ALIVE Cover Interview: Hubert Keller
This in-demand celeb chef talks to us about his training in France, his love of competition and his latest venture, “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
Chef Hubert Keller has a lot on his plate. Between serving as a guest judge on Bravo’s hit series, “Top Chef,” hosting his own cooking show, overseeing his six restaurants and working on his third book, he also now holds a regular seat at the judges’ table for Bravo’s newest competition show, “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
But despite his demanding and celeb-status schedule, Keller is humble and approachable and still makes time for the kitchen. Known for his down-to-earth demanor and hands-on creativity, this gourmet chef impressed fans, foodies and the judges on “Top Chef Masters” when he made mac ‘n’ cheese in a dorm-room bathroom and won the first challenge. It’s his quick wit and playfulness, combined with a doesn’t-take-himself-too-seriously attitude that has made this French-born chef such a success. Between dishing out critiques alongside Padma, Tom and Gail, Chef Keller invited the ALIVE Team to SLeeK’s kitchen for a photo shoot and even prepared braised beef and a charcuterie platter for the crew. Afterward, as I sat down with chef Keller and talked about his culinary career, it became clear “Top Chef” fans won’t be telling him to pack his knives and go anytime soon.
ALIVE: “Top Chef: Just Desserts” premiered in mid-September and is already looking to be an exciting show. After judging “Top Chef” for several seasons, what’s it like judging an all-dessert competition now?
Hubert Keller: There’s actually a big difference between a “chef” and a “pastry chef,” which I think makes for a completely different competition. Pastry chefs have a different temper. While both are working chefs, their minds work very differently. A chef making an entrée, is more in a “spirit of the moment”—tasting, reducing, figuring out how the dish comes together and playing with flavors. But I think a pastry chef creates art; their mind focuses on building, constructing and elevating, but also doing it by the book. The pastry chef really needs his recipe book, he follows the recipe precisely. When it comes to the show, there are some tough challenges because they have no access to their books. Sometimes a pastry chef doesn’t know how something will turn out, until they are unmolding it and the whole thing falls apart and a day’s preparation is a disaster. And then, on the show, we have to judge that [disaster].
ALIVE: You actually began your culinary career as a pastry chef. How did you eventually transition to a classic chef?
HK: My family had a pastry shop [in Alsace, France] and we lived above it. My parents ran the shop and my brother and I grew up in it. Eventually my brother became a pastry chef, so when I was 16, I wanted to become a pastry chef, too. I was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship at Auberge de L’Ill [world-renowned restaurant in eastern France]. By “lucky,” I mean that Auberge only took one apprentice per year. Again, pastry chefs and the other chefs are different, so I worked outside of the main kitchen. After several months, I started getting interested in what the “other” chefs did, and the head chef asked me one day if I would like to work in the kitchen, and from there that’s how I was basically pulled out of the pastry world.
ALIVE: You established yourself as a renowned chef with Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and then Burger Bar in Las Vegas by the time you were asked to be a guest judge on a new Bravo show called “Top Chef” in 2006. Now in its seventh season, it’s jumped in popularity, won an Emmy this year for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program and has become one of Bravo’s top rated shows. Why do you think the show has become such a phenomenon?
HK: I think the way the show took off is amazing. The first show and first episode, looking back it’s almost so raw. I remember they threw a bunch of [chefs] on the line and the challenge was working the line in a four star restaurant for half an hour. Challenges were prepared daily and the show was still being worked out, but the idea, the cooking and the chefs, has always been real. People get to see the real thing, they get to see the action, they get to see what’s happening, and I think that’s partly why people keep watching it. It’s not just a cooking show. And I think nobody expected it to pick up so much. It’s even launched shows around the globe: South America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They have a “Top Chef ” in France now, too.
ALIVE: The show’s spinoff, “Top Chef Masters,” is for accomplished chefs who compete to raise money for a charity of their choice. When you became a contestant on that show, what was it like being on the other side of the contest?
HK: It’s definitely more intense. Competing is a whole other world. Once you’re on the show and you keep going to the end, it’s tough. And you think about everything you did afterward for months. I think even a year later you still have dreams about competing. But while I really like the competition, I love judging. I think that being on the other side [competing] helped give me a better sense of how to judge.
ALIVE: Why did you decide to open your second Burger Bar and then to debut a new concept, SLeeK, in St. Louis?
HK: I worked with Pinnacle [the company that owns Lumière Place Casino & Hotels] for my restaurants in Vegas, and I thought burgers could work in St. Louis. As we were working on Burger Bar, they approached me about doing something for this other space and wanted me to do something like Fleur de Lys. But I didn’t just want to recreate that concept. I wanted something original. So we had the idea of a steakhouse, but with a twist. I think a twist was necessary, otherwise we probably would’ve fallen into opening just another steakhouse. So we added things like an ultra lounge up front, a DJ booth and a chef ‘s private dining table in the middle of the restaurant.
ALIVE: And you really did add something unique; SLeeK is not your typical steakhouse. But Burger Bar also established itself here as well. Why do you think Burger Bar’s gourmet, build-your-own burger concept has been such a success?
HK: I think that people just love a good burger. And chefs like Daniel Boulud put the gourmet burger on the map and made it cool to go somewhere and just eat a burger. I think that before, the burger was very associated with fast food. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to many chefs, there was nothing fancy about it. So, I saw what Daniel did and thought, “let’s bring in the best ingredients and offer the idea of “build your own.” At that time, nobody had that concept, and I think the idea of making your own gourmet burger really shifted what people thought of when they thought of a burger.
ALIVE: I know from personal experience—having danced in the DJ booth while you were spinning at one of our Saint Louis Fashion Week parties in 2008—that you are an extremely talented DJ. How did you get into that?
HK: [laughing] Yes! That was a fun party! I learned from a friend and very well-known DJ, Frenchy Le Freak. He is a great DJ and loves to cook. He had me over for dinner, and I was impressed by his cooking skills, so I invited him into my restaurant to cook for one night. Over time I went to see him spin more and really got interested in DJing. Then one day, my wife [Chantal] bought me a whole DJ set and Frenchy started teaching me how to spin. I eventually started spinning more, and before I knew it, Frenchy booked me somewhere—without me knowing. I thought it was a joke at first, but got up there and did it. It’s something I really liked and just kept doing it.
ALIVE: What’s next for you? Is there anything you still want to accomplish in the cooking world?
HK: I don’t think there’s anything I really want to accomplish; it’s more about continuing to do what I’m doing, because I love it. I hope to do more shows and I’m also working on another book. It will be more about my life—back to France where I grew up, starting my career, meeting my wife and my travels, and will feature several related recipes along the way.
Photo credit: Photography by Tuan Lee