There are rock stars in every industry: James Cameron in film, Frank Gehry in architecture and in the food world, these days it seems to be all about Thomas Keller.
I’ve heard Keller’s name in passing for years, especially because of his famous restaurant, The French Laundry, here in California, where the minimum wait time for a reservation is at least three months and lunch costs $270/person (without wine). Keller has won every culinary award out there and is recognized internationally as one of the best in his field.
I am not a food critic or a culinary expert; I’ve never been to any of his high-end restaurants; and I’m not in the habit of name dropping – so why on earth am I writing about Thomas Keller?
Basically, I find his success story and dedication to his craft intriguing, and from a certain perspective, inspiring. This past weekend I watched a show about him on PBS called “Master Chef.” As one of five children, after his father left the family early on, he was raised solely by his mother, who owned a restaurant. After numerous professional challenges and financial setbacks, at 55, he’s now at the top of his game. The show gave a glimpse of a meal at The French Laundry. I was taken by the artistry of his food; his dedication to freshness, flavor and presentation; and the prolific garden behind the restaurant that sources much of its produce.
I do not have plans to travel to Yountville, CA any time soon to spend my entire month’s grocery budget on one meal with my husband. However, visions of Keller’s delectable plates did inspire me to pack the family into the car yesterday morning and drive ten minutes down the road to the brand new Bouchon Bakery, which opened last month here in LA. If I can’t have the full-on Keller experience, I at least wanted to try a small bite.
My expectations were high. On the ride over I pictured myself walking into a quaint French-style bakery; the aroma of fresh baked puff pastry and roasted coffee perfuming the air. I imagined the pastries I would eat – light, flaky, buttery with a hint of crusty, salty sweetness. I thought of the memorable food and inviting atmosphere I’ve experienced in bakeries such as Miette in San Francisco, Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes, Huckleberry in Santa Monica and Clementine in Century City.
My fantasies came to a screeching halt when I stepped foot into Bouchon Bakery. What I experienced was something more akin to Starbucks: a small, dark, run of the mill place that looked like any average chain operation – no soul whatsoever. I felt duped. Because instead of a superior product made with love, I got a generic pastry with a designer label – the culinary equivalent of expensive jeans that fall apart after a few washings.
My dry, day-old-tasting croissant left my throat parched and taste buds asking: So what’s with all the hype?
With multiple restaurants across the country in the “Thomas Keller Restaurant Group” (TKRG) I suppose Keller can’t keep a pulse on everything that has his name on it. It’s no surprise that something seemingly microscopic, like a croissant, might slip through the cracks. But I can’t help wondering: what is the cost of expanding to the point where your food has lost the culinary magic that you’ve become known for?
Please allow me to say that my intention is not to bad mouth Thomas Keller. In fact, I expected to write a glowing account of yesterday’s Bouchon Bakery visit. Truth be told, I find whining about minute details to be annoying, and I don’t believe in bad press unless someone has done something really awful (my stale croissant certainly does not qualify as a major offense).
But my let-down experience got me thinking about the bigger issue of where each of us draws the line in our own work, in whatever field that may be. What motivates us and how do we each define our own ‘sweet spot’ for success? Are we holding true to quality and integrity or are lines getting blurred in exchange for dollars and name recognition?
I suppose then, in the most unexpected way, my stale croissant reminded me that sometimes there’s more heart and soul in a good old-fashioned garage band, than in a flashy rock star.