Chef Thomas Keller is known for his high-end cooking (miniature salmon tartare ice cream cone, anyone?), but his newest book, Ad Hoc at Home, is his most accessible yet. Keller took a few minutes on a recent afternoon to sit in the yard outside the French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, Calif., to talk about the comfort food he loves.
Why did you write this book?
Number one, the people that I'm involved with: David Cruz at Ad Hoc, Susie Heller, Michael Ruhlman and Deborah Jones. They are such an amazing team. I really like being involved with a team and collaborating on projects. The second reason was that this type of food resonates with me. I don't want to say it's my favorite restaurant here in Yountville, because I don't want to play favorites, but I find myself drawn to Ad Hoc over and over again, not just for the quality of the food, but also the simplicity of the menu.
Was it easy to adapt Ad Hoc's recipes for home cooks?
It's so hard writing a cookbook because it doesn't matter if it's the simplest cooking or the most complicated cooking: it's about product and execution. And the product goes beyond the food. It also has to do with equipment. I've baked chocolate chip cookies at my sister's house in Florida, and they're just terrible, because the oven's terrible. So it's really hard to write a cookbook because you don't know what products and equipment people have. I'm sure there's a woman in Florida who buys my cookbook and makes the chocolate chip cookies in an oven just like my sister's and when they come out terrible she says, “This damn cookbook sucks.” One of the things I tried to do in the book was talk about that. We always have to understand that the quality of our effort is going to be defined by the products that we have, whether it's the butter or the eggs, the peas, the carrots, whatever—and our ability to cook it.
What kind of culinary environment did you grow up in?
I grew up in a single-parent household. My mother worked at night. I had older brothers who would be responsible for cooking or reheating the dinner, and I was the youngest of the group so I had to fight for my food. I have no romantic memories of sitting on my grandmother's knee stirring pots of polenta. It was about hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, baloney, mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, whatever was around. The times my mother cooked, she made wonderful beef stroganoff using Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and sour cream.
So where do the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home come from?
It's more of a collective memory, a group effort as relates to the people involved. There's Jeffrey Cerciello, the executive chef for all the casual dining restaurants; David Cruz; Josh Drew, who's the sous chef [at Ad Hoc]; the pastry chef; even the chef de partie. We all have an opportunity to impact the restaurant [and the book] in a significant way. So if David has a memory of a dish that he had when he was a child—it's not always about me. It's about us. It's a collective and collaborative memory of food that we had.