Published: 17:00, April 2, 2024 | Updated: 10:06, April 3, 2024
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Keller's culinary master classes cook up a storm
By Li Yingxue

Michelin-starred American chef brings experience, philosophy and passion to collaborative events in Beijing and Shanghai, Li Yingxue reports.

Keller holds a master class in Beijing, sharing insight from his illustrious career and his cooking philosophy with young chefs. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 1979, Thomas Keller was just another cook working for a French chef, not yet dreaming of becoming a professional chef himself. That changed one day when his boss asked him a simple question: "Why do cooks cook?"

Stumped, Keller couldn't muster an answer. "We cook to nurture people," the chef explained. This insight struck a chord with Keller. "Immediately, I understood that I'm a nurturer and I wanted to become a chef," he says.

Fast forward to today, Keller, now 69, has reaped an impressive seven Michelin stars across his celebrated establishments: Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in California have each been honored with three stars, with the additional star gracing the Surf Club Restaurant in Florida.

Beyond his kitchen exploits, Keller's influence has extended into popular culture. He served as a consultant for the 2007 Pixar animated hit, Ratatouille, bringing his expertise to the film by training the producer in his kitchen and creating a special dish for the movie.

In March, he visited China, where he held master classes in Shanghai and Beijing, sharing insight from his illustrious career and his cooking philosophy with young chefs.

Thomas Keller's signature dishes — Hass Avocado and Kaluga Queen organic caviar (10 years )"Louie". (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Encouraging them to embrace a broader, more global approach to the culinary arts, Keller emphasized the importance of passion and creativity in crafting exquisite dining experiences. His classes sought to inspire the chefs to unleash their creativity, and to paint a vibrant picture of innovation in Chinese cuisine.

Keller shared the six disciplines of his success: organization, efficiency, critical feedback, ritual, repetition and teamwork.

"I learned that when washing dishes when I was 14 years old, but I didn't understand it from a professional point of view then," Keller says, adding that his philosophy of cooking has remained unchanged over the decades, and that the first thing is the ingredients.

No matter whether it's fine dining or casual dining, Keller says that chefs look for the best ingredients they can find and then their skill dictates the quality of the results.

Inspired by his anecdotes, the chefs attending the master classes eagerly posed thoughtful questions, actively engaging in the learning process.

Among them was Wang Shuo, a 33-year-old chef who specializes in Italian cuisine at Tavola in Beijing.

Thomas Keller's signature dishes — Macaroni and cheese. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

With 16 years of experience under his belt, Wang is perpetually in pursuit of fresh, creative ideas and eagerly enrolled in Keller's master class as soon as he learned of it.

Keller's personal journey, particularly his humble beginnings as a dishwasher, resonated deeply with Wang. "I was so inspired by the story Keller shared with us because, like him, I also started my career as a dishwasher," he says.

The chef's enduring passion for cooking, despite his years in the industry, also strikes a chord with Wang. During the class, Keller divulged the intricacies of managing a kitchen in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and the process of conceiving new dishes.

Wang was particularly captivated by the American chef's transformation of the simple donut into a dessert worthy of Michelin acclaim.

"He reminisced about his daily ritual of enjoying a cup of coffee with a donut and how one day, that routine sparked the inspiration to elevate the dish. He pointed out that sometimes, we overlook the potential in everyday foods," Wang says.

Thomas Keller's signature dishes — steak and eggs. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

This was Keller's first trip to Beijing, although he has visited Shanghai and Hong Kong before. When he lived in New York, he liked to eat in Chinatown and during this trip, he got the chance to try authentic Chinese cuisine.

Keller says he feels connections with China, a bond born in 2016 when a vendor introduced him to Kaluga Queen caviar from China. Since that pivotal moment, all his restaurants have exclusively used Chinese caviar, eschewing sources from elsewhere.

"For a long time, we haven't had wild caviar, so the best farmed caviar in the world is a brand from China. There's no question," Keller says.

Keller's admiration for caviar runs deep. Many of his signature dishes incorporate it as an essential component, rather than just as a garnish. At his two three-Michelin-starred restaurants, he uses between 1 and 1.5 kilos every day.

During this trip to China, Keller teamed up with Da Dong, a pioneer of cuisine nurtured by Chinese aesthetics and Weng Yongjun, a master of Chinese culinary arts. Together, they created two special "four-hands feasts", with caviar as a key ingredient.

The partnership is believed to be a reflection of the essence of both Chinese and Western culinary traditions, while also exploring the potential for innovative fusion.

Contact the writer at liyingxue@chinadaily.com.cn