Friday, November 13, 2009

An Evening with Thomas Keller in Cleveland

Opening day of the 2009 Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland. The FFF is an annual November trade show type event featuring a (sometimes odd) variety of food vendors peddling their wares and offering samples, a huge wine tasting pavilion sponsored by the Cleveland Wine School, and a slate of 'celebrity' chefs who do a talk/demo, then humor the masses by signing books at a prescribed time.

The so called celebrity chefs the last few years certainly haven't caused me to melt my credit card trying to reserve a seat for extra bucks; I haven't been excited to see anyone since Alton Brown a couple of years ago.

After the initial line-up this year of Sandra Lee, Guy Fieri, Tyler Florence, Bobby Flay, and Michael Symon was announced, I let out another yawn. While I am going back to see Michael Symon on Sunday, at the rate he is opening new restaurants around town, I'll probably see him around anyway.

And while you think there might not be a lot of benefits to living in Northeast Ohio (think 6 months of dark, grey winter), the fact that author Michael Ruhlman is a resident, has benefits, such as him inviting Thomas Keller to town for an intimate chat on home cooking and a book signing. Ruhlman co-wrote Keller's cookbooks, as well as Michael Symon's, and one with Eric Ripert, in addition to his own books. I'm pretty sure Thomas Keller wouldn't really have considered swinging through Northeast Ohio otherwise.

A special ticket for $60 included a reserved seat for the discussion, and a copy of the newest cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Which I think weighs about 10 pounds. The book retails for $50, so it was a pretty good deal, since it included admission to the show too.

Although Keller is famous for his French Laundry and Per Se restaurants which feature impeccably crafted, high end food, Ad Hoc, the restaurant, takes a different approach, and has a 4 course menu that changes daily, served family style, and is based on whatever looks good that day.

The book Ad Hoc at Home features recipes more likely to be tackled by home cooks, than those in the French Laundry cookbook, although one enterprising blogger, cooked her way through the French Laundry book.

Ruhlman asked questions to get the conversation going, including some that were taken from the audience in advance and written down.

When asked what he thought were important things for home cooks to learn to be successful, Keller said that learning to correctly season food, and when, were one of the most important. He suggested buying some spinach and practicing by sauteeing a bit plain, tasting, then doing some with a bit of salt, tasting, and continuing to season until it tasted heightened to your palate. Mise en place, or organizing and having your tools and ingredients prepped and ready to go so you do not have to stop the cooking mid-process are also critical.

He also said that becoming a good cook requires becoming inspired by what you find that's fresh and in season in the market, and cooking what you find, rather than finding a recipe and trying to round up the ingredients. Even consumers can, and should, work with their vendors, including the produce, meat, and seafood managers at the grocers to affect change in what's available. "Understanding the quality of food, and resourcing it, are key to the learning process", Keller stated.

When asked what skills or techniques a cook should learn, he stated that repetition is the key to becoming a good chef. "Everyone wants to try something new. But when you're having a party, or even feeding your family, it's not the time to try more than one new thing. Become comfortable with some things, that you can do without thinking too much about it, then you can try something different".

He really enjoys cooking fish because it's delicate, and breaking down a whole fish, gives him the opportunity to get familiar with it on a tactile level. He said that people have become afraid of touching their food (and I agree with him). He said killing an animal teaches you respect for that animal, and is part of the learning process.

He also believes in tempering meat (letting it come to room temp before cooking) and said that at the restaurants that the chickens are sometimes out for 2 or 3 hours and fish up to 45 minutes before it's cooked (I can hear all my fellow personal chefs who were subjected to the food safety course collectively gasping), but I suspect Keller gets a higher quality protein than the average Piggly Wiggly shopper.

Another thing he talked about is how everyone has a catalog of flavors in our minds of those that work well together (Ruhlman mentioned tarragon with orange), many of which were formed in childhood, but said that cooks could learn by reading books (The Flavor Bible is a personal favorite of mine) and magazines, and experimenting with flavors you enjoy.

All in all, a nice, down to earth discussion, from probably the most respected chef in the U.S. I can't wait to dig into my new cookbook and try a few recipes.

I brought my copy of Charcuterie for Ruhlman to sign in honor of my maiden pancetta voyage (it's curing in the basement bathroom) - he signed it: 'All Hail the Pig"!


  1. Oh good, now I can stop looking over my shoulder for the food safety police when I bring meat to room temperature for an hour before cooking it and I have a fancy name for it. I'm tempering it.

  2. What an amazing event! I love that you have given us such a comprehensive review of the evening! Thomas Keller's emphasis on mastering the basics and quality truly resonates with me as I am working to establish a solid foundation as a beginner home cook. How wonderful that you have his new cookbook!

  3. Wow, what a wonderful event. I feel almost like I was there with your excellent reporting. Love seeing your picture with Thomas Keller and Ruhlman!


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