FT Foodies: Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller is an award-winning American chef, who is also designated a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. His first restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, has been named best restaurant in the world twice. From October 1–10 he is hosting a pop-up version of The French Laundry at Harrods.

What are your earliest memories of food?

I love peanut butter … I remember taking the biggest spoons of peanut butter that I could, and running out in the back yard and hiding, so I could lick the spoon and my mother couldn’t catch me.

What was your first job as a chef?

My mother ran a restaurant, so it was sitting on a milk crate, peeling potatoes and carrots. Soon, I progressed to washing dishes, which was great, because I learned everything I know about cooking while washing dishes. You learn about organisation first and then about efficiency, about being in a team, and finally about repetition – you do the same things over and over. So when I started cooking I was like, “Wow, this is great, I know all this stuff. All I have to do is learn how to cook!”

Is the customer always right?

I don’t think the question is, “Is the customer always right?” but rather, “Do you want to make your customer happy?” The paramount goal is to make the customer happy. So if a customer comes into my restaurant and wants cornflakes, is it right for him to eat cornflakes at The French Laundry? Should I really worry about that? Does it matter? My job is to give him a bowl of cornflakes.

Much of your work must be management now. Do you enjoy it?

Think of an athlete. It’s the same thing: you’re practising and then you get to play. You become a player and then you’re leading the team. You start to get older and you hurt your knee. Pretty soon you’re 35 and a 21-year-old is taking your place. You have a choice: you can play elsewhere – but you know your career is coming to an end – or you can transition. Continue to be with your team, continue to teach and mentor them. I’ll still be in the team, but I’m not going to be the guy the crowd is cheering on any more.

What do you consider bad manners?

It’s when people demand things which are unachievable. When someone on the phone abuses the reservationist and demands we give them a seat because they are whoever they are … to yell and scream at my team, that’s inexcusable. If we had a table, I would give it to you. I’m not holding anything back.

What would be your last meal?

Roast chicken would have to be part of it – roast chicken has so many memories for me. So, for me that dish would trigger memories of all the wonderful times I’ve had roast chicken. And at the end of your life you’d want to remember the good times.

Reservations for The French Laundry at Harrods: 020 3059 6498


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