Acclaimed Chef Thomas Keller on Defining Fine Dining and Eating ‘Local’
'Local has nothing to do with geography—it has to do with quality of ingredients.'
May 11, 2019 11:00 AM UTC
Jarrod Huth, left, and Thomas Keller in the kitchen of TAK Room at Hudson Yards in New York, Feb. 28, 2019. New Yorkers have new reasons to make reservations on the West Side, with the arrival of a huge dining complex at Hudson Yards. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)
Vincent Tullo—The New York Times/Redux
The lines between fine dining and casual dining have become increasingly blurred over the last several years, as more restaurants do away with white tablecloths, one of the hallmarks of fine dining, while places that might have seemed like a neighborhood spot are increasingly charging upwards of $30 just to start.
Enter TAK Room, a new establishment in New York’s recently constructed Hudson Yards neighborhood and the latest restaurant from the acclaimed Chef Thomas Keller, whose portfolio includes the Bouchon empire of restaurants and bakeries nationwide, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se, less than a mile away from TAK Room at Columbus Circle.
But appearances might be deceiving at TAK Room, with its mid-century decor, a large opening dining room primed for a three-martini lunch, and yes, those familiar white tablecloths.
And yet Keller insists that TAK Room is, in fact, a casual dining establishment—if not a “fun dining” one.
“It has every bit of focus and uniqueness that Bouchon has as a French bistro in an American version,” says Keller. “It’s an a-la-carte menu. There’s no dress code. It’s food that is casual, food that has reference points, food that we all recognize—whether it’s a roasted chicken, a slice of prime rib, puréed potatoes, glazed carrots, a piece of chocolate cake, crab cake, a Caesar salad—all these things are very recognizable in our culture and this style of food.”
People get confused with the price of a meal as it relates to fine dining or casual dining, Keller explains. “But because we have an $85 steak on the menu, people say, ‘Well, that’s fine dining’ And that’s where there’s confusion created between price and what style of dining it is,” he continues. “Price is related to the quality of our ingredients, not to the level of the dining experience. And we have to realize that. Our steak, I believe, is certainly one of the best that we can possibly source from an extraordinary farm. and it costs $85 because that’s how much it costs, not because it’s a fine dining restaurant.”
Keller describes TAK Room as a restaurant from a certain period of time in American history: Right after World War II, pinpointing it as a time when America was “most progressive and most glamourous.”
“I grew up in these kinds of restaurants, my mother ran these kinds of restaurants, the greatest restaurants in America were these style of restaurants,” Keller says. The James Beard award winner began cooking in his mother’s restaurants, where he said she kept him out of trouble by perching him on a milk crate over the sink to handle the dishes. “I learned so much standing in front of that dish machine, not knowing at the time, but how it affected my career later on.”
Keller quips he became interested in cooking because he knew he “couldn’t play baseball to make any money at it,” adding that the kitchen afforded him the same kind of team spirit that the baseball diamond did.
It also offered him the opportunity to travel, starting in the 1970s in kitchens along the Eastern Seaboard. By 1977, while working in Rhode Island for Roland Henin, whom Keller regards as his mentor, Keller decided he wanted to become a chef himself. And because Henin was French, Keller followed suit in learning the French method of cooking, starting as a stagiaire (apprentice) in France before returning to the United States and opening a restaurant in the West Village called Raquel. Although it failed five years after opening (the space is currently inhabited by the Shake Shack Innovation Kitchen), it proved to be a stepping stone for Keller, who would go on to take over The French Laundry in 1994, already open for 17 years prior, describing himself as the “steward” of the Northern California restaurant rated three stars by the Michelin Guide.
“Our job, at the end of the day, is to help elevate the standards of our profession by setting the example within our restaurants,” Keller says. “So that when team members leave our restaurants, they’ll be able to go to other restaurants—whether it’s their own or heading up other kitchens or other dining rooms—they’ll be able to take the good part of what we do and help extend that, help inoculate that new group with the philosophy and culture of what we were able to teach them at The French Laundry.”
Local Is a State of Mind
Whether The French Laundry, the more affordable Ad Hoc down the road in Yountville, or a Bouchon Bakery stand somewhere around the country, Keller’s establishments prioritize bringing in the best possible ingredients. Yet they don’t always come from producers nearby, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sourced locally, according to the restauranteur.
“Local has nothing to do with geography—it has to do with quality of ingredients,” Keller insists. For him and his staff, the most important people are those who bring in the ingredients. Whether they’re fisherman, foragers, or gardeners, Keller considers them partners in business.
“We talk about local as if it’s a geographical definition. For me, local has nothing to do with geography,” Keller says, explaining that if you ask a group of people what “local” means to them, you’ll get responses ranging anywhere from a 25- to 100-mile radius. “No one knows the true definition,” Keller continues. “It’s about the quality of what they produce, of what they raise, or what they catch, or what they go into the woods to find. If you think of it that way, local expands to anywhere.”
As an example, Keller points to resources he gets from fishermen in Stonington, Maine, suggesting the community wouldn’t exist without fishermen being able to send their lobsters or their fish or their mussels or clams outside of what most people consider as local. “We have to think about that because buying their fish continues to sustain their community. And it’s not just with the fishermen—it’s with the teacher, it’s with the fireman, the pharmacist, the librarian—everybody in that community is being supported by them being able to send their fish to New York City, or to Yountville, California, or to Dallas, Texas.”
Think about it this way, Keller proposes: If local was really about geography, and let’s just say we all agreed local was a 100-mile radius of where you lived. There was only one farmer who grew carrots, and he didn’t care about the land, he didn’t care about you, he didn’t care about the nourishment of the carrot, or the nutrient value of the carrot. He grew the worst carrot you ever tasted. But you were forced to buy his carrots because he was considered local, and you are a locavore, so you have to deal with a 100-mile radius. Yet there was a farmer 102 miles away that cared about his farm, that cared about his land, cared about the nutritional value of the carrot—cared about everything. Grew the most amazing carrot. But he wasn’t able to sell you his carrot, and therefore he went out of business because he wasn’t considered local, and the person who didn’t care about the carrot was.
“You have to think about these things in a broader scope and be able to educate ourselves on what we are we really supposed to be doing,” Keller says. “What we’re supposed to be doing is being able to support those fishermen, farmers, foragers, and gardeners wherever they are—as long as they are producing extraordinary ingredients for us to be able to use.”
A counterpoint, Keller concedes, is the question of carbon footprints. “But if we really want to deal with carbon footprint, let’s deal with factory farming,” Keller responds. “Because shipping my lobsters from Maine to California, it’s either on a commercial airliner, which allows the people above in the cabin to pay much less fare for their flights because my lobsters are below. Or they’re on a FedEx plane, which are being sent around the world for commerce in many different ways, for information, for medical purposes, for a lot of different reasons. The carbon footprint is very small compared to other industries.”
For Keller, what he most wants people to understand is that sustainability not just about products, but about communities. Local is not just about geography, it’s about quality.
“And carbon footprint is something we all need to address, and I agree with that,” Keller says. “But there are certainly better ways to address carbon footprint than to say you can’t ship your lobsters from Maine to California.”
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