Thomas Keller: The Laundry man cometh

He is the chef and owner of 'the Best Restaurant in the World', and for ten days only you can sample his genius in London. Thomas Keller tells John Walsh why £250 per head is a small price to pay...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

From 1 October, for just 10 days, the venerable Georgian restaurant on the fourth floor of Harrods department store will experience a remarkable invasion. In a space specially set aside in the ancient kitchen, a simulacrum of Thomas Keller's legendary French Laundry will dish up nine-course meals that replicate the experience of dinner at the three-Michelin-star eaterie in Yountville, California.

The Laundry's beautiful white plates will be used, the same napery, the same cutlery... "Well, we're trying to get the cutlery," says Keller, plaintively, "we'll do the best we can. We're trying to get our sconces on the wall, get chairs that resemble the ones designed for the restaurant, there'll be a blue door – we're hoping that people will get a sense of being at The French Laundry. Of course, there'll be no vegetable garden..." We can probably live without the vegetable garden. Hundreds of British foodies would bite off their left arm for a chance to experience Keller's cuisine: to try his nine-course tasting menu, his famous "Oysters and Pearls" (see recipe at the bottom of the page) – a sabayon of pearl tapioca with island-creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar – or his "Coffee and Doughnuts", cinnamon-sugared doughnuts served with a coffee cup full of cappuccino mousse topped with frothed milk. The homely titles conceal an obsessive attention to detail and a passion for finding the best ingredients in America.

It's brought a few accolades. The French Laundry has been named "Best Restaurant in the World" in successive Top 50 lists in Restaurant magazine – and given the same accolade by the notoriously hard-to-please chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain. Keller is routinely mentioned in the same breath as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, despite his lack of interest in avant-garde cuisine. He's fêted as a Ramsay without the fury, a Blanc with a soupçon more passion. When the Pixar studios made Ratatouille, Keller was the inspiration for the restaurant's chef-patron.

We meet in the Ladurée restaurant in Harrods, surrounded by pastel-pink and pistachio-green macarons. Keller, 55, is a slim and nervy chap with a careworn face pitched between Kevin Costner and the singer Loudon Wainwright III. Is he flying in the food for the Harrods pop-up service from California? "We discovered that one of the meat suppliers we use in New York supplies to Harrods, so there was already a connection there." So he didn't have to ring round London, then, asking if anyone could recommend a butcher? "That's what my initial emails were about," he says, "to friends like Michel Roux and Heston [Blumenthal] and Daniel [Boulud] and Tom Aikens. And, of course, we have Harrods Food Hall too. It's not too bad."

He's keeping quiet, for now, about the nine courses he'll offer the lucky few who benefit from his 10-day stint – but he's announced that it'll cost £250 per head. Whaaat? Isn't this freakishly expensive, particularly as the real French Laundry charges £160? Keller becomes defensive. "If we actually had a restaurant here, we wouldn't charge that much. The expense of doing the pop-up adds to the cost: bringing over 30 people, putting them in a house somewhere, paying for the food. Put it this way – if you were going to the real French Laundry for dinner tonight: you'd have to get on an airplane, fly for 12 hours, get a car, drive for an hour-and-a-half to the restaurant, spend £160 for dinner each and, if you don't stay the night you'll get back to London, and if you travel coach that's an $800 round trip, plus transportation to the Laundry from the airport..."

OK, I say, I get it. It's a bargain.

"And if you stayed overnight, which would be more manageable, it'd be another $300 or £180, so it's £620 to visit the Laundry, have dinner and stay over one night. For one person. And," he concludes triumphantly, "that's without counting the wine." So there. A pugnacious fellow, Mr K.

After The French Laundry took off in the late 1990s, Keller opened his first Bouchon restaurant down the road in Yountville. It sold fabulous steak frites, moules à la Basquaise, trout with almonds and gigot d'agneau – classic French-bistro stuff. There are now three Bouchons (in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills as well) and his offshoot Bouchon Bakery, offering muffins, tarts and pastries, opened a branch this year in New York, where Keller's second fine-dining venue, Per Se, was launched in 2004, to ecstatic reviews in the New Yorker and The New York Times.

Back in San Francisco in 2006, he diversified again with Ad Hoc, a slightly cheaper fixed-price establishment. So, is the Harrods pop-up the bridgehead for an assault on Europe? "No," he says warily, "there's no intention of trying to do that." But he is rather an empire-builder, isn't he? Keller, characteristically, takes this as a criticism. "This is a new era for the chef. The last generation of chefs had one restaurant, one menu, one life. They stayed strapped to their stoves, and weren't physically able to keep up with the new guard. They died broken-hearted and financially broke, in a restaurant nobody came into anymore. Today's chef has opportunities to do things. You're looking at it from point of view of expansion or financial gain, or fame and fortune. That has nothing to do with it. I think it's about opportunities. [With a string of restaurants] we're able to continue to be part of a team, without needing to be in the same restaurant every day."

Why, I ask, do you give your restaurants Latin names? Per Se? Ad Hoc? What next? Nil Desperandum? In Flagrante Delicto? He smiles. "I was thinking maybe Ad Lib..."

He was born in 1955 in Oceanside, California. His father, a marine drill sergeant, left home when Thomas, the youngest of five boys, was five; Thomas didn't see him again for decades, but when they were reunited the old man moved next door to The French Laundry. Thomas's mother Betty worked as a restaurant manager. To the teenaged Thomas, the restaurant was a second home. He learnt to cook at the Palm Beach Yacht Club in Florida, where the family went to live. In the early 1970s he was taken up by Roland G Henin, the masterchef, who taught him classical French cooking – "but mostly, he taught me about nurturing. I think chefs are nurturers. We're not scientists. We're not here to bombard you with all kinds of sensory overload. What I do is try to get the most extraordinary ingredients I can, prepare them in a way that's going to elevate their quality and present them in a way that nurtures you."

Keller calls his creations "American food" despite his training in French-derived techniques. "Today we don't talk about French or American cuisine. When you talk about the greatest chefs in the worlds, what cuisine do you talk about?" Alain Ducasse could not be more traditionally French, I say. His stuff harks back to Escoffier and Careme. Locatelli's cuisine comes mostly from his old granny... "No," says Keller firmly, "Each of the great chefs has a personality attached to his or her food."

He maintains that excellence in the kitchen is 50 per cent raw materials and 50 per cent execution – a split you may have heard before, but Mr Keller is crazily passionate about his ingredients. Once he's found the right vegetable or chicken, he'll stick with it, no matter where it is.

"The word 'local' for me has nothing to do with geography," he says. "To me it's about the quality of the product. If my lamb comes from Pennsylvania and is the best I can buy, then it's local. If my Pennsylvania farmer has established a system for raising his land that's sustainable, that's holistic, he becomes a shining example for people to see how they should raise animals. But if this farmer can only sell his lamb locally – within 200 miles of his farm, say – he'll go broke. You have to say, I'm going to ship Keith Martin's lamb to California, via an airplane and two trucks. I'm gonna support him by buying the entire animal, not just the ribs and saddle, so he can make some money for himself and his family, to keep the project going. I'm going to support him in The French Laundry, in Bouchon, in Ad Hoc, in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas – and you know what else? I'm gonna call up my colleagues and say, 'If you want the best lamb, buy from Keith Martin.' If none of that happened, Keith Martin wouldn't exist today. He'd be a shining example of someone who's going out of business."

So it's all about finding the best allies, and reinforcing success – there's a touch of the militiaman about the feisty Mr Keller. His drill sergeant dad must have been proud to watch his son conquer the world of American cuisine. But it's easy to admire Keller's passion about suppliers, whose names he drops constantly – names such as Diane Sinclair of Vermont, from whom he gets his butter. "Here's a woman who gets up at 5am, seven days a week, to milk her six cows twice a day, so she can make 30lbs of butter a week. Should I be negotiating with her about how much that butter costs? No! The point is to support her. If I'm to spend three times as much as I need for her butter that's my responsibility."

Hang on, I say. Does that explain why diners in the pop-up French Laundry in Harrods will be coughing up £250 for the privilege? "That's part of your responsibility," cries the combative, emotionally driven Keller in triumph. "I deal with hundreds of people who have a life because of restaurants, who become examples to us all because of what they do. Nobody sees or talks about that, and it bothers me – because without them, the Ramsays, the Bouluds and the Kellers wouldn't exist. So hats off to them for their commitment, and shame on us for not supporting them better."

How to make the French Laundry's legendary 'Oysters and Pearls'

To begin a meal at The French Laundry, you may find a tiny bowl placed before you filled with tapioca-custard – small-pearl tapioca that brings back memories of childhood. Floating in that custard is a plump oyster, and on top of this is a quenelle of Beluga caviar. It is a dish called "Oyster and Pearls". Zany and delicious. "Certain things you just know," Keller says of the dish's origins. "It's all just logical."

"Putting an oyster in tapioca is not a logical thing to do," you say.

"For me it was," he says. "Tapioca, pearls. Where do pearls come from? Pearls come from oysters, right? So to me it's completely logical. How does it taste to you?"

"What do you think?"

"I've never tasted it," he says.

"Excuse me?"

"I know that's not a good thing for me to say. But I know it tastes good. You don't have to stick your hand in fire to know it's hot."

Makes 8 servings

16 meaty oysters, such as Bagaduce

For the tapioca
Approx 85g small-pearl tapioca
400ml/14fl oz milk
300ml/10fl oz double cream
50ml/2fl oz cup crème fraîche

For the sabayon
4 egg yolks
50ml/2fl oz oyster juice For the sauce
3 tablespoons dry white vermouth
Remaining oyster juice
1 tbsp minced shallots
1 tbsp white-wine vinegar
100g/3 oz butter, cut into 8 piecesto finish
1 tbsp minced chives
25-50g/1-2oz Beluga caviar

This recipe uses the oysters as well as their juices. When selecting oysters, choose the ones with the thickest shells; they will have the most juice. Timing is important. The cooking should be one continuous process so have the cream whipped, the double-boiler hot and the remaining ingredients ready.

Soak the tapioca in 175ml/6fl oz of the milk for one hour, in a warm place to speed up the rehydration of the pearls.

To shuck the oysters, hold an oyster on a towel (to protect your hand) with the rounded side down. Lean the wider end of the oyster against the table for support. Push an oyster knife under the hinge at the narrow end of the shell. Don't jam it in or you risk damaging the oyster.

You will hear a "pop", then twist the knife to loosen the shell. Keeping the knife between the top and bottom shell, run the blade along the right side to cut the muscle. This will release the top shell, which can be removed. Slide the knife under the meat to detach the second muscle holding the oyster in place. Reserve oyster and all its juice in a bowl.

Repeat with the remaining oysters.

Trim away the muscle and the outer ruffled edge of the oysters and place the trimmings in a saucepan. Reserve the whole trimmed oysters and strain the oyster juice into a separate bowl. You should have about 125ml/4fl oz of juice.

To cook the tapioca, strain the softened tapioca into a strainer and discard the milk. Rinse the tapioca under running water, then place it in a heavy pot.

In a bowl, whip 125ml/4fl oz of the cream just until it holds its shape; reserve in the refrigerator.

Pour the remaining milk and cream over the oyster trimmings. Bring to a simmer, then strain the infused liquid over the tapioca. Discard the trimmings.

Cook the tapioca over a medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it has thickened and leaves a trail when a spoon is pulled through it. Continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the tapioca is fully cooked, has no resistance in the centre and is translucent. The mixture will be sticky and if you lift some on the spoon and let it fall, some should still cling to the spoon. Remove the pot from the heat but keep it in a warm place.

For the sabayon, whisk the egg yolks and 50ml/2fl oz of oyster juice in a metal bowl set over a pan of hot water or a bowl-shaped double boiler. Whisk vigorously over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes to incorporate as much air as possible.

The finished sabayon will have thickened and lightened, the foam will have subsided and the sabayon will hold a ribbon when it falls from the whisk. If the mixture begins to break, remove it from the heat and whisk quickly off the heat for a moment to recombine.

Stir the hot sabayon into the tapioca along with a generous amount of black pepper. Mix in the crème fraîche and the whipped cream. Season lightly with salt remembering that the oyster and caviar garnish will both be salty.

Immediately, spoon the tapioca into 8, 4in x 5in gratin dishes (each with a 3-4 oz capacity). If done correctly, the tapioca should be a creamy pale yellow and the tapioca pearls should be suspended and not sinking in the mixture. Refrigerate for up to a few hours before serving.

To complete: combine the vermouth, remaining oyster juice, shallots and vinegar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and reduce until most of the liquid is gone but the onions are still glazed and not dry. Whisk in the butter piece by piece, adding a new piece when the previous one is almost melted (as you would for beurre monté).

Add the reserved oysters to the sauce to warm. Place the tapiocas on a sheet tray and into a 350° F/180C/Gas 4 oven for 4-5 minutes or until they just begin to soufflé. Arrange 2 oysters and some of the sauce over each gratin, sprinkle with chives and garnish the top with a quenelle of caviar; serve immediately. 1

Excerpted from 'The French Laundry Cookbook', by Thomas Keller (Workman Publishing, £40)