Watching Chef Hubert Keller prepare the kitchen set for filming is delicious torture. The smells are divine, but the food is forbidden; this is a television set and not a restaurant, after all. For the segment that he’s taping—which will be part of the third season of his PBS television series, Hubert Keller: Secrets of a Chef—the aroma is a savory mixture of cured ham, toasted bread and cheese. The makings of an outstanding sandwich.
In case you’ve been living under a pizza stone, Keller is a San Francisco-based French chef who runs multiple restaurants, two of which are in Las Vegas: Fleur (formerly Fleur de Lys) in Mandalay Bay and Burger Bar in the Shoppes at Mandalay Place. He garnered fame beyond the restaurant realm as both a contestant and judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. He’s working on his third cookbook (due out in 2012) and is passionate about his favorite charity, the Make-A-Wish Foundation. But today, his focus is on filming Secrets of a Chef.
Keller’s culinary neighbor—chef Vincent Pouessel of Aureole, the restaurant next door to Fleur—is guest-starring, and it’s his sandwich that the duo is about to demonstrate. With the help of award-winning producer Marjorie Poore, they choreograph the construction of the sandwich as if it’s elegant dance. “You cut the bread,” Poore instructs, “while Pouessel discusses the choice of bread.”
The taping finally starts at Vegas PBS’s studios on East Flamingo Road, and Keller and Pouessel interact in a charming way that builds on each other’s energy. It may not strike you as odd to have a guest chef on a cooking show (or restaurant neighbors who lend each other ingredients when stock runs low), but it’s rare to have friendliness among chefs, where competition often becomes adversarial.
But Keller’s spirit of collaboration—born of a youth spent in the familial atmosphere of French restaurant kitchens (and before that with actual family in his parents’ pastry shop)—is one of Keller’s many attributes. Keller is friendly with a warm, happy smile. His fun, easy sense of humor forces the crew to stifle their laughter in order to stay quiet on the set.
And his gregariousness is not restricted to times when the camera is rolling. Keller displays infinite patience through multiple takes: brushing away crumbs, switching between English and French energetically, and sneaking bites of ham even when the cameras have stopped rolling. That’s just a small example of his tireless work ethic. “I think it’s important that if you’re undertaking something, you might as well do it full speed,” he says.
After several hours, the sandwich is finally made, and the seven-minute television segment is near completion. Poore instructs the duo to put the sandwich in the griddle for one last close-up shot. Keller presses the metal plate down onto the sandwich, and melted butter drips down over the sandwich, magnified to sublimity on the set monitors. The quiet-on-the-set crew silently gasps, and then, when the show is finally over, everybody claps. Keller smiles warmly, and then prepares to film the next segment’s secrets.
In his spare time, Keller loves to DJ. “We were the first upscale, white tablecloth restaurant to have a DJ booth,” Keller says of Fleur de Lys. He continues to create playlists for each of his restaurants, giving each a “different feel.”
Keller’s fun nature hides a deep knowledge of culinary history. Although it may not be obvious to the casual viewer, the layout of Fleur ties back to the first restaurants of pre-Revolutionary France. And his Rossini burger at Burger Bar was inspired by the 19th-century Italian composer.
Keller’s upcoming book will include more than just cooking. “We’re starting basically in the little town where I grew up,” he says. “So the recipes are going to be basically telling my story through food, in the village where I grew, with my apprenticeship, my further experience in the restaurant … and so on.”
When gourmet food has elevated itself to abstraction, Keller would like to encourage us to return to the basics, with dishes such as beef Bourguignon. “It’s basically cooking what we were eating when we grew up,” he says, and adds that the interest in simple foods and home cooking is renewed in these tough economic times.
Believe it or not, many of Keller’s fans are children. They discover him on Top Chef, and then drag their parents to his restaurants during family vacations. “Sometimes I get drawings telling me what I was cooking, from the night they were there,” he says, excited that TV has bred a “whole new clientele and whole new audience, which nobody expected.”