A Great Chef

My cashier at the grocery store was a young guy with a freckled complexion and tousled hair, maybe 20 years old, and he was talkative. The minute I reciprocated his greeting, I learned the following: he was fine; he was almost done with work; that fact was sort of good, but sort of not, because he’d only worked 4 hours that day, because he was only part-time. I asked if he was in school. He said he wasn’t, because he couldn’t afford it yet, but he was saving up for cooking school. He scanned and bagged quickly as he talked.

In answer to my question, he told me there were a few good cooking schools around: the Culinary Institute of America, in Portland, and the Cordon Bleu, although that one was too expensive. “Over-priced,” he reiterated. He told me about the cooking shows he watches, on TV.

“See what I do,” he said, “is take regular ingredients and make something of them. We’ve never had a lot of money but…well, the other night…” and then he eagerly rattled off a list of ingredients he’d used to make an ordinary pasta dish sing.

“Well, maybe you’ve got a good palate,” I encouraged. “They say that’s the most important thing.”

He was so hopeful, so sweet. I wanted to speak with him longer, but the next customer was pressing in behind me. The boy continued to talk even as I reluctantly inched away. I wish I could offer to sponsor him, I thought.

I loved the eager light in his eyes, his unusual dreams. I loved that he wasn’t just listlessly jamming groceries in a bag. Of course, I have no idea if he has any real talent; no idea how far he can really go. Maybe he’ll end up cooking dinners for his family, or frying bacon and eggs at the local IHOP.

Or just maybe, he’s the next Thomas Keller.

If you’re not a serious “foodie” you may not be familiar with Thomas Keller – but chances are, you’ve seen his work. The signature finale dish in the Pixar movie “Ratatouille”? That recipe was Keller’s creation. Producers for the movie followed him around, filming him as research for the animators. In a moment of inspiration, Keller chopped a handful of vegetables, fanned them out, and voila – that recipe (and a bit of celluloid history) was born.

To understand why Pixar selected Keller, out of all the famous chefs in the world, you need only know a little more about him.

Keller is the only American chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants, Per Se in New York, and The French Laundry in California. He has been feted by every culinary magazine and organization imaginable, and has landed on every “best of” list, multiple times: Best American Chef. Chef of the Year. Best Cookbook. Best Restaurant…in the World.

Three years after he opened The French Laundry in the Napa Valley (in a building that had once housed a saloon and later, a laundry-house), it was named “the most exciting restaurant in America” by The New York Times. There is a two-month waiting list to get in. If you’re lucky enough to get reservations, you will pay a very large sum of money for the privilege of eating whatever exquisite dish the chef chooses to make on that particular day.

Not a bad gig for a kid who never even went to culinary school.

Keller was (willingly) thrown into a kitchen at a young age, by his mother, who ran a restaurant. One summer Keller caught the eye of a French cook, who decided to mentor him in French cooking. Keller went on to work in a variety of different restaurants, eventually making his way to France, where he apprenticed under a number of classical chefs.

After returning to America in the 80’s, Keller bounced through a series of kitchens before coming to rest at his trademark California restaurant, in 1994. Before long, he had turned that tiny eatery into an international sensation.

Among the culinary elite, Keller is known as an inventive artist who believes that cooking should be more about emotional connection and less about mechanics. He’s also a perfectionist. His waiters (who all wear identical suits, regardless of gender) were taught how to walk around the dining room by an instructor from the American Ballet Theater. When Keller is in the kitchen, he examines every dish that goes out – and every one that comes back with uneaten food on it. No single ingredient is ever repeated throughout his nine-course meals. His menu changes every day.

But Keller is also known for his playful touch, his lack of stuffiness. Although he once paid $2000 for a single white truffle, he’s a big fan of In-and-Out, where he eats about once a month. Some of his creations are downright fun, like his well-loved Cornets (below), canapés in the shape of ice cream cones, or his “Oysters and Pearls” (caviar-topped oysters on top of tapioca), an item that has inspired copy-cat dishes in fine restaurants around the country.

Keller’s restaurants utilize the highest-tech gadgets and equipment, including a real-time video-conferencing system between his New York and Napa Valley kitchens, which his chefs use for communication and training (and which the Napa Valley chefs sometimes use when they want to taunt the New York crew with dazzling fresh vegetables from the French Laundry garden.)

Some friends of mine had lunch at The French Laundry a few weeks ago, and when I asked them about it they offered up a long list of charming details, from the server who led them to an unmarked bathroom that had real cloth towels; to the older gentleman who walked around the dining room with a fancy wooden box full of truffles; to the take-home gift at the end of the meal, a stack of shortbread done up with a bow.

I will probably never consume one of Thomas Keller’s creations, but I love reading about his creativity, his exacting standards, his special flair. And I love looking at pictures of his gorgeous dishes.

Here’s to wonderful chefs, present and future. Those who can spend millions on state-of-the-art equipment, and those who have to fiddle with wonky old stoves in home kitchens. Those who can spend two grand for a truffle, and those who clip coupons and only buy meat when it’s on sale.

Here’s to my hopeful young cashier, the boy with the homemade recipes and the dreams.



14 thoughts on “A Great Chef

  1. Don’t you just wish you had the ability to make others be able to achieve their dreams? I wish I could cook like that but I need to have a recipe first and then I can tweak it. I just don’t normally have the time to really get creative. Oh well! It’s fun to look at the photos of the things others can create!

    • Yeah, I’m pretty much a recipe follower. Although when I’m cooking, now, I don’t really measure ingredients (still do for baking, though!)

      Are we twitter buds? Let me know if not…but I think we are. Thanks for coming by!

  2. I think you should give the kid then the store a link to this post. Who knows, it just may be thing that inspires him to get out of the store and into a restaurant kitchen!

  3. I love food but I’m too ignorant to consider myself a foodie. I think I have pretty refined tastes, but I’ll also eat just about anything (you gotta live, right?). How’s that for irony?

    If your cashier friend maintains his passion, I’m sure he’ll find a way to achieve his dreams.

  4. Hey what a coincidence we were just there too! We had to drop everything and scurry when we got the call that are name had been picked from the wait listA

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