Interview with Chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys - San Francisco

October 2011

When did you decide to become a chef?
HK: I grew up in a family of pastry chefs. My parents had a pastry shop and my brother was going into the business. I went to school with Mark Haeberlin (son of Paul Haeberlin of the 3 star Michelin, L'Auberge de L'ill) and since we were such close friends, Mark said, "maybe ask my dad, you might be able to work in our pastry department if you get the green light" because they took only one apprentice per year. So I went down on my days off after school to see if I would fit into his program and he accepted me. That's when I started in their pastry department and it was the first time I was exposed to a 3 star kitchen (their were less than 20 at that time). I spent a total of four years there rotating to the different stations. Then my career took off.

How did you develop your style?
HK: Although I came from Alsace, I think I was much more influenced by what was happening in the south of France. Besides Auberge, I spent most of my time at different restaurants in the south of France so I was much more exposed to that style. In South America, adaptation of local ingredients to local tastes. The best experience for me in Brazil. I learned a lot. When my wife and I left France, it was the first time I had left the country and since I worked in different 3 stars in France, bascially I thought that's it. You have a very narrow view. And as soon as things are done a little bit differently, you think it's totally wrong. So when I went to Brazil to openLa Cuisine du Soleil for Roger Verge, I was to represent his cuisine as close as I could. And some of the dishes which were terrific sellers at the Moulin de Mougins were just not selling in Brazil. People just would not order them. So I took that extra step and I tried to understand why. What's missing? And I think that's how I worked out my style, not veering too much from French, not jumping from cuisine to cuisine, I stayed fairly straight with French. But I always included a couple of ingredients from the countries and places that I have seen.

I still use coconut as an ingredient when we do lobster, for example. It is definitely not an ingredient that we would use in France but in Brazil, you have to have coconut milk with lobster and to me, that combination works. When I was in Brazil, I also took some classess on Brazilian cuisine because I wanted to understand where it came from and the mixtures of ingredients.

Fleur de Lys has been the top-rated French restaurant in San Francisco for the ten years you've been there. What is your secret in keeping it so popular?
HK: I am always changing things. I keep a huge file of all of our guests. (I've been called Edgar Hoover from the FBI before.) There are some regulars that have never seen a menu and have never had the same dish twice. It adds an extra challenge. Sometimes we have nights where there are parties of two or three groups of regulars. It gets difficult to come up with so many different dishes.

I also work on showing that French food can be done in a lighter version. I started to do this before everyone jumped on the train of lighter food. Even at Sutter 500 (the San Francisco restaurant he ran for Roger Verge) and ten years ago when I moved here, I had this feeling that cuisine could be done lighter. I think I was one, if not the first one, to offer a tasting menu, which all French restaurants have, and a vegetarian tasting menu seven years ago.

New York Times picked it up five or six years ago for the first time. You could find a vegetarian dish in an upscale restaurant but other restaurants wouldn't even think about going in that direction. This exposure brought us to contributing to Dr. Dean Ornish's Eat More, Weigh Less book which is an extreme, it's zero fat, but still it was exciting to work on that. Then I was the first guest chef to go to the White House. All of these things after a healthier, leaner cuisine. I'm not advertising for healthy cuisine, it's just how I do it. I've been doing it for many years. French cuisine on the lighter side. We still have foie gras but we also have choices for those who don't want it.

How do you create your lighter cuisine? What are your tricks?
HK: We try to cut out the fats. Using vinaigrettes instead of buerre blanc and using infused oils. We do not make our brown sauces with the traditional roux, a mixture of flour and butter, and then later adding more butter to bind the sauce. Here we take out the roux and the butter at the end.

In our lamb sauce, I blanch the garlic cloves in three different pots of water, bringing each pot to a boil and straining the cloves. Then I saute the cloves in a little olive oil on high heat, caramelizing them a bit and roasting them in the pan. Then I put them in the blender. What I obtain is a very smooth cream of garlic. Blanching it in three different waters removes the sharpness of the garlic. You can take a spoon of the puree and eat it. It's good. You have a very sweet, mild garlic flavor, and afterwards, it's gone, it doesn't smell.

So instead of the roux, I use a nice generous serving of the puree and its adds something to the sauce and helps to bind it.

By cutting butter and fat, you can play a little bit more with spices, textures and consistencies.

The Lentil Salad with Lobster is made with ginger, soy sauce, lemon juice, celery and onions -- there is no oil.

I could cheat because you really can't tell from tasting the dishes whether they are fattening or are reduced in fat. I would never do that anyway. But the real test is when you leave after five courses and how you feel. The heaviness you feel from a heavy meal is from a lot of fat. You could leave here and not feel that way.

Which spices do you use?
HK: Primarily black pepper, ginger, cilantro, curries and cumin.

Do you cook at home?
HK: No because we never eat at home. Sunday we are closed so we go to other restaurants.

What do you look for in a restaurant?
HK: My wife and I like to go to a place where people are. The ambience is important. If it's too quiet, it's not good.

What is your most memorable meal?
HK: Two years ago, I was vacationing in the Caribbean on the island of Anguila. In the evening we went over to a little island called Silly Cay. The only thing on the island was this little restaurant. Our choices on the menu were only chicken and lobster. Well I took a chance and ordered the lobster. They told us to go down to the beach until it was ready. I thought it was a sham. But the lobster was incredible!

The chef had barbequed the lobster in the most basic way. She used an old gasoline can which she had cut off its top of, and put the lobster in. Only four lobsters could fit. The lobsters were perfect. She cooked it for just the right amount of time. I thought she was just lucky that night so we came back another night, and again they were perfect. It was so fascinating that she a devised such a precise technique for the lobsters. I'll never forget the way they tasted.

Do you have any tips or techniques you can share?
HK: I have a lot of tips for reducing fat in cooking. A simple tip is to use a non-stick Teflon pan. Use a spray bottle for olive oil. For example, instead of using a brush to distribute oil when roasting fish, use the spray bottle. It distributes much less oil and the spray bottle is better for the environment than the aerosol cans.

Degrease your pans before adding other liquids.Use the best oil and best vinegar you can find to make a vinaigrette because the better the quality, the less you have to use.

Is there a special ingredient you like to use?
HK: 95% of the ingredients we use come from California. I like the black quinoa that I get from Colorado.

What do you think about "The French Parodox?"
HK: It does seem like there would be more overweight people in France. with the heavy food. The red wine may be the answer. They have less heart disease, but if you take a look at their livers, I don't know what you would find. I think one anwer lies in the fact that Americans eat much more junk food and snacks in between meals.