Wednesday, October 14, 2009
THOMAS KELLER b OCTOBER 14 1955
ann & i had dinner at the french laundry; & yes, before you ask, it was one of the best meals we've ever had at a restaurant. this was back in '03. i've got pics of me on my crutches from my second foot surgery outside the restaurant. if we ever figure out how to work the damn printer/fax/scanner, i'll post that pic. we don't know anyone else who's been lucky enough to score dinner reservations. mike & eka had lunch there after they'd introduced that service several years after our dinner there. i think lunch is a different animal there. at this point, i think dinner is too. we ate there before the michelin fuss & the canonization of keller, really. i actually saw keller back in the kitchen(he's a tall guy)as i hobbled around the small courtyard prior to seating. nowadays, it's pretty rare to get the headliner behind the stoves.
ann was still a vegetarian then & she's still a little irked that she didn't get to take full advantage of this guy's extraordinary offerings. as a meat eating vegetarian cook at the time, i was thrilled to see what he put on her plate for sheer inventiveness & doubly thrilled w/what he put on my plate for sheer possessive gluttony. it has to be said that all the portions are small, so gluttony isn't the impulse you're acting upon while eating there but if someone had tried to even sample my stuffed trotters served over humble lentils in a heavenly pork jus, there would have been trouble.
this guy knows what the fuck he's doing.
that's no longer a guarantee in restaurants these days. keller & colicchio & passot & various other chefs of a certain age went through all the tortures of real chef training. read jaques pepin's incredible memoir, my life in the kitchen, & you'll get an idea of what a chef HAD to do to succeed back in the day. colicchio wrote a story in his first cookbook about his staging in a small french restaurant WAY out of paris & the head chef insisting he bone out rabbits. the next day, he was made to deal w/geese. it went on & on. they never laid off. alfred portale, in his first cookbook, writes about being made to clean out the wood burning ovens in his first french stage at another out of the way french country restaurant. after the first week, it dawned on him this didn't have to be done(for whatever reasons he's concocted in his brain during his trial). he was granted a brief moment w/the head chef & blurted out his revelation. the chef didn't look up from his paperwork. "clean the stoves," was all he said. he did too.
can anyone imagine one of the ding dongs on top chef putting up w/this kind of training? these numbnuts have only worked in american kitchens. if they received a cherished "stage" in france or italy, it was done at the behest of someone like keller & they weren't treated badly or put through the kitchen wringer as in days gone by. they were shuffled off to some corner of the kitchen where they'd do the LEAST amount of damage until their time was up. after a proper amount of time w/whatever american celebrity chef, these folks head out, open their own restaurants, & we, the public, get to deal w/their messes both on & off our plates.
i don't think i'm being cynical here. it's just the way things are in the business these days. at this point, a dinner at the french laundry or per se costs over double of what ann paid for my b'day dinner back in '03. keller has opened places(eg, bouchon, ann's favorite place in all the world)that are suppose to be reasonably priced w/comparable quality ingredients. i never thought those prices were particularly reasonable; when the bottom fell out, i'd have to say these aren't bargain eat place anymore.
still, keller is keller, he's paid his dues & i believe, empirically at least, he's the best american chef in america going away.
btw, robuchon is the best chef in america when he's in america.