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Posted: Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008

Chef Keller dishes wisdom

By Kathleen Purvis
Published in: Local News

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Chef Thomas Keller could have made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich Tuesday in Charlotte and the crowd who turned out to see him probably would have been happy.

As it was, the auditorium at Johnson & Wales University was packed with several hundred culinary students, local chefs and even a couple of local farmers, plus an overflow crowd watching on a video screen outside.

They were all content to sit watching Keller demonstrate sous vide (SUE-veed), the professional cooking technique in his new book, “Under Pressure.”

“It's like a rock star event for chefs,” one person muttered as the auditorium filled and the sound system blasted “Under Pressure” by David Bowie.

Keller is the chef/owner of two of the nation's most important restaurants – The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York – along with other restaurants like Bouchon in Las Vegas.

Even Keller admits that “Under Pressure” is a book for professionals. For home cooks, there's not much to take away from a cooking technique that involves vacuum-packing foods and then cooking them at such precise temperatures that you can hold vegetables for hours at exactly 82 degrees before raising them one degree to allow them to cook perfectly.

But Keller wasn't in Charlotte just to show how to do fancy “boiling bag” food or even to sign books. The chef who started working as a teenager in the Palm Beach, Fla., restaurant run by his mother relishes teaching.

He admitted that culinary school wasn't something he even knew about when he started out. Today, he makes it a mission to train and nuture young chefs and students. Four from Charlotte have gone to work for him or served unpaid externships in his kitchens.

What he looks for in young people, he said, isn't passion. It's desire.

“People talk about passion. But let's face it, passion ebbs and flows. I look for desire. It's desire that's continuous. That, to me, shows real passion.”

All through Tuesday's lecture, he paced in front of the auditorium's demonstration kitchen, sprinkling lessons like salt while his assistants worked through a dish of lamb and roasted fennel.

He talked about adding every element of a sauce to the pan separately, letting each build a layer of flavor before deglazing the pan with the next ingredient. And he talked about the importance of teamwork and collaboration.

Keller's first two restaurants, one in Florida and one in New York, were failures, he said.

“I thought all I needed to know was how to be a good cook,” he said. “What I learned was I needed to know more.” He needed someone who knew service and someone who knew finances – the “tripod” that makes a business a success.

The chef left only one question unanswered: Where did he eat Monday night? He gave a hint, saying he tried (and failed) to bribe a bartender to cook him a medium-rare hamburger, against state rules.

But where was that burger? He wouldn't say.

In an auditorium full of chefs – who all would have wanted to cook for him – that showed real wisdom.

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