Nashville: Tagging Along With Thomas Keller During A Manic Visit To Music City

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Yesterday Thomas Keller made a whirlwind visit to Nashville, TN, leaving a path of reverent chefs, fanboy diners and an appreciative charity in his path. As part of his tour with Sebastien Rouxel to promote their new book Bouchon Bakery, Keller went far beyond the normal book signing and meet and greet routine in his 24 hours in town.

His day began with a visit to the offices of a local non-profit, The Nashville Food Project, a group that collects food from local restaurants and produce from their own gardens and other purveyors to prepare nutritious meals for Nashville's homeless and transient community. The Nashville Food Project serves over 3,000 individuals per month thanks to the help of 500 volunteers — some of who were busily slicing donated vegetables for the evening meal when they were surprised by a tall slender man in a black turtleneck who immediately stepped in to assist as soon as he entered the front door.

Keller gave the star-struck workers a quick lesson in mise en place as the non-profit's executive director profusely apologized for their "ganky old knives." Their kitchen equipment got a quick upgrade as Bill Crump of Viking Range Corp. donated a brand new stove in honor of Keller's visit to their group to assist them with their efforts.

The highlight of his stop was an event sponsored by Viking and the local daily newspaper The Tennessean. Over 300 Kellerphiles descended on the tony Hutton Hotel for an evening of tasting, book signing and Q&A with Keller and Rouxel. Chefs from as far away as Arkansas accepted the invitation to prepare homages to Keller's influence on their culinary gestalts, much to the delight of the attendees who sampled from seven savory stations before Keller and Rouxel's presentation, and from four individual dessert and pastry buffets afterwards.

Some of the South's most notable food purveyors were also invited to showcase their wares and meet the man who helped to make some of their products famous. Allan Benton from Madisonville, TN worked the room as chefs and attendees fawned over the man whose country ham and smoked bacon products appear on menus all over the country, at restaurants run by such luminaries as David Chang, Sean Brock and Keller himself. Colleen Cruze of Cruze Farms offered samples of her dairy products, favorites of bakers all over the South. Her newest release is a delicious vanilla milk, which set the creative cogs of the assembled chefs to turning as they imagined how it will appear in their future creations.

When Keller and Rouxel took the stage for a discussion moderated by The Tennessean's food and feature writer Jennifer Justus, the crowd forgot about the buffets next door and sat enraptured by the chefs' dissertations on the culinary arts. Here are some of Keller's best quotes from the lively panel:

  • On learning to bake

"Find something that suits your skill level, because success builds confidence. Work on your skill set and pretty soon you'll be able to do something that you couldn't do before."

  • On precision in pastry
  • "Buy a scale that measures in grams. If you don't have a scale, you're not going to be successful. In fact, the idea of cups and teaspoons and tablespoons is really archaic and probably should be illegal....Pastry and baking is all about precision. Every time you scoop a cup of flour it's going to be a different weight, I guarantee. Think about the recipe for a pound cake. It's a pound of flour, a pound of butter, a pound of eggs, a pound of sugar. It's not a cup. They don't call it a cupcake."

  • On working clean
  • "Ingredients, plus execution, equals cooking. The quality of the execution is dependent on your ability to be organized before you start. We don't have mats in our kitchen floors so that there's nowhere for dropped ingredients to hide. If you have to worry about picking up your mess off the floor, pretty soon you stop dropping things. We use white tablecloths in our plating area because nobody wants to mess up a white tablecloth."

  • On what Keller would be if he wasn't a chef
  • "I'd be a retired baseball player."

  • On farm-to-table and locavorism
  • "It's really not something new. The great chefs have always known where their ingredients come from and who their purveyors are. If you want better ingredients, you'd better be willing to pay for them. In 19 years I have never negotiated with suppliers on price, but I'll always take quality over local."

    Keller concluded his presentation with a fervent pep rally for America's Bocuse D'Or team. "We need to have a sense of national pride in this team, because they are your team, not mine. Our country has accomplished a lot in the past 35 years. We now have some of the best ingredients, chefs and restaurants in the world, so how come we can't win this competition?!" He admonished the crowd to visit the Bocuse website to donate or just "like" them on Facebook to show their support.

    The audience left the ballroom fired up, but not nearly as much as the chefs, who enjoyed the opportunity to cook in honor of their idol. "I feel like finding a balcony and jumping off because I can fly like Superman!" said James Peisker of Porter Road Butcher, who had prepared an amazing version of pigs in a blanket. The butcher shop saved all their beef marrow for two weeks and used that instead of butter to make a biscuit dough, which they wrapped around a hot dog made from aged short ribs.

    Chef Matt Bolus's homage to Keller was a simple crudo of huge New Bedford scallops, the likes of which are rarely seen in the landlocked South. "It was like meeting Santa Claus. It blows away any expectations of what you thought might happen. There are people you don't know really exist, and I just met him. Not only did I meet him, but he kinda yelled at us. I got yelled at by Thomas Keller. It's a sick dream!"

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