Thomas Keller's latest cookbook starts with the kind of menu you don't often find in upbeat recipe collections: his father's last supper. The celebrated American chef lost his 86-year-old father shortly after setting out to write Ad Hoc at Home , a coffee-table-format compendium inspired by his successful three-year-old Napa Valley eatery, Ad Hoc.
Best known for haute-gastronomy temples the French Laundry, also in Napa, and Per Se in New York, Mr. Keller had the good fortune - if that's the term - to cook that final repast. It was a special request of barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes, a favourite of the former Marine drill instructor.
A year earlier, Edward Keller had suffered the horror of a car crash that left him a quadriplegic. "The doctors said he would never come home," recalled Mr. Keller, who refitted his father's house, located next to his own in the Napa town of Yountville, to accommodate the new physical circumstances. "They said he would never get off the ventilator. They said he'd never eat again. And he did all those things."
The meal, labelled "dinner for dad" in the book, used off-the-shelf barbecue sauce and dovetailed perfectly with the new book. It's all about American family-style comfort food, classics such as fried chicken, pasta with meatballs, grits cakes and iceberg-lettuce salad with blue-cheese dressing. There's even a recipe for a grilled-cheese sandwich.
"It's about a collective memory that we all have about what we ate when we were kids or that we heard about growing up," Mr. Keller told me on a one-day publicity swing through Toronto on Monday. "It's not always what we experience personally. It's in the collective memory of our culture."
It's also not what one tends to associate with the name Thomas Keller - revered, it's probably safe to say, more than any other chef in the United States for technical sophistication and surgically intricate preparations. A nine-course prix-fixe menu without wine at the French Laundry will set you back $240 (U.S.). (If you hurry, that is; the price jumps to $275 in January.) In 1997, New York Times critic Ruth Reichl called the French Laundry the "most exciting restaurant in America." The Keller name now spans six restaurants in four cities, including Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, plus three bakeries. The French Laundry and Per Se each hold three Michelin stars.
Familiar and accessible though the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home may sound, this is no "speedy mealtime solutions" manual for time-strapped yuppies. It's three-star comfort food for time-is-no-object kitchen warriors with fetishes for All-Clad cookware and Vita-Mix blenders. The iceberg salad, for example, requires the use of an oven for roasted tomatoes, then instructs you to sauté chopped up slabs of apple-wood-smoked bacon for 30 minutes before consulting another section for the blue-cheese dressing, whose instructions in turn call for a cup of aioli, a garlic mayonnaise whose recipe can be found at the back, under "basics." And don't even think about Dempster's for the grilled cheese, which will be made with your own home-baked brioche loaf and about $10 worth of Gruyère, plus an optional side of sweet-potato chips, which will require your trusty Japanese mandoline and a candy thermometer.
"Cooking is a process," Mr. Keller said. "This is not a 45-minute, you know, rapid cookbook, a 60-minute cookbook. Although there are some things in there that you might be able to make in 45 minutes or 60 minutes. But each thing is a process and we didn't compromise the process of the cooking for time. And nor do I think anybody should." Which isn't to say, he added, that people should be cooking this way at every meal.
Throughout the book Mr. Keller offers clear and helpful tips on fundamental techniques, such as pan roasting, poaching, blanching and sautéing, as well as on tools of the trade. In fairness, the photos for these and virtually all the other recipes look obscenely good.
But some may wonder, does grilled-cheese really need the Midas touch of Thomas Keller? Foodie pilgrims to Napa Valley certainly would vote yes, at least if Ad Hoc's success is an indication. The eatery, whose menu of serve-yourself group platters ($49 a person) inspired the recipes, has generally earned high praise and packed houses since it opened in 2006.
In dusting off and burnishing his home-country classics, Mr. Keller sees himself as running against the chef-lebrity grain. "Everything now is personality cuisine," he said. "It's points of view. It's opinions. Even the great French chefs - who's doing classic French cuisine? I think I know of two."
In contrast, au courant French chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire of Paris may have been trained in the classic tradition but create unique dishes based on those techniques. Similarly with so-called molecular gastronomy practitioners such as Spain's Ferran Adria and Chicago's Grant Achatz. "Grant Achatz's food is what? It's Grant Achatz's food. It's nobody else's. Ferran's food is Ferran's food." Mr. Keller implicates himself in the personality posse. His French Laundry menu is "Thomas Keller food," he said.
Like Mr. Achatz and Mr. Adria, though, Mr. Keller, 54, has resisted the Food Network rocket pad that has launched some of his contemporaries into high orbit and presumably higher revenue brackets. Soft-spoken, dressed in a dark turtleneck and jacket, the California native comes across more like an avuncular philosophy professor than a celebrity-chef caricature in the mould of ponytailed sweat fountain Mario Batali or foul-mouthed kitchen tyrant Gordon Ramsay.
The closest Mr. Keller has come to show business are two behind-the-camera Hollywood consulting gigs. One, for Ratatouille , the 2007 animated feature about a gastronomically gifted rat, saw him refining the title recipe for the computer animators by thinly slicing the vegetables rather than dicing them, then fanning them upward on the plate. The other was for Spanglish , the 2004 Adam Sandler movie, for which Mr. Keller was hired to show the star, who plays a chef, how a professional cook might prepare a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich for himself at home.
There is, ultimately, an irony in those consulting engagements, as well as Mr. Keller's success with Ad Hoc. His best-known signature dish at French Laundry has been something called "oysters and pearls," a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Malpeque oysters and osetra caviar. Pretty rarefied stuff. Soon, though, he may be more widely known for BLTs and iceberg lettuce, the way jazz-trumpet genius Louis Armstrong ended up more famous for a raspy singing voice and pop hits like What a Wonderful World .
One thing's likely: The evolution would have made Edward Keller smile. "Haute cuisine didn't resonate with him," Mr. Keller said. "He'd come to dinner [at French Laundry] but he didn't have the patience to sit through 12 courses of food or nine courses of food. He was a meat-and-potatoes guy."
"All-Clad makes a sauté pan that's extraordinary. I've always used All-Clad."
On kitchen blunders
"One of the big mistakes home cooks make is looking through a cookbook and choosing a recipe before going to market. … Pea soup in November? The one thing we need to appreciate is that food is seasonal."
On owning multiple restaurants
"You can only be the chef of one restaurant. I'm not the chef - and it breaks my heart to say that - of any of the restaurants. You just can't be. Once I made the decision to go to Per Se [in New York]and open a restaurant, I had to give up my spot at the French Laundry."
On fast food
"In-N-Out Burger [a West Coast U.S. chain]is my favourite. If you like hamburgers and if you have any kind of affection for fast-food hamburgers from your childhood, In-N-Out Burger is by far the best hamburger. But if you have the French fries, you have to order them well-done."
On molecular gastronomy
"Every generation has nouvelle, whether it's music, fashion, art, literature. It's a generational thing. So this is our nouvelle cuisine. But more important, to go even further, it's intellectual cuisine."
On the metric of success
"When a food critic comes back to your restaurant, not to write a review but just to enjoy the restaurant, that's a huge compliment."