Thomas Keller is who he is because he wants to nurture people. The minute he realised that, he knew exactly what he should be doing with his life: cooking, baking and opening award-winning restaurants.
The seven-starred Michelin chef and restaurateur is in town this week, checking in on his famed Bouchon Bakery, which opened in August in Dubai's JBR.
The bakery is Keller’s first culinary venture outside of the United States. The French Laundry chef opened his first Bouchon Bakery in 2003 in Yountville, California, and since then, the classic French bakery, which offers Keller’s personal take on what a French boulangerie would serve, has expanded to New York, Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and now, Dubai.
Think sandwiches, quiches, soups, salads, artisanal viennoiseries and pastries, plenty of tarts, confections and cookies and exceptional coffee.
“I want to give our guests in the Middle East a taste of the magic I first discovered in France at boulangeries,” says Keller. “I still remember the tastes and scents – the fresh bread, the desserts – and I’d like to share these memories with guests in other places.”
Keller believes that bakeries and bistros play an important role in enhancing neighbourhoods and creating communities, so to him, bringing Bouchon to Dubai was akin to creating an inviting gathering place and subsequently, a community.
"I originally opened Bouchon Bakery as a place that would foster community and provide a foundation for memories," he says. "Whether it is a croissant, a sandwich or a chocolate chip cookie, the food we serve at Bouchon inspires joy that speaks across generations. Whether it's a crusty, fresh-baked loaf of bread or a simple meal crafted from the highest-quality ingredients – these pleasures pull people together to dine and discuss their lives."
"In the summer of 1977, I landed a job cooking for chef Roland Henin at the Dunes Club in Narragansett, Rhode Island," recalls Keller. He had already been cooking for a few years by then: he worked for his mother, who managed a small restaurant in south Florida, and although he didn't think of it as a career, he enjoyed the physical rigours of kitchen work. Working with chef Henin, he "still enjoyed the act of cooking – the endurance and teamwork", explains Keller.
"One day, chef Henin took me aside and explained to me why cooks cook. He said to me: 'Cooks cook to nurture people.' And at that moment, is when I decided to become a professional chef. I knew I wanted to do the same."
Since then, Keller has been unstoppable. He is the first and only American chef to have been award simultaneous Michelin ratings for two different restaurants and currently holds seven of them: three at Per Se, three at The French Laundry and one at Bouchon Bistro. And he bases his success, on the simplest of equations: ingredients combined with execution.
"Execution will always be in the hands of the chef and represents many elements – knowledge, training, experience, skill and tools," explains Keller. The other equally important side of the equation, he says, is the quality of the ingredients used. "When ingredients arrive at the restaurant they are, in one sense, already finished. At the stove, we have no control over how an animal was raised or the way a peach was harvested. As chefs, all we can do is to carefully select our suppliers and then work with them to ensure we get the best possible ingredients."
Keller has incorporated a new range of ingredients unique to the region, to create a new macaron, a new eclair and a new Paris-Brest, all of which are exclusive to Bouchon in Dubai. "The delicate shell, the chewiness of the meringues and the sweet, creamy filling combine in an unparalleled experience of flavour and texture. We have developed an exclusive local flavour macaron: coconut and saffron. This macaron has fresh saffron baked into the shell and is sprinkled with coconut before baking, then filled with a light coconut custard that delicately compliments the earthy tones of the saffron."
Keller hopes his customers don't pass on trying his signature bouchon. "Bouchons are our signature sweet made in the shape of a cork in honour of our name," says Keller. "It's our take on what could be the most popular little cake in America: the brownie. They are very popular, and every generation loves them."
It’s the perfect combination of American and French, and exactly what Bouchon Bakery is all about.