying,] give a man a piece of fish he’ll eat for one day; teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life. It’s about having a skill set that allows you to take any recipe and translate that into something that’s nourishing and good.

What do you like to cook at home?

I hardly ever cook at home. When I do it’s typically in the summertime—something on the grill [like] a piece of fish, a steak or a lamb or something like that. A salad. Very simple food. For me, the simple food is the hardest to prepare. It’s really about sourcing ingredients, building relationships with the farmers you’re working with or the fishermen, your grocery store, your butchers. Having a lot of confidence about where your food comes from is the most important thing.

Do you have a favorite ingredient?

Salt. When you think about what makes food taste good, when you’ve had bland food before, it’s salt that gives flavor. We use salt in just about everything we cook. Learning how to use salt is a pretty incredible thing.

Where do you source ingredients for your restaurants?

Quality drives everything for us. Whether it’s a farm that’s five miles away or across the continent, it’s really about the quality of the ingredients. The local thing is really misunderstood. It’s nice to think you can get everything locally, but it’s impossible. If there’s a farmer somewhere growing really great carrots and you can get his carrots, that’s the most important thing, rather than buying somebody’s carrots that are local that aren’t very good.

You travel quite a bit. Where do you derive culinary inspiration?

Inspiration is a misused term. True inspiration will happen a couple of times in our lives, if we’re lucky. What we’re really talking about is being influenced by things. You get a cookbook, you’re influenced by a cookbook. Inspiration is something different. We have a great sense of knowledge in our restaurants, so we influence one another. Sometimes we’re influenced by what happens around the world. But we try to be influenced by ourselves and try to evolve all of our cuisine, philosophy and culture within our restaurants. Trying to pick influences outside, that just gets too confusing. Inner influence is better than outer influence in our restaurants.

What are you planning for Ultimo, a culinary event this month at the Venetian?

This is the first time I’ve done Ultimo. It’s in celebration of the Ment’Or competition, [which kicks off the event on December 17]. It’s our national competition that chooses the team that will go to Lyon, France, in 2017 to compete in the Bocuse D’Or [the world’s most prestigious culinary competition for young chefs]. We won silver this year, which is the first time Americans got on the podium in 30 years.

[For Ultimo’s Grand Banquet], we want to make sure that we’re giving the guests something that they want. We have this great beef that we do, where we remove a piece of the deckle from the prime rib and then use that cut separately. For me it’s the most flavorful piece of the animal. It’s going to be a good event. It will be about food that’s simply prepared, so hopefully we’ll be able to succeed in that and give our guests a great time.

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