Chances are if you've ever donned chef whites, you know Thomas Keller's name. If you're a serious home cook, there's a decent chance you've heard of him, too. If you're the type who salivates over multi-course tasting menus that cost hundreds of dollars and take hours to consume, you've definitely heard of the guy. The California chef built an empire on making meals that were so luxurious and so refined they changed how we viewed fine dining.
As if his restaurants including Per Se, The French Laundry, Bouchon and more weren't impressive enough, his books have changed how many other restaurants operate. Go into any kitchen worth its weight and you'll likely find The French Laundry Cookbook on one of the shelves. If the restaurant does any of sous vide cooking you'll likely find Under Pressure nearby. This is all to say that Thomas Keller is sort of a big deal in the culinary world, which makes his recent meal at FT-33 in the Design District noteworthy.
Matt McCallister wasn't surprised when Keller glided through his dining room. The chef had gotten word earlier in the day that he might drop in. And while time to prepare is usually a good thing, it also gives you time to think about things -- over-think them, even.
McCallister says his first inclination was to "throw down." He'd just launched a tasting menu, and thought that a few of those dishes reached the caliber of cooking at some of Keller's restaurants. But the thought of trying to out-chef one of the greatest chefs ever seemed like a risky move.
"I think the food we do at FT is great, but we don't have a $160,000 centralized oven with planchas," McCallister said, referring equipment found in the finest kitchens in the world. He doesn't have the same staff, either. World-class fine dining restaurants can devote multiple cooks to the prep work required for just one dish.
So he punted the idea of special dishes tailored just for a celebrity guest and stuck with the menu he'd already planned for the night, thinking, "I'm going to just let him order."
Keller ordered gulf crab and a lamb dish, but it's the charcuterie he started with that's got McCallister beaming. "We've spent a lot of time working on that charcuterie board and making it excellent, so I knew he would be impressed with it no matter what," he said. Charcuterie has been featured at the restaurant since it opened.
The approach seems to have worked. Keller got up from his table and thanked McCallister for his meal before being roped into a picture with the kitchen staff that seemed more than enthused. Holy shit I just had my arm around Thomas Keller.
And while Keller didn't step behind the line to give any pointers, McCallister still says he learned a lesson from the visit. He might have tried to play on a stage that's not quite his to impress a world-renowned chef but he stopped himself, accepting that his restaurant does something unique. "We do something different," he said. "I wanted him to have our food."