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Thomas Keller's Culinary Empire

Since first setting up shop in Northern California in 1994, the master of gastronomy has helped elevate the American palate. Now, he’s bringing craft beer along for the ride.
Thomas Keller Gastronomy
Thomas Keller (photo credit: pursuitist.com)

Stepping unaware into the dining room of Thomas Keller’s flagship restaurant in Yountville, California, one would never guess the intimate six-table space occupies a former steam laundry. The room’s interior, from the kiva-style fireplace to the fresh flowers atop each table, is more evocative of a cozy living room. But it is here, under soft lighting and the watchful eye of an exactingly efficient staff, that foodies of the highest order come from far and wide to sup on morsels from a kitchen regarded by many as the most forward-thinking in the country. This is the French Laundry, where food is art and dinner is a theatrical tour de force.

Shortly after being seated, guests are treated to Chef Keller’s signature amuse, the Coronet, a sphere of finely chopped salmon tartare resting like a scoop of ice cream atop a sesame-tinged tuile rolled into a petite cone. From there, what dishes will follow are anybody’s guess, as the multi-course tasting menu changes daily. The evening’s offerings may include Japanese toro served with sea urchin and razor clams accented with coconut and lime, or a play on chateaubriand featuring naturally raised veal, cépe mushroom ravioli and a caper jus. Then there is the popular Oysters and Pearls: butter-poached oysters served with a quenelle of Osetra caviar over pearl tapioca suspended in a rich, peppery sabayon. Dishes like these are showy examples of the scrumptious marriage of tastes and textures that has helped make Thomas Keller a household name among gastronomes.

One of America’s leading culinary practitioners, Keller has used innovative techniques, stringent standards and cutting-edge cuisine to vault himself to the apex of the American food scene. Since opening the French Laundry (www.frenchlaundry.com) in 1994, he has amassed a multitude of top ratings and high-profile awards, including the Best Chef in America nod from the James Beard Foundation in 1997.

From the beginning, Keller’s objective has been to cook the food he wants on his own terms. This is best exemplified by the dining format at the French Laundry, where patrons book almost impossible-to-come-by reservations months in advance and pay $250 apiece (before drinks) to dine on what is, essentially, the chef’s whim du jour. There’s no way of knowing which dishes will grace the Laundry list on any given night, but Keller’s dishes and, consequently, his reputation are such that he flourishes despite this unorthodox setup.

The number of restaurants in his empire has risen in tandem with his stock. In 1998, Keller opened Bouchon (www.bouchonbistro.com), a moderately priced eatery with an adjoining bakery situated a few blocks down the street from the French Laundry that serves French bistro-style fare made, of course, from scratch. It proved such a hit that iterations of Bouchon have since arrived in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.

In 2004, Keller and his by then quite robust culinary team ventured to New York to throw open the doors to Per Se (www.perseny.com), an East Coast take on the French Laundry experience complete with the tasting menu format and a panoramic view of Central Park. Many a food enthusiast wondered if Keller’s standards and innovative fare would survive the cross-country trip, but both quickly proved to have made the journey intact, as Per Se drew instant rave reviews from patrons and critics alike.

Two years later Keller further diversified his portfolio by opening Ad Hoc (www.adhocrestaurant.com), a restaurant also near the French Laundry that has a comfortably homey aesthetic and serves four-course, family-style meals. It began as an experiment with a finite lifespan but was such a big hit that it became a permanent fixture for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.

With such an extensive number of venues to oversee, the self-made man who did it his way has made collaboration the core of his restaurants. Literally every member of Keller’s staff – from the chef de cuisines to the line cooks to the front of the house crew – is not only free but encouraged to share whatever ideas they have for introducing a new offering or service to their clientele.

“One thing I love about what we do at our restaurants is we have ideas that come from our team members and evolve into a permanent place in our restaurant and the legacy and stories behind that are so great,” said Keller in a recent interview. “It’s important to have open ears. Ideas we’ve implemented have been brought up by people you’d think have no experience, but because we have the culture we have they know they can comment and be heard. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea. It’s up to them to come to me with what they want to do, why they want to do it and prove why it’ll work.”

Some ideas are easier sells than others. A prime example is Blue Apron, a craft beer produced exclusively for Keller’s restaurant group by Brooklyn Brewery.

“Like many things, this idea began for another purpose,” said Keller. “Every year, each restaurant is tasked with defining a holiday gift for our investors and V.I.P.’s. Three years ago, Jonathan Benno, the chef at Per Se, worked up a real New York-themed Christmas gift – a duck breast pastrami sandwich with good house-made mustard, rye bread and a great knife.”

“As we brainstormed about the perfect wine pairing, we realized the best choice wasn’t a wine at all, but instead a beer,” added James Hayes, the group’s associate beverage director. “After tasting the dish and determining the best flavors to match it, we settled on a strong brown Belgian ale.”

Keller signed off on the idea, and Benno and Hayes were off and running. Fortunately, they didn’t have to run too far to find the right brewer to transform their idea into an auburn, full-bodied and heady reality.

“We knew Blue Apron had to be something distinctly New York,” said Hayes. “When thinking about a partner, Garrett Oliver and Brooklyn Brewery were the first names we came up with. [They’re] local, amazing at their craft and as New York as it gets.”

Hayes hopped on the L Train and headed to Brooklyn to meet with Oliver and discuss the flavor profiles he and Benno were looking for. In the end, the beer Oliver created not only paired exceptionally with the company’s Christmas present but exceeded the expectations of everybody, including the chef himself. The beer was secondary-fermented in corked, 25-ounce bottles and shipped out with a moniker befitting such an exceptional brew.

“When coming up with the name for the beer, we thought, this is coming from an artisanal brewery, and it comes from our culture, who we are as a group, philosophically,” said Keller. “A blue apron in the restaurant kitchen environment represents an artisan approach, a blue collar person who’s working. All of our chefs wear blue aprons. The only white aprons are worn by the chef de cuisine and sous. We don’t mind rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.”

Keller’s group only needed 80 bottles to fulfill its gift-giving needs, leaving several hundred cases of Blue Apron behind after Santa’s sleigh lifted off. Keller and his team decided the best outlets for the spicy Belgian tipple were the original Bouchon and Ad Hoc. While famous for restaurants equipped with much-acclaimed, nearly unrivaled wine lists, Keller and his staff were quite green where craft brew was concerned and had no idea how well it would sell. As it turns out, it took but a mere few weeks for them to go through the initial stock.

“It was something that our guests found and liked so much that they drank it all,” said Keller, who at the time of the interview had just run out of his third bottling of Blue Apron and was anxiously awaiting the next batch.

Given this level of success, it’s not surprising that earlier this year Keller and his colleagues decided to commission a second signature brew. This sophomore effort would be to the West Coast what Blue Apron was to the East Coast, a handcrafted product that paid homage to local artisans and the region from which it hailed. It also needed to fulfill Keller’s request for a light-bodied, refreshing beer that would be perfect for a line cook to enjoy after a long, hot night of work. This translated to a crisp, refreshing Pilsner with distinctive hop character. Enter, White Apron. 

“When we started thinking about White Apron, I sat down with Garrett to ask his advice about a partner in California who he felt was at the top of their game and would be willing to work with us on a similar project,” said Hayes. “His first answer was Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River Brewing Company,” the much-lauded Sonoma County brewery. 

Cilurzo turned to his intimate knowledge of hops to give the beer an assertive backbone and palate-cleansing appeal. “To me, when comparing brewing to cooking, hops are the herb and spice,” Cilurzo said recently. “Much like what I do, a lot of what [Keller] does is based on creativity. When we got the call to collaborate on White Apron I jumped at the chance.”

White Apron has proven every bit as successful as its navy-hued predecessor, helping to cement American craft beer as a mainstay at some of the nation’s finest restaurants. It’s no small feat and one brought about, like so many big endeavors, by a surprising genesis. “When we started out, this was solely to create a Christmas gift, but it was done so well from a production and design aspect that, now, it’s a part of our culture and what we do,” said Keller, who cites the fast-growing respect for high-quality food in America as the driving force behind craft beer’s rapidly rising popularity. 

“Americans are stepping up to the plate in a serious way and embracing these artisanal processes,” he said. “And it’s great because we have the resources and the knowledge, and now we also have the market to do them.”


RECIPE: D.I.Y. GOURMET

Dying to sample Chef Keller’s cuisine? Try your hand at this Bouchon favorite.

Cod Brandade with Tomato Confit & Fried Sage

“This is Bouchon’s version of the dish called brandade, which dates to the early nineteenth century. It’s poached salt cod mixed to a virtual paste with olive oil and milk (and sometimes potato), then served as a spread or sautéed as a fish cake. Here the cod mixture is coated in a fritter batter and deep-fried – our version of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks – served on some tomato confit and garnished with fried sage leaves. But it can also be put in a baking dish, sprinkled with panko (Japanese bread crumbs), and baked until hot, then spread on a baguette. A quintessential bistro dish. Bouchon salts its own cod; the entire process can take up to six days, but it can be made well ahead (we like to salt it two months ahead to give it added character). It’s easy to do and ensures an excellent result, but salt cod can be found in many specialty markets as well; you will need eight ounces of prepared salt cod for this recipe.”  – Thomas Keller

Adapted from “Bouchon” by Thomas Keller (Artisan Books, 2004).

Ingredients 

(Makes six servings.)

Cod:

1 pound Atlantic cod fillet (of even thickness; about 1 inch),

skin and bones removed

Kosher salt

 

Tomato Confit:

(Makes 24 pieces.)

12 plum tomatoes

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp minced thyme

 

Garlic Confit:

(Makes 45 cloves.)

1 cup peeled garlic cloves (about 45 cloves)

About 2 cups canola oil

 

Brandade:

1 1/2 pounds (2 large) russet potatoes

Milk

5 large cloves Garlic Confit, chopped to a paste

Pinch of sweet paprika

About 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground white pepper

 

Batter:

1 cup cake flour

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp cornstarch

1 tbsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

About 1 cup beer (try an Anchor Steam or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) 

3 to 4 cups peanut oil for deep-frying

18 pieces Tomato Confit

18 sage leaves

Kosher salt

 

PREPARATION

For the Cod: Measure the thickness of the cod fillet: A 1-inch-thick piece will cure in four days, a 3/4-inch-thick piece in about three, so calculate the curing time based on the fillet you have. Line a container that just holds the cod and is at least 3 inches deep with about an inch of kosher salt. Nestle the cod in the salt and cover with another layer of salt. Cover and place in the refrigerator to cure. When ready, the salted cod will be very stiff. Rinse the salt off the fish and dry the fish with paper towels. Place on a rack set over a plate and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours to allow all the moisture to evaporate.

(At this point, the cod can be wrapped well in plastic wrap and refrigerated for several days or frozen for up to 2 months. You will need an 8-ounce piece of cod for this recipe; extra cod can be frozen for another use.)

To rehydrate the cod, place the fish in a large deep container and cover with 4 quarts of cold water. Soak the cod in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours, depending on the thickness; a 1-inch-thick piece will take the full 24 hours. Change the water every 8 hours or so. The cod is ready when it feels like fresh cod fillet again.

For the Tomato Confit: Preheat the oven to 250°F. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice. With a paring knife, cut out and discard the stem end of each tomato. Cut a small X on the opposite end and place the tomatoes in a large bowl.

Pour the boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit for about 15 seconds. The riper the tomato, the more easily the skin will peel. To check, lift a tomato and pull away the skin. As soon as it peels off easily from one tomato, drain the tomatoes and cover them with the ice to chill quickly.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Once the tomatoes have cooled, remove them from the ice and peel them. Cut them lengthwise in half and place cut side up on the baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt, pepper, and thyme.

Place the sheet in the oven and cook for 5 to 6 hours, or until the tomatoes are dried about halfway through; they will have shrunk but should still be moist. Let cool on the baking sheet.

Layer the tomatoes in a storage container and pour the oil remaining on the baking sheet over the top. (The tomatoes can be refrigerated for up to a week.)

For the Garlic Confit: Cut off and discard the root ends of the garlic cloves. Place the cloves in a small saucepan and add enough oil to cover them by about 1 inch – none of the garlic cloves should be poking through the oil.

Place the saucepan on a diffuser over medium-low heat. The cloves should cook gently: Very small bubbles will come up through the oil, but the bubbles should not break the surface. Adjust the heat as necessary and move the pan to one side of the diffuser if it is cooking too quickly. Cook the garlic for about 40 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until the cloves are completely tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the garlic to cool in the oil.

Refrigerate the garlic, submerged in the oil, for up to a month.

For the Brandade: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prick the potatoes with a fork, place them on an oven rack, and bake until tender, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, organize the remaining ingredients and equipment – it is important to work with the cod and potatoes while they are still warm. Rinse the cod and place it in a small saucepan with milk to cover. As soon as the potatoes are baked, place the saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the milk to just below a simmer, and poach the fish gently for 3 to 5 minutes. The poached fish should be tender and flaky. Remove from the heat.

As soon as the potatoes are done, halve them, scoop out the flesh, and press it through the finest disk of a food mill or a ricer. At the restaurant, we then put it through a tamis (drum sieve) for an even finer texture, but that is optional. Cover the potatoes with plastic wrap to keep them warm.

Drain the poached cod, discarding the milk; place the cod in a food processor and pulse a few times to break it up. Keep the pulsing brief: If the cod is over-processed, it will become mushy. Add the garlic and paprika and pulse a few times. Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil and pulse a few times, then add another 1/4 cup and pulse. Add another 1/4 cup and pulse a few times. Then transfer to large bowl.

With a rubber spatula, fold half of the warm potatoes into the cod mixture. Taste the mixture and begin to add the remaining potatoes, tasting often: Brandade is generally made with equal parts of potatoes and cod, but the amount of potato added depends on the saltiness of the cod – you should still be able to taste the salt cod. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons more olive oil: You want a good balance of potato, cod and the fruitiness of the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

For the Batter: Mix the cake flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add the beer and stir with a spoon; the batter should remain slightly lumpy and be thick. Let the batter sit for about 10 minutes, or up to 2 hours. Preheat the oven to 300°F.

To Complete: Roll the brandade into 18 balls of about 2 tablespoons each. Heat at least 3 inches of peanut oil to 350°F in a deep fryer or large, deep saucepan. You will need to cook the brandade in several batches: The first ones can be kept warm on a platter in the oven until all are completed. Add about half the balls of brandade to the batter and spoon batter over them to cover on all sides, then carefully place in the hot oil, without crowding. Turn the balls as necessary to brown all sides evenly; total cooking time will be 4 to 5 minutes per batch. To test for doneness, insert a metal skewer into the center of a ball. Remove it after a few seconds and touch your lip with the skewer: It should be warm.

Meanwhile, when the last batch goes into the oil, put the tomato confit in a pan and warm in the oven for about 5 minutes.

When all the brandade is cooked, throw some sage leaves into the hot oil and cook for a few seconds, until crisp, then drain on paper towels.

To Serve: Place 3 pieces of tomato confit in the center of each plate. Place a ball of brandade on top of each piece and garnish the plates with the sage leaves and a sprinkling of salt.

 

BEER PAIRING

“White Apron is a Pilsner, which is perfect for the creamy texture of the brandade – it cuts through the rich flavor of the fish, and the palate is left clean and refreshed.  There is a touch of fruit in the mid-palate that connects with the sweetness of the tomato, and the fried sage enhances the herbal, hoppy notes on the beer’s finish. This is the kind of dish that lends itself to a great number of different beers, but I think the key to a great pairing combines fresh, crisp acidity, a little fruitiness in the middle and a touch of bitter hoppiness on the end. Certain seasonal summer brews can be a great choice. Drier white ales and pale ales that are easy on the hops will also work well.”  – James Hayes, Associate Beverage Director, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group

At home, try pairing your brandade with a Victory Prima Pils, an Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils, or a classic Saison Dupont.