A real good meal takes a while to settle into the system, an amazing one can take days. At least that's what I found after my recent visit to Per Se to sample an elegant, informal and celebratory meal in honor of chef Thomas Keller.
You see, every now and then a chef comes along who has a lasting impact on the industry. Whether through style, kitchen philosophy or in some cases personality - great chefs leave something in their wake, something that you just know will last forever - I believe Thomas Keller is one such chef.
He has worked in the business for 35-years, mentored some of the great young chefs of the moment and has personally been apart of the evolution in changing the way people view American dining, a view that he himself says over the last ten years has gone from fast food nation to the envy of the world.
A career that saw him start as a dish washer in his mum's restaurant, to owning two three Michelin starred restaurants, The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York - bakeries, bistros, a whole list of accolades and awards - a career that's even seen him make a fan boy out of chefs such as the French master Eric Ripert:
"I went to The French Laundry many years ago and I was so happy and so amazed by the quality of the service, the refinement of the china, the atmosphere and the food. To be there, this guy in this little restaurant, it blew my mind. I talked about my meal for weeks and weeks and weeks, saying 'this guy is a genius'."
At one point it was said by Heston Blumenthal that the best, classical and most precise french food might actually be cooked in Keller's restaurants, something unimaginable at the time in 2004 and a testament to what he has brought to the table.
But it's not just the refinement and elegance he has given dining in the U.S - this is one mark of his greatness, the other is his approachable and humble manner, as Ripert points out: "I think he is someone regarded by the industry as a hero. I have never heard anyone say something negative word about Thomas, his cooking or his proffesionalism. When you say Thomas Keller you see talent."
And this talent is proudly on display during the dinner, beats and leeks, moist Scottish langoustine wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, Sonoma County duck lacquered in wild honey, Santa Barbara Coast sea urchin, duck perfectly cooked on orange mostarda, black truffle, caviar and foi gras - all the marks of high end french dining, all served with a certain crispness. You see it in the staff, their service and manner - in the way the restaurant lives and breaths - the Keller way of work.
It's this attention to detail, as Ripert calls it, 'harmony', that Keller has brought to America and this that has had a lasting effect on the American culinary profession. As Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, says: "His restaurant, The French Laundry, brought attention from around the world onto food in America - he is the first homegrown boy who has grown up in America and garnered the attention of the world.
"This changed the game for chefs in America, he has issued a generation of chefs from his kitchen who have gone on to great things - it creates a legacy here in the united chefs and we haven't had that and we are very grateful for it."
And it's this credit that matters most, it's this legacy of leaving a lasting and long effect on the culinary industry that will allow the Keller philosophy to continue. Just before guests sat at the perfectly laid table with custom made silver cutlery and a crisply ironed immaculate white table. Jonathan Benno one of chefs Keller's longest standing staff members and now chef de cuisine at Per Se stood to say a few words and to thank his boss, friend and now family.
He thanked him for supporting him and instilling in him the Keller ethos of work of doing a job right, the importance of ingredients and execution, simplicity and of making a strong bond with suppliers.
All the features of a Keller kitchen and now, thanks to a 35-year career of mentoring and coaching some of the best young chefs in America, features you will find throughout restaurants of America and beyond, features that hundreds of young chefs have learned from studying under Chef Keller, his own small part in catalyzing American cuisine into the realm it sits today.
He isn't solely responsible, no one man could be, but his work has had a strong effect and will continue to long after he steps away from the stove. He has been a part of a movement that is yet to finish, a movement, that along with media focus, audience demand and a more discerning palate, has helped to change a nations ideals and way of approaching food.
As Mitchell Davis happily tells me: "Even though not a lot of people will have the experience of eating at Per se, watching chef Keller as a judge on top chef were he is arguing about what goes into a good dish, that has become a sport here in a way that can't help but have an impact on the way people view food. Even if you just go into Mcdonald's suddenly the question of balance, texture, and flavor resonate with that eating experience - ultimately that has a big impact on what people come to appreciate.
"The quality of food being served in American restaurants almost brings tears to my eyes - in Minneapolis Louisville, Charleston - you're finding great artisan food everywhere. These things didn't happen 15 years ago but they're happening now and it warms my heart to think we are really awakening our hearts to food in this way."
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