Cutting Strokes: Chef Thomas Keller chases high standards in the kitchen and on the course
Photo by Naomi Harris
Thomas Keller is the only American-born chef to hold two three-star Michelin ratings simultaneously. He also hosts an annual golf tournament open to all staffers of his dozen restaurants. In his newest, TAK Room at Manhattan's Hudson Yards, the “Augusta green” upholstery of the dining chairs is no accident. The morning after opening night, he took questions from Golf Digest Editorial Director Max Adler.
Is it fair to judge a club by its club sandwich?
When I eat at golf clubs, it's usually for dinner. So for me, it's about the wedge salad. There's not much flavor to iceberg lettuce, it's all texture, so if they can get that crispiness right, add correctly cut bacon, use a really good blue-cheese dressing, fresh onions—every component of that dish is important—that tells me they've thought it through. The other benchmark is the steak. After playing golf all day, a wedge salad followed by a nice New York strip or sirloin is what you want. Two basic foods that have been around for generations, but a club needs to do those well. Oakmont comes to mind, but I've been fortunate to have a lot of great meals in golf.
You're a regular competitor in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. How do those nerves compare to opening a restaurant?
No matter how bad it gets, the tournament is going to be over in three days. A restaurant and its problems could go on for 25 years. But both golf and cooking constantly give the opportunity to fix mistakes. I've told my staff that we run a sports franchise, and that each day we come to work with the score 0–0 with the diners. Some days you're off, and you have to adjust. In golf, it took me a few years to develop the understanding and confidence to play reactively.
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Do the tour players you meet angle to get reservations?
The first pro-am I ever played was at Cog Hill, and I was paired with Charley Hoffman. I'd been playing only a couple years and was nervous about hurting a spectator. He'd won the week before and so had a lot of his team following him excitedly. I'm slicing and hooking. They ignore me entirely. Even the scorekeeper walked away from me. On the sixth hole, the sun comes out, and I put on my cap. It has the clothespin logo of The French Laundry. The swing coach immediately runs over and says, “Who do you know at The French Laundry? Charley and I have been trying to get in there for years.” I said I might be able to help. Since, Charley and I have become friends. He's dined with us many times, often at Bouchon in Las Vegas, where he lives.
If the slice is the most common affliction of amateur golfers, what plagues amateur chefs?
Probably patience. People feel like they always need to be fiddling with food as they cook it, but often what's best is to let it temper. The other thing that distinguishes quality chefs is the ability to season, which can mean spices and sauces and whatnot, but let's keep it simple and just consider flavor enhancers. Salt and acid are two ingredients that do a lot to enhance flavor. Always buy good salt, and get used to the granulation so that your pinches are consistent. Lemon, lime and vinegar are the most common acids, which work well for marinades and adding to liquids. If a soup is bland, a splash of vinegar can be magic.
Do you take golf lessons?
I can't say no to people who want to help me, so I have three swing instructors. Years ago on vacation I took a lesson from Jerry King, and he remains my main instructor. Tara Fox, a Johnny Miller protege, is at Silverado Country Club, where I'm a member. Tara and Jerry have similar demeanors. Both are very careful with their words so as to never implant a negative thought. A bunker is never a trap. I connected them so that they can collaborate. Andrew Getson was a friend and frequent diner before he became Phil Mickelson's swing coach, and he helps me. He gave me a training aid, a ball that hangs from my neck, which Tara was initially very against, but she's come around. I wake up every morning and take 10 to 12 swings with it.
Has it helped?
I broke 90 three times last summer, which I'm very proud of. But then in the fall I started to become more involved on a daily basis getting ready for the opening of TAK Room, and my golf sort of tailed off.
You're the president of team USA in the Bocuse D'Or. In golf terms, is that like being the Ryder cup captain?
I suppose. Or the Presidents Cup, as it's 24 countries. The main difference is, there are no repeat players. We have a new roster every two years, and it's a long road to prepare these talented young chefs for competition. They're taking time off from their jobs and training in our team kitchen in Napa Valley, making the same thing every day. Through repetition we can perfect our garnishes, vegetables, presentation, but the protein isn't announced until four months before the event. It's not well-known in the U.S., but in other countries it's a big deal. We won the competition in 2017, our best finish ever.
Why does it say “sense of urgency” under your clock?
That phrase is in all our kitchens. It helped me tremendously as a young chef. It means, finish what you're expected to do before you're required to finish it. That adds up to extra minutes every day to learn something else. When the opportunity arises to move up, say from fish to meat, you're ready.
Despite not having to cover rent and often having patrons required to spend an annual minimum, some golf-club dining programs struggle. What can they do to improve?
Clubs are hard. Let's understand there's a relationship between what a chef can do and what a club member can expect. A chef will spend a lot of time sourcing ingredients to prepare a certain menu, but when a member feels they deserve what they want when they want it, the chef is obliged to try. Still, clubs might look at what's going on today at airports and sports stadiums. That's where some of the best innovations in elevated dining experiences are happening.
Favorite halfway-house snack?
I usually don't eat when I'm playing, but the Olympic Club burger dog is brilliant. The hamburger has been around since the late 19th century, and somebody thought practically about how to make it better. Which in this case, meant easier to eat as you're walking down a fairway.