My Year With Thomas Keller

Photo: Mark Mahaney, WSJ Magazine

GREAT TEACHERS are gems. They don’t just go about the business of transferring knowledge, they speak to your potential, they kindle your possibility, and they have a way with words — they treat them like their own children, with great care, with love, knowing that once their words leave their mouths, they would take flight into hearts and souls. 

Words chosen with care and love caress others with the selfsame care and love. They are bracing, warming, and empowering. 

I don’t think I have ever met any teacher in my life who fits this rose-colored ideal — don’t mind me, I’m just a silly perfectionist!  but today, I can tell you I have found such a teacher. 

His name is Thomas Keller. 

I have never ever been in the presence of Thomas Keller, neither have I had the good fortune to dine at any of his much-lauded and -loved establishments, but my greater fortune is this: I have been at the stove with him, the great chef and master, this entire year, since I got myself a subscription to Masterclass — that wonderful website that gives you access to the insight and wisdom of many great talents, from writers to filmmakers, chefs to athletes, even magicians and poker whizzes. 

My happiest pastime this entire year has been chewing away at the video lessons of not just Thomas Keller, but Gordon Ramsay, Dominique Ansel, Massimo Battura. Then there are the masters who reign elsewhere, not in the kitchen: Helen Mirren, Diane Von Fuhstenburg, Anna Wintour, Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Malcolm Gladwell, Jimmy Chin, Sara Blakely, Billy Collins, Misty Copeland. 

But time and again, I return to Thomas Keller. 

I can mimic how he forks his spaghetti with a pasta fork to check for doneness, or gets up close to a hot, hot pan, fingers gently prodding a sizzling piece of wild salmon loin, cooked unilaterally, before he flips it with the simplest of kitchen tools: a spoon! 

And oh, how I love the way he rolls out a ball of gnocchi dough, still warm because he works with such speed and dexterity. I almost swoon, too, at the ease with which the dough rope lengthens sideways to the same thickness end to end. About this time, just before the ninth minute, watch out for that glorious exclamation: “This is so much fun!” 

It is fun, surely, because he’s turning out such a great dough, rolling out such a happy, perfect rope. But here’s where Chef Keller wants you not to be sour or bitter when you don’t succeed. 

“The best way for you to get a handle on making gnocchi is to continue to make it,” he says. 

My ninth gnocchi attempt, featuring rice flour, my first attempt with rice flour versus plain (Photo: viv)

Practice and Patience

Elsewhere, and throughout the entire thread of his lessons — Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 — the mantra of practice and persistence echoes. In one of his lessons, I can’t remember which, he speaks with such conviction and firmness of voice, heightened with a gesture of the hand: Never let anyone tell you, you can’t. You can!

It is this “You can” that has given me a sense of “I can” this 2019.

Through Thomas Keller’s masterclass, I’ve learned new dishes, new techniques, new maneuvers, new kitchen tools, and most of all, new thinking. Let me share some of them with you: 

Gnocchi Pomodoro (Photo: viv)

1. Gnocchi

My gnocchi log shows that I didn’t quite get the texture right until my fifth attempt. The first few attempts saw a dampish dough, too moist that my dumplings couldn’t hold a nice, sturdy shape. By the sixth attempt, I managed to roll out a dough rope with even end-to-end thickness. By the ninth, I got to play around with rice flour — it may not be as easy to work with, without the stronger, binding qualities of plain flour, but it makes for a light dumpling that surprises and delights. 

I’m into my 12th attempt, and still chasing a perfect ovular shape with more pronounced ridges, though they certainly look more handsome than my very first gnocchi, whose only boast was this: they resembled huggable bolsters! 

Now, I have a gnocchi dream, a dream for 2020 called Gnocchi Garden . . .

Poached egg on butter-sautéed shiitake and wholemeal toast (Photo: viv)

2. Poached Eggs

In January this year, I made plenty of poached eggs using Chef Keller’s big-pot method with a tornado swirl. I’ve always used Julia Child’s method of pricking the bum of the egg and cooking it for 10 seconds before cracking the egg into simmering water. I can’t say I was spot-on with every egg in my practice runs emulating Chef Keller’s perfectly poached tear-drop-shaped eggs, but I managed to serve breakfast, cooking each egg à la minute to six hungry guests who showed up for breakfast at my home after a game of tennis. 

Boiled eggs with Tasmanian pepper berry salt, cracked pepper, and a trickle of olive oil (Photo: viv)

3. Boiled Eggs

In March this year, I spent some two weeks making oeuf mollet, soft-boiled eggs with a creamy center, like the hanjuku shoyu tamago (half-cooked soy sauce egg) you find in ramen. My experiment wasn’t so much getting that glistening, soft yolk — timing your cooking duration isn’t so difficult — but having my eggs peel without nicks and divots on the exterior. 

I did the Wylie Dufresne method (add baking soda to the water) and the Jacques Pépin trick (poke a hole in the bottom of the egg shell before sending them into boiling water). Then I tried all kinds of eggs: fresh, not-so-fresh, free-range, Omega, kampong, first-born. 

Chef Keller must probably be chuckling at this rigmarole. His method is so simple: set eggs in a pot of water, enough just to submerge the eggs, bring to boil, once it boils, set the alarm for five or six minutes, depending on the state of doneness you like, leaving it to boil. At the bing of the alarm, ice-shock them, peeling them in the ice bath, making sure you get under the membrane of the shell for a smooth, flawless peel.

I tried it again this morning, even though I was sure I didn’t meet with success before in my grand Rigamarole of March. For some strange reason, my two eggs peeled beautifully, though the yolks could have been creamier. 

It must be Chef Keller’s “You Can” voice singing to my soul and God’s pleasure at blessing those who hold on tight to practice and persistence.

4. Light Chicken Stock

I don’t have a photo for this, but chicken stock is everywhere in my cooking, sautéed mushrooms, salted-fish tofu stew, macaroni soup, braised wood ear, abacus seeds . . .  

Son Pan Zi: Hakka abacus seeds (Photo: viv)

The beauty of Chef Keller’s lessons is most apparent in something as startlingly simple as chicken stock, one that seems to require little teaching, until you realize that every wonderful, delicious thing that comes from the kitchen emanates from a deep knowledge of ingredients and technique, and the care and attention to details. 

This is no ordinary chicken stock — it’s clear, light, pristine, and not cloudy, a result of diligent, meticulous skimming and careful heat control. A workhorse, Chef Keller calls it, and you can intensify it by watchful, patient reduction. 

These days, stock-making has become a meditative exercise, where I give it time, embrace and attention, rather than a dump-it-all-in and leave-it-there attitude. I haven’t yet talked to my stock — yes, I do chat, on occasion, with my dishes while prepping — but for starters, these are the things I do: 

1. Shift the pot off center so the protein and scum will veer to the side, making skimming easier

2. Agitate the bones, by giving them a stir, so the impurities will bubble up for more skimming

3. Skim with a ladle – I have used a meshed ladle all my life – and here, Chef Keller demonstrates the skill of getting to the impurities and not the golden schmaltz

As with all of his classes, he never fails to remind us that producing good things takes patience. He may not articulate it in every episode, but in this chicken stock class, he does. Producing good things also requires going the extra mile, and for him, it’s his tools of refinement. Here, it’s his tamis, a strainer. He strains his stock not once, but twice. “Do you have to do this?” he asks. “No, you don’t.” 

It’s true, the second straining is totally optional and skippable. Why bother to wash another giant gastronome and strainer? But implicit in all his classes is always that master’s temperament and spirit:

Any wonderful thing that emanates from the kitchen deserves that extra mile. 

Extra mile, practice, patience, persistence, this sums up everything I love about Chef Keller. He doesn’t just give you a recipe, he gives you wisdom and the spirit of a master, and always that gentle reminder that cooks cook to nurture people

Yes, I want to nurture people, and yes, I strain my stock a second time, and yes, I can!

I invite you to follow me on Instagram @vivienneyeo 

Published by

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *