Last night, the Commonwealth Club hosted Thomas Keller (legendary chef -- first American to earn 3 Michelin stars, first for The French Laundry, then for Per Se) and Dorothy Cann Hamilton (founder of the French Culinary Institute, author of Chef's Story, and host of the PBS series of the same name) in conversation with Tara Duggan, food writer for the San Francisco Chonicle.
Here are the top ten things I learned from Chef Keller:
1) There are no secrets to getting a reservation at The French Laundry. "You just have to do what everyone else does and just pick up the phone." Keller is unapologetic about the difficulty of getting a reservation, reasoning that he has a great restaurant with stellar food so it's hard to get a table. He could make the food not so good and it would be easier to get in, but no one wants that.
2) He got his start in the culinary world by washing dishes in his mother's restaurant after school. The repetitive nature of the task suited him -- "Repetition leads to perfection, which leads to gratification and success." It's the same in cooking or any line of work, really.
3) Average restaurants only make a 5% profit, which is why people tend to open more than one.
4) He's a great boss. His celebrity has afforded him opportunities to write books, design porcelain in France, and consult on Hollywood movies (e.g. Spanglish and the upcoming Pixar flick Ratatouille), and he shares opportunities to participate with his staff. Rather than the customers tipping only the wait staff, he insists on distributing the service charge in his restaurant to all the employees. "In no other industry do you have someone one step removed from the employee determine his or her compensation." He's responsible for his employees' performance, and if you have an issue with something, you should take it up with him as their manager. His whole staff participates in menu development, too. There are "menu meetings" every night after service; they're extremely collaborative, with everyone given the opportunity to express ideas and have input.
5) What is success? "We define success as a memory" that people can take home with them. There's no better accomplishment, in his opinion, than for someone to be somewhere fantastic and say, "This reminds me of The French Laundry."
6) On molecular gastronomy: "It's food you taste that challenges your mind -- but you have no reference point. You've never tasted an oyster in the shape and consistency of a communion wafer before. Is it good? You don't know! I do emotional cuisine that touches people's memory. You've had mashed potatoes before, so when you have them in my restaurant, you have a reference point and can say, 'Wow, those are great mashed potatoes.'"
7) Sometimes our expectations get in the way of having a great meal. You have to remember it's about you and the experience on that night. He once had a meal at a Michelin 3-star in France, and didn't realize until six months later that it had been a perfect meal. (I wonder if I'll have a similar epiphany about my dinner at Guy Savoy in Vegas...coincidentally, it was exactly six months ago...I'll keep you posted but I don't have high hopes.)
8) There are two basics to cooking: Product (having the access to source great ingredients) and Execution (having the right people in the right jobs and giving them the tools to be successful).
9) "Simple is the hardest thing to do."
10) When it was time for the audience to ask questions, everyone wanted to know where they were going to dinner afterwards. Dorothy was headed over to Kokkari, and Thomas was coyly playing it by ear (waiting for an invite from Dotty, perhaps?) but said that when he's in San Francisco, he often goes to Delfina.
All in all, another interesting and enjoyable program. What I liked most was the fact that much of what he said about cooking and his restaurant can be applied to any line of work and life in general. If you're interested in hearing the program in its entirety, head over to the Commonwealth Club's site (www.commonwealthclub.org) for the podcast, which should be posted in the next week or so.
...and stay tuned for my recap of next Tuesday's Commonwealth Club program, "2nd Annual State of San Francisco Restaurants." It features an all-star panel moderated by Joyce Goldstein.
OK, gotta go. All this food talk is making me hungry.