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Meeting Thomas Keller, how ever briefly

December 4th, 2009

Last night we went to the San Francisco Williams Sonoma flagship store for an invite only book signing by Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry, Bouchon, Per Se, and Ad Hoc. He is touring for his latest book, Ad Hoc At Home, an excellent book (of course) with recipes from the restaurant, which servers a fixed 4 course dinner that changes every day. It’s served family style and a lot more casual than the French Laundry.

I’m not sure why we got the invite, it’s not like we spend thousands of dollars at William’s Sonoma, but we jumped on the occasion nonetheless. Where else am I gonna meet one of the best chefs alive today?

Friends came over to watch our kids (thanks Eric and Jubilee!!) and off we went, taking bart to Powell Street and walking up to Union Square. The store occupies a gorgeous old building right next to Tiffany’s. It’s 3 stories high, possibly the largest WS store anywhere. The special treat was that aside of the signing Thomas Keller and crew served little bits and pieces to eat, all from recipes in the book, and the Williams Sonoma wine club offered tasting of some of their wines. (Other book signing are just that, you buy the book and get it signed). The store was very busy, looked like it’s the day before Christmas and people are out to buy last minute gifts. Of course, most just had heavy bags with one or more of the book to get signed.

Friendly wait staff came by with trays of food at all times, we tasted the buttermilk fried chicken (for which Keller also sells a little set in a bag with everything you need), braised short ribs, meat balls, shrimp, cauliflower soup, and some sweets. Everything was of course excellent, I can’t wait to cook from this book! I’m just about done with my no shopping for a week (well, almost 3 weeks, see prior post) and plan to tackle the fried chicken and that awesome soup very soon.

I already own the book, but to get it signed you had to buy a copy there (though I probably could have smuggled it in, they did not check for receipts). On a whim I bought two, just in case :-)

We moved around the store and went to the 2nd floor for a glass wine, when a friendly girl asked us if we’re here to line up for the signing, and we ended up the first people in line on the 2nd floor. Apparently the line on the third floor was already full! So we got in line, my wife watched the books while I got us some wine and we waited, nibbling on the occasional food floating by. Eventually we could move on to the next floor, from where we could catch the occasional glimpse of Thomas Keller’s back all the way at the top. I did not time it, and the line did move pretty quick, excitement building as we moved onward and upward. Some of the staff came around with post it notes taking down the names the books were to be signed to, I guess that helps with avoiding misspelled names or having people spell out their name to the person signing, a good idea.

Finally we reached the 3rd floor and moved closer to the table where Thomas Keller was sitting, accompanied by Chef Dave Cruz, the chef de cuisine at Ad Hoc.

Chefs Dave Cruz and Thomas Keller

Chefs Dave Cruz and Thomas Keller

Once we reached the front of the line Thomas Keller took a short break to speak with a man in wheelchair and have pictures taken, then he resumed his position behind the table and my books were given to him. He seemed very happy and friendly, shaking our hands and proceeding to sign my book to me with artistic elan, as well as signing my 2nd book.

signed Ad Hoc at Home

signed Ad Hoc at Home

I am glad that I got to mention that I learned more about cooking from him than anybody else before we had the photo taken and that was it. Our brush with fame, with one of the best chefs alive was over. We went towards the back to watch some staff prepare some of the food and I took a couple more photos on the way back past the table and that was that. Somehow I missed to have chef Cruz also sign the book, I’m not sure if he had left for a moment or if the hustle and friendly “move along now guys” by the staff distracted me. Probably I was just starstruck :-) But hey, I can always drive over to Yountville and eat at Ad Hoc, see if I can get him to sign it for me then (and apologize for the oversight).

I’m very glad we made the trip, it was great fun to sample some of the food and it was a great honor to meet Chef Keller! Hopefully some rubbed off when we shook hands and took the photo. I just mentioned it today elsewhere, the French Laundry Cookbook has changed how I think about food, how I cook, how I shop and what I buy and eat. It had tremendous influence on me in more ways than I can tell or even know about.

Thomas Keller struck me as a very nice and humble person, he did not have any star attitude, just a friendly guy happy to see so many fans come by to see him. I won’t forget this meeting, and since chances are slim that I’ll ever run into him elsewhere again – unless he puts out an other book (Ad Hoc?), this is a cherished moment in my cooking life.

Chef Thomas Keller and me

Chef Thomas Keller and me

On the way home we decided to give the 2nd signed book to our friends, as a thanks for watching the kids and they had given us fun gifts in the past, from some of their travels. They also really appreciate good food and cooking and love to cook, I’m sure we’ll invite each other over for a little tasting of one or the other dishes very soon and I’m happy to share Thomas Keller’s and his associates cooking wide and far. As I’m not a millionaire to take them all to the French Laundry, the book will have to do for now :-)

Did I mention that I highly recommend it? Aside of the recipes it’s full of tips and great photos on some of the tricks of the trade. Hey, Christmas is coming up! Get yourself a copy or give one to a loved one!

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