World Chefs: Michelin star Keller mixes luxury with simplicity

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - He cooks foie gras and lobster regularly, but top-rated U.S.-chef Thomas Keller says he’s no snob: burgers and sushi are enough to satisfy him.

U.S.-chef Thomas Keller speaks during an interview with Reuters at a hotel in Singapore January 30, 2008. He cooks foie gras and lobster regularly, but Keller says he's no snob: burgers and sushi are enough to satisfy him. In Singapore earlier this month for a fine food festival, Keller spoke to Reuters about his cooking philosophy, favourite dishes and the most difficult thing about being a chef. Picture taken January 30, 2008. REUTERS/Tim Chong

The 52-year old’s French-American restaurants have raked in Michelin stars including the highest three stars each for French Laundry, set among the wineries of Napa Valley, California, and gourmet New York eatery Per Se.

In Singapore earlier this month for a fine food festival, Keller spoke to Reuters about his cooking philosophy, favorite dishes and the most difficult thing about being a chef:

Q: How would you describe your cooking style?

A: “Modern American food with French tradition. We try to establish new reference points for people. For example when I say macaroni and cheese, most people would think of the Kraft blue box. But we do a macaroni and cheese that has lobster and orzo (a type of pasta) so when you eat our mac and cheese -- bang! -- you got a new reference point.”

Q: What’s your cooking motto?

A: “One of our overriding philosophies is the law of diminishing returns, which is: the more you have of something the less you like it. We establish our compositions based on the view that when you are finished with a dish, you wished you had one more bite. That way you have reached the highest flavor for that dish and it becomes memorable.”

Q: What were your food influences growing up?

A: “As the youngest of five boys, I had to fight to get what was leftover. Right now, I’ll eat anything and I’m not a snobby eater. I can enjoy a McDonald’s hamburger. You eat these things because you remember it from childhood and it’s comforting.”

Q: What’s your favorite cuisine?

A: “My favorite food is sushi. The Kaiseki dinner (traditional multi-course dinner) is very similar to the way we serve food in the French Laundry. I like the simplicity of Japanese food. That you can take a piece of fish and some rice and make it so compelling visually, the way it smells and tastes. That’s distilling something down to the simplest form.”

Q: Would you open restaurants in other parts of the world?

A: “There is so much interest in high profile chefs that people want you to open a restaurant everywhere. Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong etc. I could agree to open a restaurant in any one of these cities tomorrow. But I’m well known because of what I do in my restaurant, building a foundation for years, and that foundation is not easy to transport half way around the world.”

Q: What is the most challenging thing about being a chef?

A: “The constant desire to try to do a better job everyday and to set an example. For all that, you are human and sometimes you want to get lazy. Yet you realize that the higher you get, the more respect you have and the more expectations you have on you, the less you can be human.”


“Macaroni and Cheese”, Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone enriched Orzo

2 cups lobster broth*

½ cup orzo (rice shaped pasta)

2 tablespoons mascarpone

1 ½ cups beurre monte**

3-1 1/2-2 pound lobsters

1 tablespoon minced chives

Coral oil, in squeeze bottle***

6 parmesan crisp****

Simmer lobster broth in saucepan, reduce it to a sauce consistency, of about 1 ½ cups, then set aside.

Cook orzo in boiling, lightly salted water. Pour into a strainer to drain and rinse under cold water.

Simmer orzo and lobster broth together. Add mascarpone and season with salt to taste. Remove from heat after a minute.

Place lobster pieces in one layer in a saucepan. Pour in beurre monte to almost cover lobster and heat gently.

To complete: Stir chives into the orzo. Pipe a circle of coral oil in the bottom of each serving dish. Place about 1/3 cup of orzo in the center of the oil. Arrange a piece of lobster tail and a claw in the center of the orzo, top with a parmesan crisp.

* To make the lobster broth:

1 dozen lobster bodies

2 bunches fresh tarragon

1 gallon water

3 cup freshly chopped tomatoes

½ gallon heavy cream

Clean the lobster’s cavity, remove the gills, and cut into quarters. Sear lobster bodies in hot oil until they begin to color. Cover with the gallon of cold water, add tarragon, simmer, skim off the impurities, add tomatoes, and then simmer for 45 minutes. Strain through a “china cap” strainer, then through a fine sieve, then return to the stove, add the heavy cream, and simmer until reduced down to three cups. Chill, then re-heat while vigorously whipping to a frothy consistency.

** To make beurre monte:

1 tablespoon water

4 tablespoons to 1 pound of butter, cut into chunks

-- Bring water to a boil in saucepan. Reduce heat and whisk butter into the water, bit by bit, to emulsify. Continue to add pieces of butter until you have the quantity of beurre monte.

*** To make coral oil

3 tablespoons lobster coral, or roe

½ cup canola oil, heated

Blend lobster coral in blender for 20-30 seconds, until smooth. Running the machine on low speed, drizzle in the hot oil. Increase to high speed and blend for 15-20 minutes, until the oil takes on a red-orange color (the coral will remain dark). Strain by pouring through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh sieve into a container. Cover and store in the refrigerator.

**** To make parmesan crisp

½ cup finely grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 325 F. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of the cheese on non-stick baking tray, spreading into a dozen 2-inch rounds.

Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. Use a small spatula to transfer them to paper towels.

Editing by Gillian Murdoch