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The Secret Equation

Chef Thomas Keller explains to Reade Tilley how dishwashing, baseball, and Jackie Kennedy can lead to golf and a better world

The Secret Equation

Chef Thomas Keller explains to Reade Tilley how dishwashing, baseball, and Jackie Kennedy can lead to golf and a better world

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o brunoise a carrot, for example, first julienne cut it, then give it a quarter turn and dice it. Like an open step in tango or playing scales on guitar, the brunoise is a fundamental skill, and yet when executed by a master as part of a greater performance it needs to disappear—not because it is unimportant, but because it is vital, and its disappearance creates the possibility for beauty.

Chef Thomas Keller, current holder of seven Michelin stars and the only American chef to have been awarded simultaneous three-star ratings for two different restaurants, knows how to brunoise. He also knows how to putt, and he knows about baseball. 

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Thomas Keller and Chef Chad Palagi at Per Se in NYC

Once upon a time he dreamed of being a Baltimore Oriole, but his future wasn’t on the field. Rather, Keller created beauty in the kitchen, long after he stopped having to think about brunoise and other fundamentals, long after he liberated himself from the “how” of life and was able to focus on the “what” and “where.” That led him to open such celebrated restaurants as The French Laundry and Per Se (3 Michelin stars each); The Surf Club Restaurant (1 star), Bouchon, and others, and it’s led to the Thomas Keller Golf Classic, a tournament that helps to fund scholarships at the Culinary Institute of America. Whatever Keller does, in the end you can bet it likely involves a lot of work and that it’s part of a bigger story, one about nurturing others—including those who dine at hisn restaurants.

Keller remembers playing golf as a kid with his older brother, Joseph (also a noted chef), but says his first regular exposure to the game came during rounds with Eric Ziebold, whom Keller mentored at The French Laundry, Keller’s legendary Napa restaurant. (Ziebold is now a Michelin-starred chef as well.)

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The French Laundry exterior

“Eric and I would go out and play the nine-hole at Chimney Rock Winery,” Keller remembers. “Eventually they replaced the course with more grapes, which made sense. I started with Eric, and then I’d get invited to play golf.”

One invitation came from the 2010 BMW Championship. Keller had a partnership with BMW, and as one of the most decorated American chefs in history he was most welcome in the pro-am.

“They thought I knew how to golf—I really didn’t know how to golf,” he remembers. “Quite hilarious. I embarrassed myself thoroughly, but I redeemed myself because at some point during the round I pulled out a hat. I didn’t put a cap on to begin the day, I put my cap on probably around the fourth or fifth hole, and it was a French Laundry hat. I was playing with Charley Hoffman, and Charley’s swing coach was Sean Foley at the time; he was with him and he saw The French Laundry cap and he was like, ‘Wow! Who do you know at The French Laundry? That’s pretty cool. Charley and I go to his restaurant in Las Vegas all the time.’

“Of course they never really listen to who they’re playing with at the pro-am when they first meet somebody, and I understand. It’s ‘this is Jim, Billy and Steven,’ right? But once they found out I was Thomas Keller, that was my redeeming moment where, as poorly as I played, it was OK.”

The experience encouraged Keller’s interest in the game, he says, and so he began working with a coach and playing at various clubs, building a network of golf friends along the way. There’s been an affiliation with TaylorMade, last year he worked with Scotty Cameron to create a series of putters “inspired by The French Laundry,” and more recently he began a collaboration with Peter Millar to benefit charity. His progress in the game, he says, comes from a similar place as his success in the kitchen—just don’t call it passion.

“I would never use the word ‘passion,’” Keller says. “Desire is much more important than passion. Passion ebbs and flows, when you’re sick and tired of something it comes and goes, but desire… That’s different.”

Desire, Keller says, sets the table for repetition, and repetition is how one ultimately finds liberation. With a nod to author Malcom Gladwell, he explains:

“Who’s doing what they do and doing it extremely well? Whether it’s physically or mentally, it’s those individuals who continue to practice what they do and learn about what they’re doing. You think about cutting brunoise, which is a very small dice of vegetables. You learn how to do it, and you start to practice it. At first you’re adequate, you really have to focus and concentrate, you’re kind of slow because you’re trying to do the perfect job—because it is supposed to be a perfect cut every time. You’re doing it in abundance, so it takes a while, so it’s something you have to focus on (which is another thing about golf and cooking: focus). And you get better at it as time goes on, to the point where you can actually teach somebody how to do it, which is really important. And then it becomes liberating, because you don’t have to think about it, you just do it… and now you can think about other things, like ‘What am I going to do with brunoise? I’ve got all these ideas about brunoise now, and I can actually think about those ideas while I’m doing it.’”

Keller says repetition applies to any pursuit, and points to Billy Horschel’s winning performance at this year’s Memorial Tournament, including a 53-foot eagle putt, as just one example of how repetition liberates one in golf.

“You see him chipping, putting,” Keller says. “There’s a little bit of luck in golf, I think we all believe that, but a lot of practice. Billy’s out there putting every day, chipping every day. Repetition, in anything you do, it’s important.”

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The Surf Club Restaurant
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Keller putting

Mastery demands repetition, but it also requires input and inspiration. For Keller, that came in the vibrant American culinary scene of the 1960s and early ’70s, which the chef credits in part to the election of President John F. Kennedy.

“It was a significant moment because his wife loved France,” he explains. “She brought to the White House its first French chef. What woman in this country did not want to be Jaqueline? Jackie was ‘it’—the pillbox hat, everything.” 

Keller says Jackie Kennedy’s affection for France changed the way Americans looked at French culture, and that included food. The shift was bolstered by the emergence of Julia Child, who popularized French cooking; by Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams, who introduced Americans to French culinary and dining tools; and by Robert Mondavi, who created and strongly promoted Napa Valley wines.

“Those three as a trilogy,” Keller says, “One food, one equipment, and one the beverage that goes best with food; they’re a significant part of the beginning of the resurrection of the culinary world in America.”

Julia Child made TIME’s cover in 1966; French Chef Paul Bocuse fronted The New York Times Magazine in 1972; and Chef Jean-Louis Palladin came along a few years later, liberating French cuisine in America and, one could argue, laying the foundation for the modern “farm-to-table” scene. 

The Rolling Stones were sharing the radio with Fleetwood Mac, Grease was on Broadway and Keller was in the kitchen, part of the first generation of American chefs to emerge in a French-flavored world that culturally sat somewhere between Jules et Jim and Star Wars.

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The Surf Club Restaurant

“I was comfortable in a kitchen because my mother ran restaurants, I’d stay out of trouble by being there,” he remembers. “Joseph always wanted to be a chef; I wasn’t really thinking about it. Because of his aspiration, he got to play with the cooks—and I got to play with the dishes.

In 1977, Keller was working for Master Chef Roland Henin, still not quite sure of where he was headed.

“[Chef Henin] came to me one day and asked me, ‘Thomas, why do you think cooks cook?’ What the hell? What kind of question is that? I fumbled with some answer, I’m sure, and he said, ‘We cook to nurture people.’

“In my mind, in my heart, there was a connection. I realized I was a nurturer, and I decided at that moment I was going to be a chef.”

Keller says Henin was his third mentor, after his mother, Betty, and his brother, Joseph. Henin gave Keller a copy of Fernand Point’s definitive Ma Gastronomie, Keller’s second cookbook after A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price [the horror actor], which Betty had gifted to him: “I know she bought it because it was probably the most ornate book on the shelf,” he says, laughing fondly. He still has both books.

Keller himself has authored a few books since then, including The French Laundry Cookbook, which won numerous awards when it debuted in 1999, as much for its stories as for its recipes.

“Recipes are fine, but at the end of the day they’re kind of boring,” Keller says. “Recipes are everywhere, but to be able to tell a good story is something people never forget.”

Keller says he doesn’t eat out too often, which makes sense when you work in your own restaurants. In the evenings, a friend might come by the restaurant where’s he’s working and they’ll go down to Bouchon or to Ad Hoc, another of Keller’s Yountville restaurants, have salmon and spinach, maybe something else.

“There are occasions when In-N-Out Burger is appropriate,” he considers. “Maybe twice per year.”

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Keller on the tee

He says he doesn’t cook as much these days, either, and suggests he’s moved more into the position of “coach,”  (though a recent online review of The Surf Club Restaurant, located in the revived Miami landmark, noted that a masked Keller was walking the floor, checking on patrons, and that he personally prepared a tableside Caesar Salad for a guest).

“I wanted to be an athlete,” he says. “I don’t know how many kids who loved the Orioles wanted to be Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson—fantastic. You wanted to be one of those guys. I knew I wasn’t going to be that person, but I found in the kitchen that same purpose: people, each with different disciplines, all working for the same thing. First baseman, second, third, shortstop; a kitchen is the same: you’ve got your assistant coach (sous chef), your coach (chef), everyone else, all making a common effort to make sure the guests get the experience you want them to have.”

He still washes dishes sometimes (“repetition for me began standing in front of a dishwasher when I was 14 years old; I got really good at dishwashing, I still love it; it’s become a Zen thing for me”). He’s mentoring the next generation of chefs, and practicing his putting when possible. All of it—what’s happening in his kitchens, at his golf event, and throughout his life—points to something bigger:

“I want to nurture people,” Keller says. “It’s not just through food, but through their memories, through those individuals, their loved ones, their friends. You think about that whole experience around eating: food is a very important part of it, but it’s those individuals that you’re with, that’s even more important. The experience, the memories, the people that you’re with—there’s nothing else like that.”

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