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Thomas Keller Put American Fine Dining On The Map. But His Childhood In South Florida Made Him.

American chef Thomas Keller discusses how being the youngest of five brothers with a single mom helped him become one of America's great chefs over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.
Matias Ocner
Miami Herald
American chef Thomas Keller discusses how being the youngest of five brothers with a single mom helped him become one of America's great chefs over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.

La Ventanita is the Miami Herald's new podcast, where Carlos Frías, winner of the James Beard award and the Herald's food editor, interviews some of the world's best chefs. You can subscribe to the podcast here or read the rest of the series here

Thomas Keller fought for his seat at the table.

With his single, working mother managing the restaurant at the Palm Beach Yacht Club at night while he was a teenager, his older brothers usually did the cooking at home in Lake Worth. The best cut of meat usually went to the oldest. And he, the youngest, was left to do the dishes.

“I would usually get whatever was left over,” he recalled on a recent weekday in the dining room of  his newest restaurant inside the Surf Club in Surfside. “They were older, bigger, stronger. Whatever was left on the table, I would get.”

Keller laughed about it as he considered a plate of pastelitos and croquetas and sipped takeout Cuban coffee at one of the restaurants that showcases his decades of accrued cooking knowledge and skill.

It was Keller who arguably put American fine dining on the map. He’s revered by other chefs with a respect that borders on religion. And his two fine-dining restaurants, French Laundry near Napa Valley, and Per Se in New York City, are considered among the very best in the world.

But it was jostling for position at the nightly dinner table that made him long for the communion of dining with others. He saw it firsthand when his mother hired him as a dishwasher at the restaurant, and when he visited his brother Joseph, the second-youngest, who became the head chef of another restaurant in Palm Beach, Petite Marmite.

“It was an aspiration of mine,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of sitting around at the table [at home]. But I was in restaurants all the time and I saw that. I was exposed to that. And it’s always been something I very much appreciated.”

The best days were when his mother cooked. At holiday time, she would make her specialty, a standing rib roast that took all day to prepare, a showpiece that still makes Keller’s eyes light up at the memory. Betty Keller would rise early and spend the day in the kitchen, perfecting the roast, preparing an enormous spread for her boys.

“The memorable times at home for dinner were always the holidays when my mother had time to cook,” he said. “It was always such a beautiful thing to look at. It was always very special.”

Even then, his older brothers usually managed to wrangle the best part of the roast, the deckle. Years later, Keller would begin to offer that particular part of the roast as a separate cut in his restaurant — a luxury he rarely got to experience that he now lavishes on others.

Only he and his brother Joseph went into the restaurant business together to open Per Se and French Laundry, both of which have been awarded three Michelin stars.

“That’s why I decided to become a chef because I liked the idea of nurturing people, giving them something physically nurturing but also emotionally,” he said. “One of the most intimate relationships you can have with a person is feeding them.”

Keller has worked behind the scenes as a technical adviser on movies that involve cooking. He taught actor Adam Sandler to make a sandwich for the film “Spanglish.” And he created a stylized version of the humble dish ratatouille that was central to the animated film of the same name.

“It wasn’t until the day I plated it that I actually knew what I was going to do with it. Nobody knew that I didn’t know,” he said, laughing.

That attention to detail is on his mind as he turns over a perfectly baked set of pastelitos from Miami chef Gio Fesser, the sous chef at Coconut Grove’s Ariete restaurant — where he creates nontraditional spins on the Cuban puff pastry favorites.

Forget guava or cream cheese. His are often stuffed with mamey or peanut butter and jelly. His meat ones are stuffed with roasted pork (lechón) or frita Cuban hamburger meat topped with crispy potato strings.

“They look beautiful. I love just the quality of the bake,” Keller says, turning them over. “There’s so many times you eat things that aren’t baked enough. They’re anemic in the way they look. ... You want that crispy, crunchy outside that has that wonderful caramelized flavor. And the moistness of the meat inside. It’s just beautiful.”

The peanut butter and jelly pastelito in particular elicited a flashback to his youth.

“I remember taking a spoon, sticking it in the jar of peanut butter and running out to the backyard to hide while I licked all the peanut butter off the spoon,” he said, taking another bite. “This makes a lot of sense.”

And when he bites into a guava pastelito made with guavas grown by a single farmer in the Redland, Jorge Zaldivar of PG Tropicals, he stops to acknowledge the importance of paying the people who grow great produce well.

“What we talk about a lot is being able to support those who bring us our food. The way we support them is taking your wallet out of your pocket and paying them for what they do,” Keller said. “We always want to have the very best and pay the very least for it. To have quality ingredients, you have to understand that they have a lifestyle they need to support. The way to do that is not necessarily to negotiate on the price.”

The croquetas in the box I’ve brought for him are made from head cheese (tender meat made from pork jowls) instead of ham, chicken or cod, an innovation from Ariete’s chef/owner, Cuban-American Michael Beltran.

“The flavor of the head cheese, the fattiness, the succulence, the texture. This is the kind of food I really love,” he said. “This is beautiful food.”

This is the kind of comfort food that evokes memories, he said. And as he finishes with a shot of sweet, strong Cuban coffee, he’s reminded of how memories around the dinner table have shaped his stellar career.

“I’m a true example of an American background,” he said, “lower middle class who worked really hard at something and with a little bit of luck I was able to turn a love affair with food and nurturing ... into something that has been very fulfilling.”

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Carlos Frias