Award-winning chef Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., and Per Se  in New York, broke in the new demonstration kitchen for the College of Culinary Arts at the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales University. Keller showed about 500 students a sous-vide preparation of lamb with trumpet mushrooms and glazed pearl onions. He interspersed cooking advice—“Vinegar is a flavor enhancer; if you taste the vinegar, you’ve used too much”—with his thoughts on how the role of a chef has changed over time “from domestic help to a celebrity.” After plating the lamb, Keller stepped in front of the dual stovetop with its overhead cameras and fielded students’ questions. Here are some, with Keller’s answers.
From where do you draw most of your inspiration?
Inspiration is about awareness. If you are not aware of what is going on around you, then you are not going to be inspired. I look at a purple box of tapioca, walking down the aisle of grocery store, and see the word “pearl” on it and I’m inspired to do oysters and pearls. (Sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and white sturgeon caviar is a dish at the French Laundry).
Can you give any advice to young cooks who want to work in a Michelin-rated restaurant?
You have to be persistent. You have to have confidence in yourself. Be self-motivated and driven. And you have to have desire. Desire trumps passion every time. Passion ebbs and flows. But the constant desire to do something is always pushing you forward.
Have the knowledge you need to go into that restaurant. Don’t try to go to [work at] a restaurant of that caliber unless you think you can be successful. Prepare yourself, in other words.
Would you rather not be a modern-day chef? Would you prefer simpler times?
Do I wish it was the old way? But then I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you. It’s distracting, but at the same time, what are my choices? I can block everything else out and not talk to anybody and be perceived as pretentious or arrogant. Or I can say, “You know what? I can share. I can bear the burden of responsibility to be the example today for the next generation of chefs.”
Chef, you said to use all five of your senses in cooking. So far I’ve been able to watch you make that and smell it. But I’ve not been able to taste it. May I taste it?
I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t be fair because I didn’t bring enough for everybody.