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Monday, November 5, 2012

Thomas Keller and Bouchon Bakery

Thomas Keller stopped in Toronto for his book tour of Bouchon Bakery. The Cookbook Store hosted the event at Isabel Bader Theatre and about 500 were in attendance that rainy and stormy night. The event consisted of an on-stage interview with Cookbook Store's Alison Fryer, which was then followed by questions from the audience, and a book signing.

Having caught a cold and with two tickets months bought months prior, I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to attend that night. Luckily I managed to conserve enough energy to attend early to nab seats on the side where I could muffle my coughs. (I guess if it came down to more bed rest, I would have just sent Howard to go pick-up our book and record the event for me to watch at home.)

To my surprise, the books were all pre-signed! We later found out online that he signed approximately 700 copies in under 90 minutes. While I'm disappointed that we didn't get our books personalized, this turned out for the best. It was late after the interview and I didn't think my ailing body would have lasted in the long line-up. Plus, we were told that in order to keep the line moving, there would be no one-on-one photos during the signing.

The night started with a quick poll from Alison -
How many attended when Thomas Keller was in Toronto last time? Not a lot of hands went up.
How many work in a restaurant or the food industry? Quite a few raised their hands!
How many have eaten at a Keller's establishments? About 70-80% of the audience had their hands raised!

Howard and I first learned of Thomas Keller in the summer of 2010, when Ad Hoc at Home was released. That book had received so much buzz that we finally had to take a look to see what the fuss was about. Now, when we travel to a city (New York CityLas Vegas) with one or more of his famed eateries, we make sure it's on our list of things to visit.

But back to the night's presentation, Thomas admits that he doesn't know that much about baking, which is why he's happy that Sebastien Rouxel's name is on the cover. He says it's very much Sebastien's book (image above).

Thomas was very blunt and straightforward with his answers. We found ourselves surprised at how honest he was. Having never met him before that night and going through Ad Hoc at Home, the book presented Thomas in such a playful manner, but he's quite serious. He blatantly tells us that he has no idea who the home cook is. He isn't trying to write a cookbook for "you" because he doesn't know who you are. He reasons that home cooks and bakers vary from those who don't know how to boil water to those that could likely cook better than him. He even admits that we can't make great bread at home - we simply don't have the right ovens for it. Luckily, Bouchon Bakery does come up with a solution and the sections in the book about bread are very detailed.

And despite there being measurements in the book, throw out your measuring cups! Always use a kitchen scale. He bemoans that their publisher made them keep the measuring cups in it. He explains that the result of  reducing the bakery's large recipes meant exact measurements, like 154 grams. Don't round it to 150 grams. That way, if the recipe is doubled, it is still correct. If you start rounding the recipes, you'll be 20 or 30 grams over or under when you scale the recipe up or down. Precision. It's all about understanding precision in the bakery.

Next, he tells us to practice and have patience. No one is born knowing how to do things. Thomas does warn us to not be too ambitious. Start with the simplest and easiest recipe. At the end of the day, we all want to be successful. Starting with the easiest recipe will help give you confidence and courage. Do them over and over again to know the nuances of the ingredients. Then, slowly work your way up to the more difficult recipes. So if you get Bouchon Bakery for the holidays this year, start with the chocolate chip cookie.

The conversation then steered away from baking and went back to Thomas's beginning - The French Laundry Cookbook. People tell him they started cooking because of that book. He's surprised to hear that, but feels blessed to have impacted people, it reminds him of what his responsibilities are. He tells us that we have to plan for our future. We won't be able to do what we do now when we are 40, 50, or 60. It's physically demanding to work in a kitchen.

Thomas then covers the three steps for any business to become successful. One, hire the right people. Two, be committed to training them. This means that training does not end after two weeks. It's impossible. The first week you're just learning where everything is. The second week, maybe you're placing faces with names. You haven't even gotten to learn your job yet. He drives this to the point with an example that parents don't take the training wheels off bikes or flotation devices off their children after two weeks. Three, mentor so that they become better than you. If they don't, you didn't do a good job. It's always about the next generation.

So, will there be a Per Se cookbook? It would be years of dedication, but Thomas didn't reveal whether this was in the works. But he was pretty confident in answering that he will not be opening any more restaurants.

We didn't find that many of the audience questions very helpful, so let's go on with a look at the book:
Since I've been on a macaron-making binge, this recipe was the first one I flipped to.


Howard spotted the crêpe cake recipe and has already demanded I make it for his birthday next year.

Oh là là indeed. Those look so good! I'd like to claim the one on the right.

The back pages of the book includes staff photos from each Bouchon Bakery location! This is such a nice tribute to the people who work there!

Thomas Keller managed to meet with a few writers during his short Toronto visit, you can read about it on The Grid, Citytv, and Maclean's.

Special thanks to Bonita from Thomas Allen & Sons Ltd. and to the team at the Cookbook Store for organizing the event!


  1. What a fun night this would have been (aside from being sick of course).
    This year I added another Keller restaurant to my repertoire, Per Se! It was so very expensive but something that I will never forget. Be sure to starve yourself for a day or two before as I literally could barely walk out!
    Keller's Vegas establishment Bouchons is much more friendly on the wallet and was delicious as well. And Bouchon's Bakery in NY, across from 30 Rock was a delight - I went for breakfast two days in a row.

    I went to a similar event with Anthony Bourdain in Vancouver where most of the people who attended were working in the restaurant industry (and many were angry he did the talk on a saturday when most chefs are busy). It was a fun event and I bought a couple signed copies of his work.

  2. Hi Murissa,

    Thank you for writing such a nice note!

    Per Se, we were *this* close to going this year during our NYC trip. In the end, we didn't want to pack fancy clothes (since jackets are required for men) and dress shoes, plus, we would have had to take the subway to the restaurant in our fancy clothes. But I reckon we'll do it one of these trips!! It's still on our restaurant wishlist.

    Yes, we're huge fans of the easier-on-the-wallet Bouchon establishments. Although the dream is to visit Yountsville and eat at everyone single restaurant of his!

    I have Bourdain's books on my nightstand, it is time I start reading them!