Thomas Keller uses more quotation marks than a contract lawyer. His menu has "bacon and eggs," "chips and dip," "coffee and donuts" and even "macaroni and cheese." But this mac and cheese consists of orzo in coral oil with mascarpone topped with lobster and a parmesan chip. As intricate and deliberate as Keller's cooking is, he's desperate to ward off the gravitas. "Coming to a restaurant like this can be intimidating. And that's the last thing I want," he says. "I don't want people to come here afraid, like it's some kind of temple of gastronomy. It's just a restaurant. Coffee and doughnuts on the menu should make you smile. It gets everyone laughing and in a good mood. Anything I can do to relieve the pressure of eating in a restaurant, I want to do."
Keller's joint, the French Laundry in California's Napa Valley, has been called one of the top restaurants in America by Esquire, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, USA Today and Wine Spectator. He's earned the title the hard way, by, as he says, "getting the best ingredients and not screwing it up." He spends much of his time developing relationships with micropurveyors--a commercial pilot who grows hearts of palm, a scholar who Fed-Exes her Maine lobsters to him. Then he focuses on the details: squeezing the moisture out of fish skin; steeping a lobster so he can cook it without the shell; straining everything over and over. "You look at a fish and you realize it was alive, and you respect the life of that fish and make sure you get the best out of it," he says.
Keller fell into the chef thing. A high school grad with some limited carpentry skills and not much of a plan, he was washing dishes at one of the restaurants his mother owned in South Florida. When the chef quit, she moved him to the stoves, where he mostly made burgers and sandwiches. At first, he had little interest in cooking and even fewer skills. He was about as likely to become the best chef in America as Pauly Shore--whose mother owns L.A.'s The Comedy Store--was to become the country's best comedian.
He's done it by worrying less about impressing his customers than about just letting them enjoy eating. He begins the meal with a canape of salmon tartare with red onion creme fraiche in a savory tuile that looks just like a tiny ice cream cone. What sounds precious is somehow just fun. Then, because he has the luxury of charging a bucketful, he solves the problem of your palate's becoming bored after two or three bites by serving five to 10 mini-courses of just a few gobbles each. The only big hunks he puts on the plate are of foie gras and truffles, which he loves and feels most people only get teased by.
Having apprenticed in France, Keller produces cooking that is very French, though he insists that it's American. His ingredients are American, he says, as are his ideas. He eats at In-N-Out, the California burger chain. The salmon canape was inspired by a night at Baskin-Robbins, when he looked at his cone in a new way. His signature dessert, coffee and doughnuts (cappuccino semifreddo, a flavored mousse, topped with steamed milk, accompanied by cinnamon-sugar doughnuts) was thought up one panicked late night at a doughnut shop when he was poor and struggling and desperate to impress the James Beard Foundation at a dinner the next night. It's effete food with testosterone subtext.