About two weeks ago, my college (The Culinary Institute of America) hosted the final competition that determines what group of professional chefs will represent the U.S. at the 2011 Bocuse d'Or International Culinary Competition in Lyon, France. Our student recreation center was turned into a spectator arena for the media, public, and students.
Having been at the CIA for about three years, I've gotten used to the fact that we are a magnet for tourists as well as high-profile guests after seeing them milling about the halls and restaurants on campus. My freshman year, Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes) was signing autographs in the lounge of my dorm. Just this past November, both Michael Ruhlman, author of Soul of a Chef, and Anthony Bourdain were in our downstairs Cuisine of Asia kitchen with a camera guy, filming for Travel Channel's No Reservations. By the way, the episode was for the Hudson Valley and aired last Wednesday.
The Bocuse d'Or was an event spread out through the weekend with tastings, lectures, and panel discussions. World-renowned chefs such as Daniel Boulud of Daniel NYC, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and Alain Sailhac of The French Culinary Institute, just to name a few, were seen mixing with the little people. However, in my eyes, there is one that stands above the rest, and that is Thomas Keller.
Don't get me wrong: I respect the man and his work, but he is not my hero nor am I obsessed. He is the only person I (and a hundred other people) stood in line for to get his new book, Ad Hoc, signed. As my brother would say, he was "mad cool" and very gracious. As I stood off to the side of the line to let the fresh ink on the inside page dry and watch my other friends get his John Hancock and a photo, I thought about how jaded I had become while being at this school.
I entered a young, eager, and naive high school graduate thinking I was going to get my ass kicked in the kitchen and be better for it. I did get a kicking, but nowhere close to what the VIP guests experienced. However, you don't need a chef with a pulsing neck vein screaming at you in order to become someone great.
I look at Keller and I see that what he does is a craft. It's not only about perfection, which I don't believe in because nothing is perfect, but it is about repetition. The only way to get good at anything in life is doing it over and over, whether it's sex, knitting, makeup application, or learning to speak another language. That is why I have so much respect for him: because that part of his philosophy is simple. In the culinary world where food snobs, wine heads, and truffle and foie gras freaks abound, there is no pretentiousness in the adage of "practice makes perfect."