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Event Tue Sep 28 2010
Renowned chef, restaurateur and author Thomas Keller was in town last week to help demystify the Michelin guide, the respected directory to restaurants around the world, which will publish its first Chicago edition this November. Michelin announced in July that it would be coming to Chicago at a chic reception presided over by Guide Director Jean-Luc Naret and at which Mayor Daley spoke. Naret returned to Chicago on Friday for a private, informal Q & A at Kendall College with Chef Keller and Kendall School of Culinary Arts Dean Christopher Koetke to address the workings of the guide.
The three men spoke for an hour in front of an audience of about 75 people, mainly culinary students. Keller stole the show, with attendees most interested in hearing from the only American chef with two three-star restaurants, Per Se in New York City and The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California.
Long before he had any restaurants, Keller explained that he most wanted to emulate restaurants with three Michelin stars. These restaurants, he said, "have set the bar my entire life." The Michelin director calls each chef awarded stars to deliver the news the day before a guide launches, and Keller shared with candor and humor the stories of his first and second three-star calls.
When Per Se was awarded its three stars in 2005, Keller explained that he was in Paris and knew that he would not be able to get back to New York in time for a Michelin call. He walked the French capital all day in anticipation of starry news. The French Laundry was awarded its three stars the following year, and Naret happened to be dining in the restaurant the night before the launch of the Bay Area guide. Naret did not withhold the news, and Keller recalled joking to the Michelin Director, "You'll still call me, right?"
Keller tempered his nostalgia for the Michelin recognition with his recommendations for the aspiring chefs in attendance. He explained to the audience that he and the teams who run his restaurants have "kind of gotten over inspectors and critics in general." "We're continuously working to do a better job" because what is written by restaurant critics describes what was done yesterday yet sets the expectations of future diners.
"You better be sure," Keller told the culinary students, "that what you do today and tomorrow is the same as yesterday." "Be patient, be persistent." Whether a singular prep station or an entire kitchen, he said, "Treat it like it's yours, and one day it will be."
Keller also answered questions on Friday about his work outside of his restaurants. Besides chef, restaurateur and author, he has consulted on films such as Pixar's 2007 animated hit Ratatouille and designed dinnerware. As evidenced by Friday's event, he promotes restaurant guides, too. Keller reminded the audience that the roles of chefs have shifted from generation to generation. "We didn't really have culinary schools when I first got into the industry." Chefs today have "new opportunities, new responsibilities," he said.
Of Chicago, Keller said that he visits frequently to dine at Alinea, the restaurant of his close friend Grant Achatz. The Kendall College audience laughed loudly when Keller next mentioned visits to The Wieners Circle, the notorious Lincoln Park hot dog stand. He also noted that he has enjoyed meals at Paul Kahan restaurants Blackbird and The Publican as well as Shawn McClain's former seafood-focused restaurant Spring.