Read How to Cook Like a Man Online
Authors: Daniel Duane
Under a photograph of Keller and his father, taken near the end of his father's life, Keller then introduces a design feature of
Ad Hoc at Home
, a sprinkling of kitchen tips and wisdom labeled “lightbulb moments.” The first of these, Keller says, “is one I was lucky to realize in time, and hope that others will too. It may seem obvious but it's worth repeating: Take care of your parents.” Because that lesson had been so important for me, personallyâand because I had learned it by cooking the
skirt steak upon my father's return from the hospitalâI read the rest of
Ad Hoc at Home
in a state of open-minded rapture like I hadn't experienced since
Chez Panisse Vegetables
, seven years earlier. In an essay entitled “Becoming a Better Cook,” Keller appeared to speak directly to me, cautioning the home cook who tries to do too much, and who never cooks the same recipe twice. He suggested instead a saner path toward self-improvement: cooking the same meals repeatedly, so as to practice “the handful of tasks professional cooks do over and over.” Gift of gifts, Keller then listed the actual tasks: roasting; sautÃ©ing; poaching, braising; big-pot blanching; using salt properly; using vinegar as a seasoning; roasting a chicken; making soup; and cooking eggs. After learning all of these techniques, Keller said, “challenge yourself. That is the way anyoneâan athlete, a doctor, a musicianâimproves his or her skills. Set increasingly difficult tasks for yourself. Maybe it's as simple as focusing on slicing an onion thinner, or dicing vegetables more uniformly, or braising short ribs correctly, taking the time to understand the different ways that short ribs look and smell and feel throughout cooking.” He ended with an admonition to
“be organized,” addressing the one remaining thing in my cooking that Liz still loathed. But here was the key that set me free: instead of pitching kitchen organization as a way to please the cook's neat-freak wife, Keller said that “good organization is all about setting yourself up to succeed. It means getting rid of anything that would interfere with the process of making a recipe or preparing an entire meal.” Just like that, Keller provided all the rationale I'd ever need for embracing the core belief expressed by Liz and demonstrated daily by her mother, but which I could apparently hear only from Keller himself: that, as Keller put it, “being organized is the first and most important part of cooking.”
I get a hot kind of adrenaline rush when I've got a new obsession, and that's how I felt as I banged out every
Ad Hoc at Home
recipe not just once but two or three times, taking care to practice every core technique, challenging myself like an athlete. I cut vegetables with a ruler, to make sure my half-inch dice was precisely half an inch. I roasted chickens and Rack of Pork Arista. I sautÃ©ed broccoli raab and I oil-poached sturgeon and I braised short ribs. There were soups and there was vinegar; there were even soft-boiled eggs. I never cooked a meal without a gigantic pot of boiling water for my daily practice of “big-pot blanching.” I even salted my food in precisely Keller's recommended manner, grabbing big pinches of his recommended brand, Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt (in perfect accordance with Gopnik's assertion that “the salt fetish” is driven primarily by our desire “to bond with the pro cooks”).
Soon, I'd developed a distinctive daydream in which somebody I'd invited to a dinner party would call moments before arriving, asking permission to bring a friend. This friend would turn out to be Keller, and I would be trussing a chicken to roast, from
Ad Hoc at Home
, when Keller walked in. I would not worry
about the taste of my food because I would trust Keller to enjoy having a meal made for him in the warmth of a nice home. Instead, I would ache for Keller to notice that I was sautÃ©ing with a light touch and salting with my fingers and using vinegar to bring up the acid profile. I would ache, in other words, for the Seventeenth Chefy Lama to smile that beneficent Zen Master smile and say what Yoda says to Luke Skywalker in
The Return of the Jedi
: “No more training do you require. Already know you, that which you need.” (Luke's reply, while we're at it: “Then I am a Jedi?”)
Nora Ephron, I knew, had suffered similar cookbook-motivated crushes, including one on Craig Claiborne. Ephron writes of wondering what she'd even cook, if Claiborne ever came to dinner, and whether or not it should come from one of his own cookbooks. (“Perhaps there was a protocol for such things,” she wrote. “If so, I didn't know what it was.”) Claiborne did come for dinner, in the end, and Ephron even got invited to Claiborne's house, but it was her later obsession with a cook named Lee Bailey, whom she met through the gossip columnist Liz Smith, that felt so deeply like my Keller thing: “I became Lee's love slave, culinarily speaking,” Ephron writes, admitting that he “replaced all my previous imaginary friends in the kitchenâ¦ . I began to osmose from a neurotic cook with a confusing repertory of ethnic dishes to a relaxed one specializing in faintly Southern food.” Then, the clincher, proving we're all a bit alike: Bailey, Ephron confesses, “was, in his way, as close to a Zen master as I've ever had.”
Ad Hoc at Home
turned into a bestseller, winning awards and forcing me into the classic psychology of the fan: believing there to be something special about your own fandom; insisting, to yourself, that you loved the hero way before he became huge (utterly preposterous, in the case of Keller and myself); imagining even a deeper understanding of the artist than other fans could
possibly share, and feeling certain the hero could recognize this understanding, if only you could meet.
We did finally meet, when the magazine for which I worked asked me to put together something called Five Meals Every Man Should Master. The idea was to find a chef who could teach us, in exquisite detail, five meals to cover every key occasion in a guy's life, from the hot date to the poker game. For reasons I still do not understand, Keller agreed to be that chef. I'd been a journalist for a long time, and I'd never really felt nervous about meeting my subjects. But I felt intensely nervous about meeting Keller because my magazine assignment was, first and foremost, a way to pass through those French Laundry kitchen doors on personal business, so that I could find a way to gauge if my skills were even barely adequate.
So I hardly believed it when I heard that “Chef” would spend two hours with me, from ten to noon, on a Monday, at the French Laundry. Chef “wondered” if I could stay for lunch and, if so, if I'd like to eat what we cooked together or, rather, if I'd like something sent over from the restaurant.
Were they crazy?
There was even a voice mail request about attire: Chef would like to know what he should be wearing. Casual? Or chef's whites?
I almost wept: Keller, asking me what to wear!
I left early on the appointed morning, constantly checking the traffic on my iPhone. I drove across the Bay Bridge, through Berkeley, and up toward Napa. I drove too fast and then I worried about crashing, or getting pulled over and thus arriving late, having to explain to Keller that I'd been arrested. When I got to Yountville and parked my crappy Subaru across the street from the French Laundry, a lovely young woman awaited me out front. Her name was Kristine, and she put me right at ease while
leading me into the little white bungalow where Keller's father had lived. The bungalow still flew the American flag out front, along with a flag from the United States Marine Corps. We stepped through a small living room with simple furniture and a Bocuse d'Or 2009 commemorative object. Beyond that lay a sun-filled kitchenânot bigâthat I later learned to be an exact replica of the Bocuse d'Or competition kitchen. After his father died, Keller had had the home's kitchen redone as a Bocuse d'Or practice space: Keller himself had been selected as the American team's president that year; his French Laundry chef Tim Hollingsworth had beaten twenty-four other American chefs to be the team's head chef, and Keller had given him months of paid leave to practice.
Suddenly, I saw Keller himself, talking on his iPhone, tall and slender in his fresh chef's whites. He shut off the phone and gave it to Kristine and extended a hand while I set down my pile of his cookbooks. We'd already settled on our five dishes: Roast Chicken; that Bouchon Bavette Steak; Rack of Lamb with Asparagus; Pork and Beans; and a sandwich that Keller had earlier developed for the Adam Sandler character in the movie
, a BLT with melted cheese and a fried egg. Keller was instantly warm and friendly, but he was all business, too, asking what sort of recipes I wanted for this article. What format should they take? Should they be conventional, full-blown formal recipes? Or something simpler?
Before I could stop myself, I blurted out that I just loved the recipe format in
Ad Hoc at Home
, and that I'd personally found these recipes a great gift to the reader. I suspected instantly that I'd given the wrong answerâthat Keller, like Alice, would chafe at a love for even his own recipes. Reaching up to a shelf, he flipped opened the cookbook he said that he'd
found most inspiring in his own journey, Fernand Point's
. Looking through it with him, I found the recipes deeply worrisome in their sheer Frenchiness, and frighteningly imprecise. Oeufs Ã la GelÃ©e, for example: “Poach 2 eggs for each person to be served, and prepare a jelly with pigs' feet and some veal and chicken bones. In the bottom of a mold arrange a little foie gras and the poached eggsâ¦ . Pour in the jelly, allow it to set, and serve chilled.”
I broke into a cold sweat just
about all the unexplained techniques. (
Now, okay, wait, does he really want the pig's feet and the chicken bones fixed inside the jelly?
) But then Keller flipped to a less disturbing example, for Truffle Salad: “Brush and clean thoroughly some fresh truffles from PÃ©rigord. Slice them on a mandoline and marinate them for ten minutes in a mixture of lemon juice, salad oil, salt and pepper. Serve immediately with some foie gras on the side.”
“See, I love that,” Keller told me. “You have to have confidence to be able to do that. That's like two sentences! But it
precisely because it's not like, âTake five hundred grams of truffle, add, you know, fifteen centiliters of lemon juice, it's none of that stuff. That's why this book was so beautiful to me; it allows
to be the chef.” Keller told me that when he began writing
The French Laundry Cookbook
, he actually hoped to work in the same vein, creating a cookbook without recipes. His editor wouldn't have it, so he'd gone with the more traditional American recipe formatâwith a few exceptions that he wanted me to see. Keller then picked up my copy of
The French Laundry Cookbook
and I said, preemptively, so as not to be caught out, “That's the only one of these books I really haven't cooked from much. I've only made the veal stock.”
Just as these words came out of my mouth, the book fell
open, in Keller's hands, to the veal stock recipe. He paused to look at it, knowing what a claim Iâd just made. With a single finger, he pointed to a lone brown stain on the page: “Look at that,” he said. “You really did make it.”
Having failed a first imaginary test, by revealing my recipe-love, I was thrilled to have passed a second. When it came time to roast the chicken, therefore, I tried to double down by asking if I might truss the bird on my own, with Keller's supervision. I'd trussed dozens of chickens, by that point in my life, all according to the identical description offered in
Ad Hoc at Home
. But Keller stopped me almost as soon as I'd begun.
He said, “Wait, is that how you understood my instructions?” Keller waved me aside, pulled my string right off the chicken, threw it away, and cut a fresh strand. Then he demonstrated a trussing technique I'd never seen anywhere. I was already deeply confused when Keller finished by tying a slipknot, something else I'd never done. Then he cut the string, untrussed the bird, offered me a piece of string, and told me to give it a try. I did fine, until that slipknot. Keller demonstratedâthis loop, that strand, pull snugâand I tried it myself, and I failed. So Keller snipped off the string again, cut another length, and I tried again. I failed again. Instead of growing tense about the time, however, or frustrated by my dumb fingers, Keller appeared calmed by this, as if happy to recognize a genuine teachable moment, and to embrace itâas if he were thinking,
Ah, here we go, the real thing
. For exactly eighteen minutes of his life, Keller ignored everything in the world except making sure that I mastered a simple knot. When I finally didâwhen I finally got it right, and successfully trussed that chickenâhe responded as though the victory belonged to both of us, and we could now carry on.
Something similar happened in our second cooking session,
at Keller's Manhattan restaurant, Per Se. We'd developed a certain familiarity with each other by that point. I'd faced up to the inescapable fact that people like me aren't even really cooks, to people like him. We simply cannot get the infinite hours of the requisite repetition, searing a thousand fish fillets a week, for years on end, or trimming fifty racks of lamb a day, every day. But Keller let me know, somehow, that he recognized and appreciated my love for even the smallest technical details of his craft. When it came time to make that steak, for example, at Per Se, Keller playfully insisted that I notice everything down to the way he tilted the skillet while flipping the meat, letting all that hot oil pool out of the way, to on one side, so it wouldn't spatter. When it came time to baste the steak, he plopped half a stick's worth of butter on top of the meat, letting it melt slowly and then foam into the pan. He tilted the skillet again, and then he set a smashed garlic clove into the butter, along with a rosemary sprig. Then Keller asked if I'd like to do the basting, spooning the butter from its pool up over the steak, keeping the topside of the beef warm while infusing it with flavor. Once I began, clanking that spoon against the metal pan, scooping up the butter, Keller laughed and took the pan from me.