It's a difficult time to be debating the future of fine dining, but Thomas Keller's first book in almost a decade finds the chef in a contemplative mood.
Since he opened the French Laundry in California in 1994 and New York's Per Se in the early 2000s, the restaurants have become internationally famous and, at the age of 64, Keller is still the first and only American chef to run two three-Michelin-starred restaurants.
Keller began writing The French Laundry, Per Se two years ago as a reflection on the evolution of his restaurants and "fine dining generally" over the past 26 years. In a preface written amid the pandemic in April he admits: "Though I knew there would be wrinkles in the narrative, I could never have imagined how dramatically its arc was destined to change."
The book offers a fascinating glimpse behind the pass at two of the world's most famous restaurants, with more than 70 recipes, broken down into chapters on Canapés, Firsts, Vegetables, Fish, Meat, and Desserts. Methods are not simplified for home cooks and make use of specialist equipment such as dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Recipes are more complex than those in Keller's original 1999 French Laundry Cookbook, with the chef explaining that as fine dining has evolved, dishes have become increasingly refined, requiring more components and specialist preparation.
As well as covering acclaimed dishes such as Oysters and Pearls (a sabayon of pearl tapioca, Island Creek oysters and Regiis Ova caviar) and salmon tartare cornets (inspired by a visit to an ice-cream shop in New York), the book offers insight into modern dish development. Keller now sketches dessert designs on an iPad and sends them to his team, with some drawings reproduced in the book.
The economic toll of the pandemic may lead to questions over the future of high-end restaurants – the French Laundry costs $350 a head – but Keller is clear on its future: "I've been around long enough to have read its obituary many times – but fine dining never dies. It evolves, pushed forward by new generations and new ideas."
The French Laundry, Per Se by Thomas Keller (Artisan Books, £60)
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