Thomas Keller Teaches That Local Can Mean Anything

Renowned chef Thomas Keller, proprietor of high-end restaurants like The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, shares his expertise in a series of videos on MasterClass in which he teaches fundamental cooking techniques. Through the first half-dozen or so Keller MasterClass videos, I’ve learned some game-changing information that surprised even an experienced non-professional cook like myself.

For instance, did you know that restaurant kitchens tend to use universal lids for their cookware, rather than matching a cover to each piece? Or that asparagus cooks best after it’s been peeled, and is typically bundled before it gets thrown in a pot for blanching? Anyone who’s been trained in a professional kitchen likely knows these classic cooking tips, but your average home cook probably does not.

Those who invest in a Keller MasterClass tutorial will certainly gain something from the timeless lessons taught by the chef. But it was his lecture on sourcing ingredients that made me question whether his philosophy is keeping up with the times.

Keller begins by explaining that his goal is to acquire the best possible ingredients for his restaurants, regardless of where they come from. And he believes that words like “local,” “farm-to-table,” and “sustainable” are nothing more than culinary buzzwords. For Keller, it’s more important to support the fishermen and farmers who use best practices, regardless of their geography.

While that sounds like a responsible philosophy, Keller goes on to attempt to redefine the word local as being not about geography, but about quality. “Think about local as an ingredient,” he says. “Think about local as a farmer who is growing those products, a fisherman who’s catching them, a lamber who’s raising lamb, a forager who’s going out to get wild mushrooms.”

But words have meanings, and it’s not right to co-opt the buzzword local and decide that it means something other than geographic proximity. Being able to describe your food as local might be appealing to a certain set of customers who (at least in pre-pandemic times) would make the trek to Yountville for a pricey prix fixe meal. But if your focus is on providing the best quality ingredients regardless of where they come from, then it’s better to simply embrace that philosophy. Why not forego using the word local for anything that doesn’t come from your own gardens, or from nearby farms and fisheries?

Related: Six New Ways to Cook Vegetables and Bring Variety to the Table

The bigger problem isn’t about Keller’s definition, though. While I had one of the best meals of my life at The French Laundry in 2011, I recognized even then that it seemed slightly off to serve lobster tail that was flown in from Maine, when some of the world’s best seafood could be fished within a few dozen miles. And a decade later, with the planet continuing to heat up, that choice seems even more perplexing. It’s no longer defensible for a chef to use the world’s best ingredients while ignoring where they came from.

Chefs, like all of us, have a responsibility to recognize the impact their choices have on the environment. They need to consider not just whether they are working with purveyors who harvest responsibly, but whether their sourcing methods are contributing to the destruction of our planet through global warming.

By continuing to fly in “local” ingredients from afar, Keller strikes me as being out of touch with the values of the modern high-end dining customer. Ultimately, when the pandemic subsides and Keller is able to re-open his restaurants, the biggest problem I’ll have with The French Laundry may not be a linguistic one.

What I Ate: Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster tail with spinach, parsnips, and saffron-vanilla emulsion

The Keller MasterClass made my question whether his food philosophy at The French Laundry is keeping up with the times

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