US seven Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller talks coffee and creativity
Dishes from Michelin-starred chefs are perhaps not the first thing you’d think of when envisioning beachfront dining. But this is Dubai, where we’re treated to top-notch food around every corner, not least at The Beach, opposite JBR, where seaside dining is a far cry from spearing soggy fish and chips out of a polystyrene box with a wooden fork. And now there’s not only one, but two Michelin-starred chefs in the area. Tom Aikens of Pots, Pans & Boards has been joined in the field of culinary greatness by US chef Thomas Keller.
The proud holder of seven Michelin stars, California-born 62-year-old Keller opened his first Dubai establishment – Bouchon Bakery – last year, partnering with Mohammed Alshaya, the latter of whom selected the JBR location for the pair’s first Middle Eastern venture.
We meet Keller on a visit to Bouchon Bakery, where he tells us he’s very “happy and proud” of the quality of work his team is producing here in the emirate, and has a massive smile to prove it.
“You have to have a great team to have a great restaurant,” he says, glancing at the chefs hard at work in the kitchen.
As well as serving up a mean breakfast – so good we named it one of our 50 Best Dishes of 2017 – Bouchon Bakery also boasts a pastry counter packed with delicious treats including croissants, cakes and macarons in flavours from pistachio to coconut and chocolate.
Signature baked goods include Bouchons – rich, chocolatey brownies filled with chocolate chips – peanut butter biscuits and Keller’s famous TKO cookie (Thomas Keller Oreo).
“There are a few regional items on our menu,” he adds. “We have a rosewater pastry, a mango éclair and some of the spices in the macaron [such as saffron] are a little different. About 80 percent of the menu is the same as at home, though.”
And by home, he’s describing his branches in the US. Keller opened his first restaurant, Rakel, in New York in 1986, and he has since grown a global presence, his most famous of all being the much-applauded restaurant The French Laundry. The first outlet of bistro Bouchon opened in Yountville, California, in 1998, with Bouchon Bakery following five years later. There are now bakery branches in New York, Las Vegas and Kuwait, too.
The idea for the bakery was born while Keller was in his 20s and working in Paris. His apartment was above a tiny bakery, which inspired him to set up his own. “I just wanted to replicate a traditional French bakery,” he says. “It’s been done before, so we just had to look to history and keep it really classic. We need to make sure we’re respecting that and can replicate it.”
Another reason he started a bakery was because he wasn’t happy with the quality of bread he was buying for his restaurants. “So we opened Bouchon Bakery,” he says matter-of-factly.
Although he rarely cooks at home, Keller says he likes to get involved with things that are “transformative”, such as braised oxtail. “To take something in its raw form that is inedible and tough, and to transform it, is very satisfying,” he explains.
Interestingly, he strongly believes that cooking is not creative. “Everything we do is a version of something we’ve seen,” he says. “Being aware of the world around you allows you to be inspired, and that’s key. Looking at a cookbook is not inspiring, it’s influential. But once you’re inspired, you can interpret that into something that’s meaningful for you.”
Keller holds seven Michelin stars and is the first and only American chef to hold multiple three-star ratings. What’s his secret to success? “Cooking is very simple, anyone who tells you it’s hard, they’re just trying to put smoke and mirrors up,” he says. “Ingredients are vital, as are the skills and execution. I love the physical act of cooking. All cooks nurture people, that’s why I became a chef.”
As well as opening world-famous restaurants and writing five cookbooks, Keller was also part of an Academy Award-winning film team, on Pixar’s movie Ratatouille.
From cakes to cartoons, Keller has had a varied career. But what’s next? “There’s nothing in pipeline, but we’ll see,” he says.
“I don’t want to rush around opening as many restaurants as I can. I want to stay consistent. I want people to come not because Thomas Keller’s name’s on it, but because we make a beautiful croissant and a great coffee.” And what’s better than that for seaside eating? Open Sun-Thu 8am-11pm; Fri-Sat 8am-midnight. The Beach, opposite JBR (04 419 0772).