. . . But, unfortunately, not to open a new restaurant. When asked by an audience member whether he will ever plan to return to L.A. and launch a Southern California sister to his Napa Valley French Laundry or Bouchon, chef Thomas Keller, who just opened Per Se in New York, responded with an emphatic “No.” And then he gave Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles and In-N-Out some props.
At noon sharp on Friday, November 12, L.A. Times food writer and author Russ Parsons began the interview, flanked by Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello, Keller’s chef at Bouchon. The setting, casual yet sophisticated, was in the courtyard outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bookshelf, quite fitting for the promotion, Q&A, and book-signing for Keller’s second cookbook, Bouchon, named after his Yountville, California and now Las Vegas locations. The event was promoted as a supplement to an art exhibit at the museum, From Renoir to Matisse: The Eye of Duncan Phillips, but devoted home cooks and Keller fans, with cookbooks in hand, filled limited seats while others stood, clearly attending for the interview and book signing. I was lucky enough to attend on behalf of The Food Section.
As a professional cook and one who has merely peered through the outside windows of the French Laundry, I have always regarded Thomas Keller as untouchable, transcending the title of just “chef.” Genius, perhaps. Master. Perfectionist. But here at the interview, Keller was ten feet away, talking about Bouchon. For me, it brought Keller back to earth.
Introducing Keller to Keller fans is an almost unnecessary gesture, as Parsons alluded to but masterfully pulled off as he shared a few French Laundry stories to kick off the interview. As a long time friend of Keller’s, Parsons captured the roots of the chef's success by describing the persistence and standards for perfection Keller demands in all aspects of his operations.
Parsons first shared with the audience that Keller had to convince a lawyer to take olive oil as compensation in order to assume ownership of the French Laundry in 1994. Then, Parsons continued, in the Laundry’s first years under Keller, profits were recycled (rather than pocketed) back into the restaurant for improvements. This “determination,” said Parsons, was ultimately displayed at the unveiling of the French Laundry Cookbook in Yountville; hours before the event, the kitchen prepped and dining area set were flooded with screeching fire alarms and flame-retardant foam. Somehow, Keller and staff managed to disassemble the entire operation, start from scratch, and continue as nothing had happened while guests sipped champagne in the courtyard.
As the focus of the interview changed from the French Laundry to Bouchon, Keller described his perfect after-work meal at the Laundry’s neighbor (Bouchon is merely a few steps away from the French Laundry): a perfect roast chicken, a wonderful salad, and a glass of red wine. We’re not talking salmon tartare cones or oysters with pearl tapioca sabayon. This is Bouchon, stylistically opposite of the French Laundry but not as different as one may think. Parsons asked Keller to give three words to describe the French Laundry, then three more to describe Bouchon. Two of the words, “refinement” and “luxury,” Keller used to explain both restaurants. Bouchon is in the style of “an urban, Parisian bistro,” grounded in a framework of tradition. However, Bouchon is held to the same standards of refinement as is the French Laundry, said Keller. "Jeffrey [Cerciello] has elevated bistro food [at Bouchon],” he said, likened to what Parsons then described as “Rusticity of an extremely polished sort.” Cerciello gave an example of this polished rusticity by explaining the preparation of Leg of Lamb with Flageolets, a signature dish at Bouchon. Cerciello “elevates” this classic bistro dish by separating the lamb muscle into its four natural parts, getting rid of connective tissue, and cooking them separately. This French Laundry-esque technique results in a more palatable and refined end-product, perhaps now resembling a loin, “but it still eats and still is leg of lamb,” remarked Cerciello. A beautiful photo of this finished, “polished” dish can be found on page 216 in Bouchon.
Bouchon as Bistro
Bouchon was named after the traditional type of restaurant from the region of Lyon in France, which is home to the some two-dozen authentic bouchons. Keller explained in the interview and describes in the book that he avoided using the word “bistro” in the naming of the restaurant due to its unfocused and vast connotation. He mentioned that the word “bistro” is used too lightly today, no longer associated with a style of traditional cuisine but rather a price-point. Keller has captured the integrity of the bouchon while maintaining the style of a Parisian bistro. Cerciello, as chef, has elevated and refined bistro cuisine at Bouchon, keeping standards and employing techniques he had learned at the French Laundry.
The Book: "A Collaborative Effort"
Bouchon resembles the French Laundry Cookbook in design, size, and awe-factor. Keller was quick to point out the “collaborative effort” that it took to produce such a book. Just as he describes a diners experience at Bouchon as a “cohesive whole,” making note of the bistro-style ambiance and decor as being just as important as the food, Keller modestly noted that “As much as the French Laundry Cookbook is mine, the Bouchon Cookbook is Jeffrey’s.” He continued to give credit where it was due, mentioning all contributors to the book, including Susie Heller and her meticulous translations of recipes for home kitchens, Michael Ruhlman with his distinctive story-telling style, and Deborah Jones who captured the entire process with captivating, mouthwatering photographs.
On page 117 in Bouchon, Keller describes his first encounter with a bistro: “The restaurant was a classically designed bistro, dark and smoky, big dark wood banquettes, a great bar. It was sexy. It was an example of one of the few restaurant designs that almost universally seduces people.” This idea of the simple, romantic bistro is a foundation throughout the book, but Keller and crew manage to take certain elements—of a recipe, a technique, or food item—to a philosophical level. "The Importance of The Pig" (page 143) segues into a tutorial on Trotters, pig’s feet, and their contribution to the bistro. The book is peppered with stories, side-notes, and passionate anecdotes ranging from the methods used to farm and store oysters to the philosophy behind glazing vegetables properly. Keller introduces every recipe with a personal comment or explanation of each dish, often exemplifying the “why” behind certain techniques and recipe choices. "Big Pot Blanching" for vegetables is explained in depth (a Keller classic). The significance of completely incorporating the butter when making Basic Quiche Shell (page 88) is stressed. The key to the perfect Macaroon, and why, is described on page 310. The book is certainly inspiring for all serious cooks, in homes and in restaurants, making for great reading as well as cooking.
As the interview concluded, the audience formed a line for the book signing. An hour later, after many requested photographs and hearty handshakes, it was my turn. As I stood in line I tried to think of something to ask Keller. Was there a certain tidbit of all-encompassing kitchen wisdom to pass on to a cook like me? Perhaps an inspiring quote or philosophical one-liner to take back to the restaurant? Alas, I simply shook his hand and said it was nice to meet him. He said the same, and I silently wondered if he used a Sharpie, like the one he used to sign my book, in his restaurants to label product. I moved on to Cerciello, who also scrolled his signature with a Sharpie. With a little more courage now, I asked him the proper way to handle mussels for service. He told me that at Bouchon, mussels are cleaned only as needed (i.e. to order), because as soon as the beard is removed, the mussels die. This struck me as labor intensive, but I realized this simple attention to detail is the foundation of success at Keller’s restaurants. Keller brings this attention to detail to Bouchon, with his recipe for Onion Soup (page 47) as perhaps the best example of a modest, simple dish turned into something perfectly luxurious and refined.
COOKBOOK CONVERSATION As pictured above, chef Thomas Keller (seated) signs copies of his new book Bouchon following an interview at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art conducted by Los Angeles Times staff writer Russ Parsons (standing). Photo by Kristin Franklin.