Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bruni joins Thomas Keller pile-on

New York Times food critic Frank Bruni today questions whether Thomas Keller has stretched himself too far, lending a sympathetic ear to the Bloomberg story published yesterday.

In a blog post, Bruni reminds us that Keller has a line of "silver-plated holloware sold by Christofle," along with the frozen food, expansion restaurants and other sorts of "diversification and division of interests that arguably contradict Mr. Keller’s words and posture in the past."

He adds:
... Mr. Keller has stretched and continues to stretch...

I read the Bloomberg and Eater reports on Keller an hour after having a cup of coffee at Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center, where I met an out-of-town friend for a quick breakfast. I didn’t eat, but I made a fairly thorough visual survey of the muffins, croissants and cookies — there it was! my beloved Nutter Butter! — and I could see several kitchen hands, in advance of lunchtime, making a vast quantity of sandwiches in an assembly-line fashion.

Bruni: Thomas Keller, Inc.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Thomas Keller 'not going to be able to keep the quality' while selling frozen food, Ruth Reichl says

Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on FlickrBloomberg this morning published a Thomas Keller feature on its financial news wire, exploring whether diversions like a 20-room hotel, catering operation and frozen food line will impact quality at Keller's flagship French Laundry.

Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl tells Bloomberg's James Temple, " You have to expect that with your attention that diverted, you're not going to be able to keep the quality ... I just don't think that's possible.''

The story notes that Keller consulted on the Pixar movie Ratatouille, in which the main character becomes upset when a chef's image is used to sell frozen food on television. And yet Keller recently "designed and placed his name on two real- life frozen dishes for FiveLeaf, a unit of Cuisine Solutions Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia. The company will soon begin pitching one, Mac and Cheese Lobster with Orzo, to retail stores, said Lillian Liu, the company's marketing manager."

Michael Bauer says, "Once you get into frozen food and pizzas, your fine dining brand gets a little fuzzed out." He is refering to Wolfgang Puck, apparently, but the reader will probably draw a parallel to Keller.

Keller said he mitigates against the risks of growth by
  • growing slowly and carefully, as when he shut down French Laundry for nearly 5 months while working on Per Se,
  • plugging in the old staff at new ventures,which keeps quality high and keeps staff from leaving for bigger opportunities.

Bauer weighed in on this topic in August, saying he did not think the French Laundry has lost its edge and still operated on "a sublime level" above other restaurants. He added that a recent meal there "wasn't as remarkable" as one two years prior, his all time favorite meal.

In July, I summarized some French Laundry backlash from online food writers.

Bloomberg: French Laundry's Keller Takes Plunge With Frozen Foods, Burgers

(Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on Flickr via Creative Commons license. You may redistribute and "remix" this cropped version under the same license.)

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Hoist Thomas Keller by his own Sysco petard, no really GO AHEAD, says ex-employee!

Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on FlickrThere's an awesome new post in the comments from ex-Thomas Keller employee "Ken," who confirms that, yes, Keller uses Sysco frozen fries at Bouchon to make what food-media empress Laura Froelich has declared are the best French-fried potatoes on the planet.

But Ken's bigger message is that Thomas Keller has no secrets.

Ask him for the model number of his fryer, he'll tell you. Ask him for what kind of Sysco oil he uses, he'll tell you.

Wait, what?? He uses Sysco OIL even?? Not like goose fat, or rendered Unicorn, or at least the carefully distilled juice of a grass-fed free-range happy cow? God this keeps. Getting. Worse.

But anyway, the point is, you could totally TAKE ON Thomas Keller using nothing more than his goodwill and copies of his own cookbooks. Here's the whole comment:

As a former employee of TK, I will tell you that you are correct about where the fries come from. I will also tell you that if you asked Thomas or Jeff Cerciello, they would tell you what kind of fryer they use and what kind of Sysco oil they use too.

Now, all you have to do is cook and season the fries. Match what they do and open your own place, it's that simple. TK has never hidden anything from anyone. His recipes and techniques mentioned in the TFL and Bouchon cookbooks are on the money and the same as the cooks thaqt work for him carry around in their precious pocket notebooks. TK feels that all you need to know about working for him or cooking in general is - desire.

Another secret about TK is that the pork he uses actually comes from pigs, but don't reveal this, it may cause a stir.

I hope all you local chefs looking to steal Thomas Keller's Michelin-star-studded crown got all that. Basically all you need is DESIRE, along with some chutzpah, hard work, Thomas Keller cookbooks and the ability to READ.

Hey where'd all the chefs go after the last part??

View comment with original post

(Photo cropped from original courtesy mikebaudio on Flickr via Creative Commons license. You may redistribute and "remix" this cropped version under the same license.)

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thomas Keller's Sysco fries are totally punk rock, blogger says

In which Laura Froelich makes Michael Pollan cry some more
Dear Michael Pollan,

There, there.

We know you're down because Nancy Pelosi personally hung, bled and skinned your farm reform bill in a Smithfield abattoir on account of it being terrorism, the kind of terrorism that keeps Democrats from controlling Congress again in 2008, when the new president might give them permission to finally end the war or whatever.

Might we suggest some ways to cope with your depression, Michael? Start with some bourbon, neat, followed perhaps by a kill-crazy rampage in which you and your mob personally smash all tractors, ethanol tanks and lifesaving hospital technology your great great grandmother's great great grandmother wouldn't recognize as anything other than witchcraft.

And then fire up your laptop (named for a genetically engineered fruit no doubt!) and log on to food writer Laura Froelich's blog, where she says prepared French fries from Sysco, the massive food service company, are the absolute best in the world, far better than the ones made by hand in a fussy traditional French style by Tony Bourdain in New York.

Laura is especially fond of the Sysco fries served in gauche Las Vegas by agribusiness giant Thomas Keller. As an Archer Daniels Midland spokesman Keller's rep told New York Magazine:
One of the top reasons Bouchon uses frozen French Fries is consistency ... the consistency in these fries is often better than that of fresh potatoes.

The second reason is capacity. Bouchon would need to use over 200 pounds of potatoes a day to fulfill French Fry orders.

Laura Froelich is also a fan of the product. She writes of Bouchon's frozen, government-subsidized corporate welfare fries:

In my opinion, the Keller fries were stellar. Thin-cut (but not too thin), crispy (but not crunchy) on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and just the right proportions of oil and salt.

Feeling better already, Michael? Thought so! Interest you in a FunYun??

Fro Fro Blog: Chowdown - Keller vs. Bourdain

New York Magazine: Keller Cops to Using — No! — Frozen Fries

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thomas Keller backlash close to boiling over

To some, 'slipping' French Laundry is 'not the best,' 'disappointed' customers say other chefs 'within striking distance'
Is the mainstream media next?
It was exactly two years ago Monday when a well-established weblog called San Francisco Gourmet posted a surprising, reluctantly brutal review of Thomas Keller's iconic restaurant the French Laundry, saying that over three visits between 2003 and mid-2005 the restaurant "appears to be slipping," mixing up orders, fumbling dish descriptions and letting waiters regularly reach across diners to deliver food and wine.

Meanwhile, the review noted, French Laundry's prices had nearly doubled over five years, rocketing up much faster than those at other top-shelf restaurants in the area, even as those other restaurants gained ground against the French Laundry in food and service quality.

"The French Laundry has exhibited service that has consistently been below excellent," the review stated. "The menu itself seemed to be a notch below what it once was ... I suspect that The French Laundry will not be able to reclaim its past glory."

Reaction to the review was not encouraging. One commenter called it "blasphemous" and said it "lost all credibility" by comparing the French Laundry to a lesser restaurant, Gary Danko. Meanwhile, San Francisco Gourmet drew no concurring opinions from the torrent of French Laundry reviews gushing from the many new weblogs then emerging.

"I was starting to think that I would be the lone voice in the wilderness forever," the author of San Francisco Gourmet wrote earlier this year.

In retrospect, the review was a remarkable harbinger of things to come, probably because it was written by someone especially familiar with the restaurant, with at least six visits to the restaurant in five years.

In November 2006, almost a year and a half after San Francisco Gourmet's French Laundry piece, a blogger and self-described lifetime gourmand named Vedat Milor posted a review titled, "The French Laundry: Solid but imperfect." Milor, too, had visited the restaurant on numerous past occasions and felt it was slipping.

He said the restaurant "displays an automatic, slightly assembly line quality," with predictable food, weak examples of luxury ingredients like truffles and caviar and undisclosed add-on prices.

This description echoed Gary Danko, who called the French Laundry "the Laundromat" when I interviewed him shortly after the French Laundry took three debut Michelin stars to Danko's one.

This past May, a San Francisco-based freelance food writer named Catherine Nash chimed in with her own critical take on the Laundromat. She had visited four years prior, and the restaurant had exceeded her high expectations. This time?

"We were not blown away," Nash wrote on her weblog, Food Musings. " It was not nearly as exciting as we'd remembered or as wonderful as other meals we've had ... it was just not that interesting."

San Francisco PBS station KQED joined in the backlash in June, publishing on its "Bay Area Bites" website a French Laundry review from Michael Procopio, a waiter, former San Francisco Chronicle food section intern and 1997 graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

This story was the first faintly negative review of French Laundry I had seen, and the one that sparked the idea for this post, even before I heard backlash rumblings in the bigger, non-blog media world.

The review included some highly complimentary words for the food and servers. But Procopio found "something was not quite right," including the robotic staff, who insisted he order champagne rather than a still white wine; who recited dish descriptions while mispronouncing key words and who ultimately sent a chill up his spine. Procopio concluded the restaurant embodied "uniformity," "repetition" and "machinery well-oiled."

His unease reached its dramatic crescendo when an aggressively confused waiter read Procopio's $1277 bill aloud to Procopio, his dining companion and the rest of the restaurant.
We were pleased to know that everyone in the room knew how much we spent. Perhaps our waiter thought that a guest at one of the other tables might avail us of his or her superior math skills. We were, all of us, quietly horrified.
Three themes emerge repeatedly in the bad reviews.
  1. Speculation that the opening of Per Se in New York, to say nothing of Keller's three other expansion restaurants, movie consulting or books, has led to an inevitable muting of the culinary and service heights reached at the original French Laundry. San Francisco Gourmet and Milor both mentioned this issue, and Nash brought it up in a comment attached to someone else's review.

  2. That people are holding the French Laundry to very high standards because of its very high prices, which have shot up over five years. Keller was asked about pricing at a Commonwealth Club event in May and became defensive, arguing that he provides good value for the price and pointing to the much cheaper option ($45) at his Ad Hoc, also in Yountville.

  3. The identification of alternative top restaurants, in particular Manresa. San Francisco Gourmet, for example, wrote that Manresa's David Kinch is giving Keller "a run for his money" and, along with Danko and Ron Siegel, is "within striking distance." Milor said Manresa and one other restaurant offered "higher quality product" than French Laundry, "impeccably prepared."

    The blogger behind ChuckEats.com earlier this month ranked Manresa ahead of French Laundry in a review where he found the latter's food seemed to sympathize with critics who find at French Laundry "a perfection without blemish or character, sanitized, safe, and soulless."
I am agnostic on whether French Laundry is slipping. My one visit to French Laundry in 2003 was my all-time favorite restaurant meal; it also featured a tasting menu half as expensive as the one offered today.

But I will submit to you the following: Hand-wringing over quality at Thomas Keller's growing empire of restaurants in general and at French Laundry, in particular, is likely to continue to work its way up the media food chain, rightly or wrongly. Count on it, and watch for it.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No, Thomas Keller does not run Per Se and did not write the Bouchon cookbook. Next question.

Speaking in San Francisco Thursday, French Laundry executive chef Thomas Keller was especially blunt about his detachment from his New York restaurant Per Se and his second cookbook Bouchon.

Keller spoke in San Francisco last Thursday at the Commonwealth Club, fielding a variety of questions from the audience and moderator Tara Duggan from the Chronicle.

The topic of celebrity chefs came up, and Keller said he basically has five restaurants to provide opportunities to his staff. In the way of explaining how great his staff is at running things, he put some significant distance between himself and some of his projects:
[Bouchon founding chef Jeffrey Cerciello] wrote an extraordinary book -- that's his book. I know my name is on the cover -- that's a publishing house thing.

[At Per Se,] I wanted to make sure our developers who built the buildings really understood what a commitment building a restaurant was. I say that as someone who is somewhat detached from it because it is a Jonathan Benno restaurant.

It's not breaking news that celebrity chefs are not heavily involved in each of the several restaurants they typically run, and Cerciello was mentioned in the cover flap for Bouchon cookbook. But it was interesting to hear Keller really emphasizing the point, because it swims against the marketing that emphasizes Keller's role in the restaurant and book.

By the way, there didn't seem to be any question that Keller is still firmly in control at the flagship restaurant, the French Laundry in Yountville, and he was clear about his intense involvement in the French Laundry Coobook, published in 1999.

Keller also talked about the prices at his restaurant, molecular gastronomy and French Laundry's recent purchase of a ... well, of a laundry. The whole thing is supposed to air on KQED at some point.

More in my Business Times update: French Laundry chef talks about celebrity life (free link)

This event was also blogged by Laura Froelich, who has some additional quotes.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Separated at birth: Thomas and Hubert Keller

I really tried to maintain a spirit of good humor and playfulness as I read "A $3,000 taste of Vegas" in the Chicago Tribune.

But the newspaper's restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, seems quite serious when he writes "brothers Thomas and Hubert Keller have Sin City outposts."


(Thomas Keller, born in California, runs a little laundromat in Yountville, maybe you've heard of it.)

(Hubert Keller, born in France, operates a restaurant for Gallic monarchs in San Francisco, one of the city's three best restaurants according to the Chronicle.)

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Michelin: Reviewing the reviews of the reviews

Let's get wicked "meta." What sayeth the critics about the Michelin critics?

Thomas Keller:
We had coffee.
Giving [Chez Panisse] one star, in my mind, shows that the inspectors don't get the Bay Area food scene .... the list lacks many of the places that go to the heart of Bay Area dining

... hard to make sense of ... I wonder if our restaurants are being handicapped because [French Laundry] is much better than any of the other restaurants here

... I don't know if it's a wake-up call or we're just going to become even more provincial and say, 'Screw 'em!'
Michelin is predisposed to rating French-styled and -setup restaurants ... If Michelin wants to embrace the world, it needs to look at cultural differences

... [The star demotion] fits into the whole Michelin modus operandi, to show that they are in charge.

I know that it's absolutely about the complexity of the wine list, and a certain kind of service, and the way the restaurant is set up. At Chez Panisse, I've never wanted it to conform in that way.

Roland Passot:
I'm disappointed by not getting two stars ... it will become a bible.

Hubert Keller:
Maybe I should just open a bistro.

Charles Phan:
I don't kiss up to the French.

Anonymous at Ferry Building party (via Cooking with Amy):
"I'm not putting Michelin tires on MY car..."

Danny Scherotter:
The reason Angelenos come to San Francisco to eat is because our food is more about ingredient-driven, organic, free-range, sustainable, fresh-right-from-the-backyard, seasonal food than it is about some chef's ego and how high he can pile [it].


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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Perfect opportunity to write 'Dirty Laundry' headline missed

Why do people always forget Thomas Keller has a restaurant in Las Vegas?

People remember the French Laundry, Per Se, and, slightly less often, Bouchon in Yountville. But people are either surprised or doubtful when I tell them that Keller, too, has joined the Las Vegas cash-fest. His entry is Bouchon Las Vegas.

Anyway, apparently Keller's video uplink connecting Per Se in New York to French Laundy in Yountville via 32-inch plasma TVs is going to be getting quite a workout: Keller has split with his 10-year director of operations and "life partner" Laura Cunningham, the Chronicle's Inside Scoop reports.

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