Who knew that when Thomas Keller first rolled up his sleeves in the kitchens of the Palm Beach Yacht club, he would become one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. This genius culinaire sports 7 Michelin stars under his belt, a Légion d’honneur around his neck and the accolades abound for his restaurants and books. For more than three decades, Chef Keller has received countless awards and sumptuous praise, proving more than anything that he has been at the top of his game.
Strolling up the main street of Grand Avenue, it’s easy to spot the latest international eatery to grace Kuwait. They’ve certainly pulled out all the stops (or bouchons, if you may!) and the same interior designer, Adam Tihany, who has been winning adulation for his work with the American born chef since the 1980s, clearly stamps his signature design for this location. That familiar pastel green façade with chestnut wood accents gives off a rustic-chic vibe with interior design reminiscent of a French café, but with a fresh Californian feel to it. There is a brightly colored display of macarons, pastries and tarts, and a blueberry religieuse, which is a wonderful fruity take on the two layered, typically chocolate, choux dessert.
It is only just after 8 a.m. and there is an excited buzz around the bakery, as everyone is preparing for the official opening and ribbon cutting in only 4 hours’ time. The finishing touches are coming together, and the press meet and greet is located across from the bakery, on the first floor of the Williams Sonoma. Through an open balcony door, we can observe all that is going on. Chef Keller is making his way over to the interview location and we can see him stopping graciously for pictures or to sign the Bouchon Bakery cookbook for fans dressed in kitchen whites.
As with all things, research gives the best foundation for understanding, but there isn’t really anything that can prepare you for the absolute humility which Chef Keller possesses. He’s barely sat down and there hasn’t been enough time to switch on the memo-app before he begins talking about the talented, young, Kuwaiti chefs that he had the pleasure to share time with the previous day. Feras Alzaid, Faisal Al Nashmi, Zeyad Alobaid and Maryam Al Jasser, some of whose initiatives have already been covered by bazaar, proudly presnting Kuwait’s vibrant culinary scene and what they contribute to it. Thomas Keller was kind enough to say how thoroughly impressed he was by them all, the chosen dishes they cooked for him, and stated in no uncertain terms that they are the future of Kuwait cuisine.
So how did this journey start? Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and in 1998 there simply were no restaurants open late at night in Napa Valley; everything closed at 9 p.m. But there was a community of hospitality professionals who also wanted to enjoy a meal out with friends after work, so they founded the Bouchon Bistro which was the first restaurant to be open late at night. As Napa itself became more popular, customers started finding the bistro for themselves, essentially because it was the only thing available, but it started to build a reputation for itself; timing, quality and ideas combining to create the perfect recipe for success. Bouchon Bakery was conceived to supply the bistro and The French Laundry restaurant, both of which required fresh, artisanal and one-of-a-kind breads to serve. Baking twice a day to ensure the offering was always fresh, the menu grew and the bakery became an important establishment in its own right. The brand now exists in 7 locations worldwide, the eighth being the Qatar branch set to open next. bazaar sat down to have a chat with the American chef extraordinaire.
What is the one thing that you think is important for the customer in Kuwait to know about Bouchon Bakery?
For us, what we want to be is consistent. Consistency in anything you do, is the most important. We want you to be able to come back in six months from now and still have that same experience with that special macaron.
Why do you think so many of your teams have longevity within your restaurants?
If you do the hiring, training and mentoring of a person in your team correctly and everyone is able to achieve a certain amount of success, then that person should turn out better than you are, because if he or she’s not better than you are then you’ve haven’t done your job. It’s hard for us in our industry though, ego keeps getting in our way. Back in the day when I was starting out it was all about the chef, and in many cases, ego plays an important role in the ability to be successful, but you have to be able to temper your ego so that you can really allow other people to be successful.
Is there any advice that you would give to entrepreneurs starting out?
In your career, you are who you are because of the things that you’ve done, the experiences that you’ve had, both good and bad. Certainly, the bad ones afford you more opportunity to learn than the good ones, so failure is probably the most important part of your career. If you realize that you’ve failed, then you understand that you need to improve to become really successful.
Do you have any advice for the chefs you met yesterday?
You are the first generation of Kuwaiti chefs and you need to be able to embrace it, it’s going to take you a while and you have to be strong, but you have to find that voice, you have to find that collective voice together to be able to express it so people understand what it is you’re trying to do and support it, and then you need to train the next generation.
You’ve mentioned that mentors have been influential in your career and your brother Joseph was one of your first.
Yes, he taught me how to make a hollandaise sauce, but I don’t know who makes the better one. It’s been a while since we’ve had a “hollandaise sauce off”. When we do, I’ll let you know!
Which is your favorite Bouchon Bakery item?
I do have a sweet tooth and my favorite thing is shortbread. Shortbread has always been my favorite cookie.
Dine at Bouchon Bakery at the Grand Avenue—The Avenues, opposite Williams Sonoma. Open Sunday to Thursday 9 a.m.-11p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 8 a.m. – midnight. To see the latest at Bouchon Bakery follow @bouchonbakeryme on Instagram and Facebook. Limited signed editions of Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook are available for sale at Bouchon Bakery at The Avenues.