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April 19, 2014

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Q+A: Thomas Keller toasts 10 years of Bouchon at the Venetian and Per Se and 20 years of French Laundry

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Sabin Orr

Chef Thomas Keller at Chefs to the Max, a fundraiser for food critic Max Jacobson, at Rx Boiler Room on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Mandalay Place.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon at The Venetian

Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon at The Venetian in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

It’s an extraordinary triple milestone of achievements and success for star chef Thomas Keller, who is hailed as America’s No. 1 culinary king by food industry experts, hospitality hotshots and fellow kitchen celebrities.

He’ll be on the Strip on Sunday to host the 10th anniversary of his iconic restaurant Bouchon at the Venetian — and simultaneously celebrating the 20th anniversary of his flagship French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and the 10th anniversary of his stunning restaurant Per Se in New York City.

After taking ownership of the now-legendary French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley wine district in 1994, he opened other restaurants there, including Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and then others in New York and Beverly Hills, plus, his outposts at the Venetian.

Incredibly, he found time to write five of the most beautiful cookbooks ever published, all of which made it onto the New York Times bestseller lists with more than 1 million copies in print.

Thomas never slows down and has a line of cookware, silver hardware and cocktailware, dinnerware, his wine label Modicum and a gluten-free flour Cup4Cup. He publishes the bi-annual magazine Finesse and was the food consultant on the films “Spanglish” and “Ratatouille.”

In addition to national and international acclaim, Thomas’ fine-dining and casual-dining restaurants have consistently received numerous awards, including seven stars in the 2013 Michelin Guide.

His influence on the culinary world has placed him among the most decorated chefs in the world. Time Magazine named him “America’s Best Chef”, and Johnson & Wales University conferred upon him the honorary Degree of Doctor of Culinary Arts for his contributions to the industry.

At the request of famed French culinary master Paul Bocuse, Thomas along with chefs Daniel Boulud and Jerome Bocuse established the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation where he currently serves as president. The foundation is devoted to inspiring culinary excellence in young professionals and preserving the traditions and quality of classic cuisine in America.

On behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he was presented as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 2011 in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the traditions of French cuisine and his role in elevating cooking in America. Thomas is a member of the Culinary Institute of America’s Board of Trustees.

I’ve known him since my “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” days and saw him at the Chefs to the Max benefit dinner for food critic Max Jacobson at chef Rick Moonen’s Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Place on Sunday night.

I recently talked with Thomas about his remarkable achievements.

What does the 10th anniversary of Bouchon at the Venetian say about the Las Vegas food scene?

When Charlie Trotter opened his fine-dining restaurant at MGM Grand nearly 25 years ago, it began a change in the food culture of Las Vegas — one that continues today. I’m proud to be in the company of so many great chefs and great restaurants that continue to thrive in this city. The Las Vegas food culture has matured in the past couple decades in such a way that it is now a serious dining destination.

What does the 20th anniversary of French Laundry say about the fine-food scene in America?

My career began 35 years ago with a food culture that was almost nonexistent, with the exception of some of America’s great cities. Today across the country, we see food as not just something that nurtures and sustains us, but something that allows us to engage with our friends, family and loved ones around the dinner table, just as the images of a Norman Rockwell painting portray. We have accomplished what few countries have accomplished, and we’ve done it in such a short period of time.

Thomas Keller at Chefs to the Max

Chef Thomas Keller, second from right, at Chefs to the Max, a fundraiser for food critic Max Jacobson, at Rx Boiler Room on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Mandalay Place. Launch slideshow »

America has some of the best restaurants and best chefs, and that has allowed us to catapult our food culture to a level of great respect that is recognized all around the world. We are also fortunate to now have some of the finest suppliers — the farmers, fisherman, gardeners and foragers — who furnish the ingredients we chefs rely on to best serve our guests. We also have an incredible educational system that is teaching our young people.

I’m guessing you can make some interesting comparisons about food service in Las Vegas 10 years ago and California 20 years ago. It’s gone from drama a decade ago to relative stability today?

What we see in Las Vegas, California and America as a whole is an example of how serious we have become about what people eat and where it comes from. I’m proud to be among the first generation of American chefs who have helped and encouraged the newer generations to continue elevating the level of excellence and commitment to the quality of dining.

What we’ve recognized in these past 35 years is how important the next generations are, particularly our suppliers — the farmers, fisherman and gardeners — continuing our food culture and delivery everything better to our guests. We must recognize that those individuals who supply us are among the most important individuals in the food chain, and it is our responsibility to respect what they do by supporting them in their quest for quality.

Could your Per Se masterpiece in Manhattan ever come to Las Vegas?

Certainly Per Se could come to Las Vegas, but you already have fine-dining restaurants here by Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire. They always amaze me by making me feel as though I’m dining at a Three-Star Michelin restaurant in Paris. My decision to not bring Per Se to Las Vegas is solely based on my desire to keep our fine-dining restaurants unique to their locations, so there is only one Per Se and only one French Laundry.

Why does Bouchon at the Venetian work so well, so smoothly?

What makes Bouchon at the Venetian so special to me is our team — those individuals who are dedicated to our vision of a French bistro and ensure that we do everything we can to introduce, exemplify and maintain what a French bistro is to our guests. They are dedicated to making sure that our food, our service and our atmosphere are aligned with what you find in a bistro anywhere in France — and never wavering from that level of excellence.

You never seem to rest on your laurels?

As hard as we work, as committed as we are and as dedicated as we try to be, we always have the opportunity to be better. It’s always that quest to do a better job tomorrow than we did today. That is what drives me and the individuals who work with me.

Chefs to the Max at Rx Boiler Room

Chefs to the Max, a fundraising dinner for food critic Max Jacobson, at Rx Boiler Room on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Mandalay Place. Launch slideshow »

What is it about you and the eternal quest for perfection?

I am driven by asking questions. How can I make this better? What do I need to do to drive myself to the next level? By always asking myself questions, even if we don’t have the answer, the answer will come to you at some point. If you don’t ask the questions, the answers will never come to you. Most things are difficult before they are easy.

What is your definition of food and service perfection? How close are you to achieving it? Will you ever?

There is no such thing as perfect food or service, only the idea of it. There is a high level of generosity in food and service that resonates with those individuals who are committed, those who embrace their profession in a way that allows them to share with you the same way they feel about food and service.

They are giving you an extension of who they are, and as a result we experience perfection in those moments. They are few and far between, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, just as a pitcher strives to pitch a perfect game.

I once said that when you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That is what cooking is all about. This quote is now framed and hangs in all of my kitchens as a constant reminder.

Your food and your service are all truly unique at French Laundry and Per Se. Why did you want to go to the opposite with the more-casual Bouchon? To paraphrase what Tony Bennett once sang, did you leave your heart in a French brasserie in Paris?

As highly in tune as I am with our fine-dining restaurants, what I really enjoy eating is casual food. My fondest memories are in our bistros or those I’ve visited around the world, including France. A great roast chicken, a lightly dressed salad and a vibrant lemon tart is a wonderful meal and the most memorable for me.

It’s all about the memories and having a reference point that reminds us of where we have been and who we were with at the time. Eating in a bistro is the closest I get to those wonderful memories.

What does the future hold for Thomas Keller and Bouchon at the Venetian?

More of the same. Our relationships with our team, our partners and our guests are stronger than ever, and we look forward to the next 10 years.

As the respected and sensible elder statesman of America’s culinary world, what do you think about today’s reality-TV food-competition shows?

It is fascinating to me that 35 years ago, very few opportunities existed outside of just being a cook. You aspired to work your way up the ladder in the kitchen line going onto sous chef and from there an executive chef. There were very limited serious TV shows with Julia Child and James Beard writing the few cookbooks.

Today, you see a lot of opportunities, and many people enjoy it, but whether it’s a reality cooking show or another reality show, it’s just TV — and not what we do in the kitchen for perfection.

Thomas Keller’s ‘Bouchon Bakery’ Book Reception

A reception and book signing for Thomas Keller's Launch slideshow »

You have great belief in the Bocuse D’Or. As its president, can America eventually win it and prove if we’re not better, we’re certainly as good as the French?

I embraced this role in 2007 when Paul Bocuse asked me to be the president of the U.S. team. My goal then, and still today, is to make him proud of his choice and America. He tells a wonderful story about when he was fighting for French resistance, he was injured and received American blood during a transfusion. With American blood running through his veins, he truly has a connection to America.

I get chills every time I listen to the story. Our U.S. team truly has the talent, knowledge, skills and determination to collectively come together to compete among 23 other countries and come out on top.

This has been a tumultuous year in the chef world: The passing of chefs Charlie Trotter and Jean Banchet. Now the fight for life for chef Kerry Simon and food critic Max Jacobson here in Las Vegas.

It certainly has been a difficult year for us. We were all shocked at the untimely passing of our friend Charlie Trotter. He was a visionary chef with commitment and courage. He was an American chef who exemplified the opportunity for us all to one day own our own restaurants. His legacy and my love for Charlie will live on forever.

Jean Banchet was a gentleman of the previous generation of French chefs in our country. He mentored so many of us and taught us what it meant to be a great chef.

Judy Rogers, a woman in San Francisco, opened a simple restaurant that became an iconic restaurant.

Our good friend Kerry Simon, when you looked at his long, auburn locks and fit physique, everyone wanted to be Kerry Simon. It’s a sad story that we could all face some day, and we need to make sure that we embrace every day with as much energy as we can give.

We are all praying for Max so that he has a quick recovery.

And a special thank you to you, Robin. When I was a youngster watching “Lifestyles,” it inspired me to be dedicated, disciplined and work hard making a living connecting and having meaningful relationships with my guests, as you showed on your program.

Thomas Keller hosts his 10th anniversary at Bouchon in the Venetian on Sunday with a 6 p.m. champagne reception and a 7 p.m. seated dinner. Well-deserved congratulations!

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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