“It’s very rare to watch a profession evolve and I’m lucky enough … to have watched this profession grow from its infancy,” Thomas Keller told the attendees of the 25th annual MenuMasters celebration as he was inducted into its hall of fame at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Saturday.
He said he didn’t start cooking because he wanted to be a chef.
“Nobody wanted to be a chef,” he said. “If you were a cook you were somebody that didn’t do well in school or didn’t do well in your social life or whatever and you got stuck somewhere in a kitchen sweating to death, working with a sauté pan that was broken or over a burner that didn’t work and all those different things that we lived through in those times. … I did it because I couldn’t play baseball.”
The legendary chef and owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., Per Se in New York City, and other restaurants, and the mentor to an entire generation of chefs said he found the same kind of camaraderie and collective effort in the kitchen that he found on a baseball team.
“For me that was wonderful.”
The turning point that made him decide that cooking was the career for him was when, as a 22-year-old cook, he was working for chef Roland Henin at a private club in Narragansett, R.I., “who I admired greatly because he had the most beautiful girlfriend and a Jeep that he drove with her on the beach, and I was like ‘I want to be like that’.
“He said cooks cook to nurture people, and that moment … I had this epiphany and I felt deep inside that I was a nurturer, and I became a chef that day in 1977, and I worked really, really hard my entire career to try and make a difference and to nurture people, and it’s wonderful … to be here and still feel awkward … to be standing in front of you accepting this award.”
Keller was one of eight awardees at the celebration, hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura foods, which honors culinary innovation at restaurants from quick service to fine dining .
“For Ventura Foods this embodies our core work as a company,” CEO Chris Furman told the capacity crowd. “You see, we work every day to build partnership with our customers to help them create the kind of culinary innovation that delights their customers, and we’re really proud and honored to be a part of this evening tonight and for the entire duration of MenuMasters.”
Another honoree, Rohini Dey, PhD., founder of Indian-Latin restaurant Vermilion in Chicago and of the support and networking group Let’s Talk Womxn, also shared her motivation for entering the industry.
“The only reason I entered the world of restaurants was to dispel the whole notion of ‘ethnic’ cuisine. I can’t stand that term. Who said that fine dining is confined to the West, and who said that all global cuisines besides the handful of a few belong to the box of ‘ethnic?’” she said. That’s what caused her to found Vermilion, showcasing Indian and Latin-American cuisines, 18 years ago.
Dey, who was named MenuMasters Innovator of the Year, and her team served the crowd slices of tandoori steak with mung jícama mango mint slaw, which the staff at the Drake paired with a Tamarind Whiskey Sour.
Subway, which won the award for best menu revamp for its “Eat Fresh Refresh” initiative that is an ongoing top-to-bottom reworking of the chain’s menu, served its new Turkey Cali Fresh, which was paired with local 312 beer.
“Everybody loves a good comeback story, and I think this is one in the making,” senior vice president of culinary Paul Fabre told the crowd.
Bruce Eckmeder, resident district manager for Aramark, accepted the award for “healthful innovation” on behalf of Michael Gueiss, senior executive chef for Carolina Dining Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was awarded for its low-waste bowls, which incorporate items that would otherwise be discarded or composted, such as roasted carrots, herb-braised celery, celery leaf salad, pickled watermelon rinds and chimichurri made from radish and carrot tops, along with grains including brown rice and sorghum.
It was paired with a Meiomi Pinot Noir wine from California.
Eckmeder said Gueiss is “a true visionary — to create a product that is not only healthy but uses products that would typically be discarded is simply magical.”
The best new menu item went to Noodles & Company for its tortelloni line, which was served in roasted garlic cream sauce and was paired with Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
“I am lucky,” Noodles vice president of culinary Nick Graff told the crowd as he accepted the award. “I have some of the best R&D People on my team. These guys are so good at what they do.”
IHOP won the award for best line extension for its burritos and bowls, which were paired with a Burnt Orange Breakfast Margarita.
“I’ve been waiting over 20 years to stand on this stage,” Scott Randolph, vice president of culinary for IHOP, said. “We’re all about flavor, we’re all about quality, and we’re all about bringing joy to everyone here in this room and in our restaurants, and we’re so excited to be launching bold, innovative food.”
First Watch won the award for best new menu item for its short rib omelet, which was paired with a Pink Grapefruit Mimosa as well as the chain’s own beverage Purple Haze, a lemonade with butterfly pea flower and lavender.
Senior vice president of culinary Shane Schaibly thanked his team, saying that, while that night they had to make the award-winning omelet right a few dozen times, “those guys and girls are making it right thousands of times.”
The Trendsetter award went to Loro Asian Smokehouse, based in Austin, Texas, which combines the modern Japanese cuisine of Uchi with the barbecue of Franklin Barbecue.
Its team served pickled prawns with melon and cucumber salad paired with a Lychee Martini
Jack Yoss, vice president of culinary for parent company Hai Hospitality said the concept was an instant success.
“We opened Loro thinking we were going to do 500 covers a day. We quickly ramped to 2,000, and by quickly I mean in a week. We weren’t prepared for it. It wasn’t me in the restaurant who got us through that. It was line cooks, just like at Noodles & Company … the line cooks and the prep cooks and the eses and the bartenders and dishwashers. They all had to figure out how to do this at scale.”
Echoing other awardees, he said, “It’s easy to make one or two of these look nice. It’s really hard to make it look nice 365 days a year, more than 2,000 covers a day. This award just validates our heart of the house and validates the people who are there 40, 50, 60 hours a week in the restaurant putting out this food.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
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