Meet chef Thomas Keller

Chef Thomas Keller - Bouchon Bakery - Dubai restaurants - FooDiva

Chef Thomas Keller at Bouchon Bakery Dubai

Chef Thomas Keller has no intention of bringing his three-Michelin starred US restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se, or his one-star Bouchon Bistro to the UAE due to lack of access to fresh ingredients and staff talent, he explained in my interview. Instead, he has opted to transplant his now eight-strong bakery concept, Bouchon Bakery to The Beach in Dubai in partnership with Al Shaya, marking his first location outside the US. He was in town for a series of media activations, cooking classes and book signings, so when I questioned him on Dubai’s restaurant scene, he admitted that jetlag and his work schedule precludes him from dining out in Dubai. This highly driven, focused and serious 62-year old chef also wasn’t interested in sharing his favourite restaurant/s around the world. But he did have plenty to say on stepping down from the kitchen, cultivating talent and his favourite desserts.

In 2012 you stepped down from the kitchen – what’s your role now? When you’re young, you aspire to be an athlete, then you get to be the athlete, then the franchise player, and then you get to an age where you can’t play anymore, so you have to be something else. So you get to be the manager of the team and that’s kind of what I’ve done. It’s to cultivate the younger staff and we need to make room for them by retiring the older players who can’t do the work anymore.

Gordon Ramsay (and his PR) had a similar analogy explaining “when you go to Armani to buy a suit, you don’t expect Giorgio Armani himself to have stitched it.” I don’t think that analogy works. Manufacturing is not what we do. What we do is more every day. If Armani stitched it, it would have been stitched months ago or a year ago. What we do, is every day. That means there’s an entire group of individuals who have to come together everyday to do their part to the standards that we expect. That’s very different to manufacturing.

So how do you manage and cultivate team talent? The most important thing we all can do is to hire the right person, make sure we train them correctly, and make sure we nurture them. And if you do those three things correctly, what happens? That person’s better than you are, because if they’re not better than you are, then you’re doing a shitty job. That’s our mentality. So many don’t allow people to fail, yet failure is key to learning. You learn 10,000 more things from mistakes than from success. Criticism for us is critical, otherwise we’re not understanding where we need to improve. If we’re all saying we’re doing a good job all the time, then where do you go from that? We’re critical of ourselves far more than everyone else is. We often wonder why we get such high praise because we feel we can do a better job.

Have you got any plans to open any other concepts here in the UAE? No.

Bouchon Bakery Dubai - quiche Florentine - Dubai restaurants - FooDiva

Quiche Florentine at Bouchon Bakery Dubai

So why Bouchon Bakery in Dubai? I think it really works well for what I wanted to do and what Al Shaya wanted to do. Ingredients are a really big part of our restaurants. With a bakery, a lot of it is commodity – flour, sugar, eggs, butter, cream, milk, chocolate, nuts and dried food. Sourcing these is much easier than sourcing fresh chicken, fresh trout and fresh salmon, which would have to be sourced for my other brands. Bouchon Bakery is about a community place – a place where people can come every morning, three times a week and have their favourite cup of coffee, a beautiful croissant, a late lunch and something sweet in the afternoon. It’s not a restaurant; it’s a bakery.

On your menu here you highlight the origins of the produce with some of it listed as frozen. So you’re not confident you can source the right produce for your flagship restaurants here? I’m not confident I will get the ingredients I want, and I am not confident I’ll get the staff to execute it. That’s it. Very simple.

What’s been your biggest challenge in your career? Restraining myself from doing things and being content with what I have. We always want to do more, and more. Sometimes you just have to stop and say, “you know what, we’re very lucky to have what we have. We’re very fortunate to do what we do, and that’s enough.” So with French Laundry and Per Se, I have two fine dining restaurants in America with three Michelin stars each. Why would I want to open another fine dining restaurant? Why?

But you would, and you stop yourself? The only place I would do it would be Tokyo.

Would you call yourself a perfectionist then? Other people do.

How would you describe yourself then? I would strive for improvement every day. Our attitude is come in tomorrow and do a little better job than you did today. Just a little bit. That’s all I expect. And with that, over a course of a week, a month, a year, and two years – it just escalates. It compounds day after day.

And now for some quick fire questions…

What’s your favourite dessert? A chocolate or lemon dessert.

And specifically a French dessert? It depends on what kind of mood you’re in. We just had the chocolate éclair, which was wonderful. The Florentine cookies are one of my favourite cookies. The chocolate bouchons, the chocolate tart and the banana tart are all great. I’m really impressed with the quality of work that this team is doing.

So what do you cook at home? Do you cook or does Laura cook? [Laughs]. Now why would Laura cook? She has me!

You’d be surprised at how many chefs I meet and they say, “I don’t cook at home, my partner does the cooking.” Laura realised a long time go that there was no point in her cooking because I’m always in the kitchen fussing around anyways. Just usually a roasted chicken or a steak on a grill and some fresh salad. Really simple, easy food.

If you weren’t a chef what would you be? Short stop [baseball player] for the New York Yankees.

What’s your retirement plan? Somewhere near a beach and a golf course.

How would you like to be remembered? That’s a good question. As somebody who made an impact on his profession.


Have you eaten in any of Thomas Keller’s restaurants? Do you think he is right with his strategy to not bring his flagship restaurants to the UAE? (I do).

A bientôt.
FooDiva. x

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  1. Weekly roundup of great reads on food and wine #126 – Food and Wine Gazette - November 27, 2017

    […] Meet chef Thomas Keller: Chef Thomas Keller has no intention of bringing his three-Michelin starred US restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se, or his one-star Bouchon Bistro to the UAE due to lack of access to fresh ingredients and staff talent, he explained in my interview. Instead, he has opted to transplant his now eight-strong bakery concept, Bouchon Bakery to The Beach in Dubai in partnership with Al Shaya, marking his first location outside the US. He was in town for a series of media activations, cooking classes and book signings, so when I questioned him on Dubai’s restaurant scene, he admitted that jetlag and his work schedule precludes him from dining out in Dubai. This highly driven, focused and serious 62-year old chef also wasn’t interested in sharing his favourite restaurant/s around the world. But he did have plenty to say on stepping down from the kitchen, cultivating talent and his favourite desserts. […]

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