For many gourmands, Thomas Keller represents the face of American haute cuisine. Although he spent much of his youth working in restaurants and, in 1983, moved to Paris (where he found positions in two Michelin-starred culinary meccas, Restaurant Guy Savoy and Taillevent), his career began in earnest with the opening of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., which has since maintained its reputation as America’s finest restaurant. Several other eminent eateries followed—Bouchon, Per Se, and his casual comfort-food bistro, Ad Hoc—yet despite their varied personalities and menus, his restaurants share one uncommon goal: to elicit an emotional experience. At no time of the year does Keller more enjoy imparting his passion for food to others than during the holidays, when he opens up his kitchen to family and friends.
What is your philosophy as a host?
I like to get people in the kitchen. People love being in kitchens. Every time I have a party—whether it’s an open-house party during the holidays, or when we’re celebrating something—it’s about being in the heart of the home, and that’s the kitchen. The kitchen used to be behind a wall, and guests used to want to be in a more elegant area. The same was true at restaurants: People didn’t go back there. Now our kitchens are open, and some are like theaters, where you actually watch what’s going on. Attitudes have really changed. Now if guests are in the kitchen nibbling on snacks, that’s where they feel really comfortable. It’s wonderful to share the intimate process of cooking, which is about nurturing people.
How do you typically organize a menu?
It really depends on the type of occasion. If it’s going to be a sit-down dinner, then I do as much preparation as I can ahead of time. For example, I roast some large piece of meat—a bird, such as a chicken or a turkey, or a prime rib—and let it rest before the guests arrive. I also prepare vegetables that I can just reheat, as well as salads that can be done ahead of time and still maintain their freshness. When people come into the kitchen, the meal is on display. The bird or leg of lamb may be sitting in the roasting pan, and there may be a big beautiful bowl of salad that just needs to be dressed, and haricots verts in the sauté pan with minced shallots and a slice of butter on top that only has to be warmed through. I also like to display a tart or some kind of cake or dessert on a platter somewhere. So the dinner is there—people begin to anticipate the meal while they nibble on caviar with fresh croutons and a little bit of sour cream, a nice board of cheeses, some charcuterie, and maybe some smoked salmon. When we think about memories of the holidays, we think about those types of foods.
What do you prefer to offer guests at a casual wine tasting or cocktail party, where people are circulating and conversing?
It’s about snacks. If we’re gathering for a glass of wine or glass of Champagne with some hors d’oeuvres, I try to tend towards those more traditional flavor profiles. It could be something like an olivade, which is crème fraîche mixed with chopped olives. It may also be eggplant caviar, French artichoke mustard, little meatballs, and shrimp grilled with a little bit of barbecue sauce. I choose things with a little more zing—a little more spiciness or salt or acid—than you would normally have. I also like beautiful radishes dipped in butter with a little bit of salt. You’ve got the creaminess of the butter and the spiciness of the radish, and when you take a sip of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or Champagne, you get great flavor profiles.
If you were going to be hosted by a historical figure, who would you like that person to be?
Julia Child. She comes from that generation that appreciated the significance of the process of cooking and sharing that experience with somebody. To be at one of her parties would have been magnificent—one of hers or James Beard’s. They had an intimate relationship with food and a passion about it and a desire to please people. It’s that desire that makes you excel at something. It’s an emotional experience.