Culinary tip from top chef: Pay attention to the details

December 01, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WASHINGTON - Thomas Keller is watching me slice an onion, and he is not pleased.

"Get closer to the food," he says and demonstrates that instead of keeping my distance, I should be hovering over the onion and the knife.

Closer is safer, Keller says. Then, with a flash of humor, he tells me you can't show fear in the kitchen, otherwise the knives will sense it and trouble will follow. "It is like dogs," he says. "They know when you are afraid."

As a former paperboy, Keller knows about dogs. When he was a teenager and his mother, Elizabeth, now deceased, lived in Laurel, Keller delivered The Sun there. He also knows about food, a career path he began pursuing shortly after leaving newspaper work to spend a summer steaming crabs at the Bay N Surf in Laurel.

Now, many culinary ventures later, Keller, 49, is praised as perhaps the finest chef in the nation. Instead of steaming crabs, he is preparing potato gnocchi with pheasant egg and black truffles - perfect food, flawless multi-course meals that have the eating press in ecstasy.

Getting a reservation at Per Se, his restaurant in New York's Time Warner Center where the tasting menu runs $150 per person without wine, has become a badge of gastronomic honor.

Getting into his Napa Valley high-end restaurant, the French Laundry, has been no piece of seared foie gras, requiring reservations months in advance. His first cookbook, The French Laundry, was a large, heavy tome with lengthy recipes and cost $50. It was snapped up like caviar, and it now is in its 18th printing.

Now comes his second $50 cookbook, Bouchon, named after the bistro-style restaurant he operates next to French Laundry and not far from the Yountville, Calif., house he shares with Laura Cunningham, his personal and professional partner. A second Bouchon restaurant has opened in Las Vegas.

Although the recipes in Keller's new bistro book do not call for exotic ingredients, they do call for spending some serious stretches of time in the kitchen.

Keller's recipe for onion soup, for example, calls for slicing 8 pounds of onions - hence my tutorial - and caramelizing the onions for five hours. Over lunch at Four Seasons in Washington, I suggested to the chef that this might be a bit much for the harried home cook, but Keller brushed aside my complaint.

"Actually, that is the way onion soup should be made," he said. "It has always taken five hours to make it properly. But then people began to take shortcuts, to make it faster, not better, just faster."

Keller is calm, confident and has California good looks. I could see why, when he issues a directive, you don't question him, you simply say, "Yes, chef," and start chopping.

Keller also said that while the tasks he requires in Bouchon may be time-consuming, they are not that difficult."Cooking requires paying attention," he said. "It is like driving. If you get in an accident, it usually is not the fault of the car; it is because you were not paying attention."

During lunch with Jeffrey Cerciello, Keller's fellow chef and co-author of Bouchon, I saw some signs of Keller's fixation on details.

When I ordered a piece of grilled halibut, Keller queried our waiter about the origins of the fish. Was that East Coast halibut or West Coast halibut, he asked. The waiter said he would find out. Keller told me he preferred the East Coast halibut because it has a higher fat content. When the word came back that the halibut was from Alaska, I ate it anyway.

I also ordered a bowl of onion soup, which the waiter reported was made with five onions. Keller wanted to know which five. Keller was friendly, but firm in these exchanges with the young waiter. He was a chef who knew what he wanted. The waiter came back with the answer: white, red, green, shallots and leeks. Everyone seemed pleased.

Keller is a top chef who never went to culinary school. After his start at the Laurel crab house, he served as an apprentice for several chefs in several American restaurants, worked in the Michelin-starred establishments of France, then returned to operate restaurants in New York and California.

As a chef renowned for running a "mistake-free" kitchen, he told me cooking at home should be fun. "Rather than being intimidated," he said, home cooks should shoulder onward, "building confidence through experience. It is not brain surgery," said a man not exactly known for his relaxed approach to cuisine. "It is just cooking."

While my brain knew there were contradictions in what Keller was telling me, his message was so strong, clear and emotionally compelling that I fell under his spell. I began telling myself I could slice 8 pounds of onions.

Before lunching with Keller I had tried one of his recipes, Chicken in a Pot, at home. It required a mere two hours of labor, and my wife did most of the work.

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