When Thomas Keller says he's stepping back from the kitchen to mentor young chefs, it's as if LeBron James says he's benching himself so younger teammates can get more time on the basketball court.
At 57, we have to take Keller at his word. But his announcement last year also signaled another advance in American cuisine: the emergence of chefs whose brilliance makes them sought-after mentors, and whose egos also grasp the responsibility of sharing what they know.
"I think you have to listen to your own gut," he said during a summertime visit to Minneapolis. "It's very important — that feeling you have when faced with a challenge. It can be a blink, this moment, and it's a very important moment. But to analyze the situation, you need guidance."
Keller was promoting his fifth cookbook, "Bouchon Bakery" (Artisan Books, $50), written with Sebastien Rouxel, who oversees pastry for the restaurants the French Laundry, the Bouchon Bakeries and Per Se. The duo explored all-American childhood treats as well as breads, cakes and classic French pastries. Suffice it to say, their version of the Oreo cookie is dialed up to 11, given notes such as: "For this recipe, we use Valrhona Ivoire 35 percent white chocolate and Guittard Cocoa Noir."
Yet the nuances of Keller's gut instincts may best be revealed in his recipe for chocolate chunk and chip cookies: The mix of chunks and chips works because the chunks melt, but the chips don't. Then, in an otherwise ordinary ingredient list, there lurks 13/4 teaspoons of unsulfured blackstrap molasses. Just that much, he said, deepens the flavors.
Over Keller's career, American cuisine has grown from overlooked to highly respected. Part of that is due to him: He is the only American chef to have earned simultaneous three-star Michelin ratings for two different restaurants, the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York City.
While not denying his due, Keller lauded a trio who inspired him: Julia Child, Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma and Robert Mondavi of the vineyard family. "One gave us the courage and confidence to cook, another everything to cook it with and another the wine with which to enjoy it."
While home cooking has been revived, home baking still struggles. That's partly due to a lapse in generational legacies, but also because of how convenience foods are marketed for ease and expertise.
"It's not just food," Keller said. "Our lives have become that. We look for specialization in everything. We outsource everything — personal trainers, laundry. 'Bouchon' is my way to get people back to baking and to let them know it's not hard.
"The important thing is committing the time. We all want a satisfactory outcome. If you don't want to practice your cooking, you'll make compromises that will affect the quality of your outcome."
Perhaps realizing how judgmental that sounded, Keller grinned, adding that people need to find the level of satisfaction that works for them. "I want to golf well, but I have no time to practice enough to be really good," he said. "So I've come to just enjoy the game for the way I play it."
Not so in his kitchens.
"We're always looking for ways to improve ourselves," he said. "We're cooks, and this is what we do. When we're truly committed to continually wanting to make things better, it compounds upon itself.
"And it's not always about perfecting a technique. It could be shining your shoes better one day, or tying your apron a little nicer.
"The opportunities are endless."