October 9, 2009
"Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do." - Thomas Keller
So says the artistic chef of chefs, Thomas Keller, who has so dominated French-influenced American cuisine for decades. As his birthday is coming up on Oct. 14, it seems appropriate to write about him now.
Keller grew up in California, apprenticed as a cook in many locations around the country, then hopped to France in the 1980s.
The French Laundry, which he started in 1994 in the Napa Valley, launched his extraordinary reputation. Subsequently, he opened Per Se in New York City, which immediately garnered four stars from food critic Frank Bruni of The New York Times. There is also Bouchon in Yountville, New York.
Time Magazine dubbed Keller, Best Chef in 2001, and he's received several Best Chef Awards from the James Beard Foundation.
Keller believes a great meal is an emotional experience, a journey, and so he tries to create this via ambiance as well as the attention to detail for which he is renowned. He's called Per Se -- which opened on Feb. 16, 2004, then after a fire, reopened May 1 of the same year in Manhattan -- an urban interpretation of The French Laundry; the two are connected by symbols such as the blue door, a garden and fireplace.
He has helped to make famous the sous-vide (under vacuum) style of cooking that is known to preserve the integrity of ingredients by allowing them to cook at lower temperatures for a longer time. Georges Pralus developed the method in France in the 1970s, and it's also been utilized by Ferran Adria and Charlie Trotter, among others.
Since bacteria tends to grow in the absence of oxygen, sous-vide style cooking requires close monitoring in order to avoid botulism poisoning, but also because the difference of even a degree can radically affect the final product.
A classic Keller recipe employing this method is his slow cooking cassoulet, a dish of white beans and pork parts, with white wine and tomato paste.
Keller's books are The French Laundry Cookbook, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous-Vide. His latest, Bouchon, is an homage to simple French bistro fare.