Why Thomas Keller Thinks Farm-to-Table Is Absurd
“There's no true definition of local. Some people say it's a 25-mile radius. As far as a horse and carriage can go in a day. I have no idea. Local to me is an irrelevant term.”
It’s 30 degrees in Lyon, France, and world-renowned chef Thomas Keller looks deceptively European in a perfectly assembled scarf. Keller, a California native, is the James Beard Foundation award-winning, Michelin star-decorated chef and restaurateur behind Per Se and The French Laundry. He’s in France for the Bocuse d’Or, the closest thing the world has to a culinary olympics, serving as the president of Team USA. Before the competition got going, he sat down with me at the Hotel Sofitel to talk about cooking competitions, restaurant trends, and how someone should learn to cook in the first place.
Extra Crispy: How do you think that the Bocuse d’Or stands out among other cooking competitions in the world
Thomas Keller: Well, that's a good question. So what other cooking competitions are there? There is not a whole lot. You see a lot of on-air television cooking competitions—and they're fine, they're interesting, they're fun, but they're not at this level, obviously in intensity.
[Bocuse d’Or] started in 1987. If you look pre '87, there wasn't a lot of collective consciousness about culinary culture around the world. Once the Bocuse d'Or started and you started to see the explosion of interest in food, you kind of find ground zero for certain things that have happened, certain events, and certainly the Bocuse d'Or was a moment in history that put into effect a broad reaching understanding of the need for communication and collaboration and building relationships across borders and boundaries in the culinary world. And you see it everywhere. I don't know of any other event that's done that.
Watch: Thomas Keller’s Spaghetti alla Chittara
What would you have for breakfast on a big Bocuse d'Or day if you were competing?
A lot of protein and no carbs. I typically eat eggs every morning. So, there's boiled, soft-boiled, or scrambled. I always put it with a green vegetable, try to get my iron with spinach. I get my protein, a little bit of fat with olive oil. Fat helps extend the effects of protein in the mornings, so I don't think I'm hungry too early. I want to make sure I have enough fuel to take me through my day—whether it's my day at French Laundry or a day here. Good proteins, good fats, good vegetables gets you a long way. And caffeine.
How do you take your coffee?
Black. It’s just easier. In a kitchen, it's just easier. You learn how to be efficient. Putting cream and sugar, you have to go somewhere or you have to keep the cream and sugar somewhere.
Not everyone has the opportunity to go to a French Laundry training camp and become the best chef in the world. Do you have tips for people who want to learn to cook?
Well, cooking is a simple equation. It doesn't matter if it's me or you; it's about ingredients and execution. Ingredients are paramount. I grew up in a time where nobody knew a chef or what a chef was. The cook is still considered a domestic label by the US Labor Department, not a bonafide profession. You went in a grocery store and found iceberg lettuce and maybe green tomato. The vegetables were in an aisle full of cans, that's where my mother bought her vegetables. It was a bit of a departure from what we see today. What we see today is a result of this celebration of chefs and food. Chefs are the reason we have the diversity of our food in our grocery stores and markets today. They have been driving the quality.
My grandmother and my father who came from pre-World War II always went to the market. The milkman delivered milk everyday. We went to the baker to buy your bread. You went to the meat market to buy your meat. Grocery stores were just beginning back then. Not a lot of this mass grocery stores, you had to go to specific individuals, specific stores to get the fish, get your meat, get your bread, get your vegetables. They were really connected with food. You had to be. You had to spend time shopping and preparing food. There wasn't convenience food.
This whole idea of farm-to-table today is just absurd. Throughout history, food has been grown on a farm and brought to a table. So, is farm-to-table really new? That's just the absurdity of some of the definitions that we give our professional languages. Downright laughable. But I won't get on that.
Ingredients are really a big part of the equation. And then it's about execution. Execution is a small equation in itself because execution has to do with your ability, right? I mean your skillset. What is your skillset? It has to do with the tools that you have. It has to do with the equipment that you have. All these things really have an impact on your ability to be a really good cook. I think, one of the important things, that really answers your question is that, understanding that if it's me or if it's you, it's all about ingredients and execution. And we have to spend time with that.
Another thing I can tell people is that they need to be patient and persistent. I'm not the most patient person. We have to learn to be patient. Be more patient with ourselves to make sure that we take the time to actually learn something. We all want to know something. Who reads the instructions anymore, right? You buy something and you just start at it right away before you've even looked at the booklet. So, patience is really important, being patient with yourself. Learning some skills, learning how to use a knife, learning how to chop vegetables, learning how to roast a chicken, learning how to season, learning the importance of all these things that are going to impact your final result. Don't think about the final result. Enjoy the process. Cooking is a process. Cooking should be fun. If you don't get it right the first time, you know, don't think you are a failure. If you do get it right the first time, you're probably lucky or you're a really good cook. Patience and persistence are really important in that process.
And spend money. Spend money to support the farmers. We all, again, our culture, we want to have the very best and spend the very least. We're always looking for that. My mother told me a long time ago, you get what you pay for.
If the $1.50 tomato is better than the 50-cent tomato, buy the $1.50 tomato. It's worth it. You're supporting a farmer somewhere who's really dedicated to what he is doing. And this idea of local? Let's get that idea kind of set aside. What is local? What is local to you? How would you describe local?
Literally? A couple hundred miles, I think, is what restaurants say?
I don't know. I don't say that. Why would you say that?
I think I read it somewhere.
There's no true definition of local. Some people say it's a 25-mile radius. As far as a horse and carriage can go in a day. I have no idea. Local to me is an irrelevant term. What’s more important is quality.
Think about this, you say a couple hundred miles. So, within that couple hundred miles is a farmer who grows carrots. He doesn't really care about the carrots, he doesn't really care about the dirt, and he doesn't care about you. He just grows carrots because he can sell them to you, because you can only buy his carrots, because you're a local boy. There's a guy 210 miles away who's like so, so, so in love with his ground and carrots. He grows the best carrots. But he can't sell them to you. And you know what, he can't sell them to anybody else because there's not a town that's close to him. What happens to that farmer? He gets lost in the process. This idea of local is absurd. We all sit around drinking coffee talking about this idea of local and there's not a coffee plantation anywhere near us. We eat sugar. We have pepper, vinegar. We consume so much food that is not local. Where did this idea of local come from?
Yeah, it's an interesting take. You don't really hear of people looking at it from that perspective. You just know that you're supposed to prep local, and that's the holy term.
But that's the whole thing about these terms that we come up with that we really don't even understand, nor is there anyone actually willing to explain it. Farm-to-table. People think that's new. People actually think that's a new thing. That's stupid. But nobody will say anything. I'll say something. Our journalism is one that they don't say anything about it because it's part of what they need to do to create something that's new. We just created farm-to-table. Now, it's whatever. How stupid are we?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.