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Thomas Keller Talks Guenter Seeger, Community, and 'Celebrity' Chefs at Aria

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Thomas Keller and pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel spoke and signed copies of their new cookbook Bouchon Bakery today at Buckhead's Aria. Below, find quotes from Chef Keller, whose restaurants Per Se, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, and the French Laundry are some of the most renowned in the world, as he talks about how he's bothered that Guenter Seeger is no longer in Atlanta, how important it is for a community to support its restaurants, and how he feels about the term "celebrity chefs."

On wishing Guenter Seeger had been able to succeed in Atlanta.
I think Atlanta is a great city. [But] one of the things that bothered me about Atlanta was Guenter Seeger— Guenter Seeger was by far one of the best chefs in our country. Had he been in New York, he'd have been a superstar, he'd have had unlimited support from those people eating at this restaurant. In Atlanta, he did really well at the Ritz-Carlton, but he had the hotel to support him. When he opened his own restaurant, he couldn't survive, and that was sad. That was very sad, and it really upsets me when a community is unwilling to support one of the greatest chefs in our country. I ate at the restaurant a few times, and each time it was like, this is amazing. I have people working for me today who worked for Guenter, and Guenter taught them great skills, great technique.

You also have Pano [Karatassos]. Pano's here— he worked for me for a while; I love the guy and his father. You have those, you have some really good, more or less casual, restaurants here. [?] Don't take this the wrong way— I'm not saying [Atlanta] doesn't have great farms and great producers and great restaurants, what I'm saying is that one of the best chefs in our country— in our country— who was in this community for over 20 years is no longer here. And no longer does he have a restaurant, either, which is a shame. Had he been in New York, he would have had a whole different life, but he committed his time to this community. In no way am I trying to bash Atlanta, I'm just talking about an individual who I admire greatly, and I'm just sad for that individual.

On the role a community plays in the dining scene.
People always say, 'When are you going to open a restaurant in my community?' Well, why don't you have a restaurant like that already? If you don't have a restaurant like that already, it says a lot about your community. You're not willing to support that kind of restaurant, otherwise it would be there. We have to commit to be able to support our chefs, our farmers. You support through your wallet. You can always say, 'I want this, I want that,' but unless you pull your wallet out and put your money where your mouth is, it's not going to happen. The quality of food isn't going to change unless you guys say that you're going to change it. And you change it by paying for it. We can't change what the consumer wants or what the consumer has the opportunity to have if they're not willing to pay for the change.

On opening restaurants.
We tend to forget about the past, and we don't really do our research on the past to understand where we are today, and that kind of bothers me. Opening a restaurant is not an easy thing. It's an all-out commitment. That's another issue with chefs today. Today, the business model for a chef is what? Open more restaurants. That's what's kind of the expected thing. Why is that expected? Everybody always wants to know what you're doing next. Is it really important what I'm going to do next? Is that the most important thing? It should be how am I going to make sure that I maintain what I have today. That's the most important question. If I can't maintain what I have today, what's the point of opening something tomorrow? Chefs are kind of stuck in this idea that we have to continue to do things to continue to get exposure, to continue to increase our revenue sources— I don't know what the purpose is, but we've kind of gotten stuck in this thing and it's not really a sustainable business model. For Steve Ells, who opened Chipotle, that's fantastic, he did an amazing thing. That kind of business model really works, but try to open 600 Bouchons. It's just hard.

On branding.
The expectation of chefs shifted so dramatically in such a short time. For years, for generations, for decades, [chefs] were sequestered in the kitchen. We had no training in public relations, no training in finance, no training in human resources. There was no formal training in my career for any of that. So we had to learn it all on our own. It's been an extraordinary shift. The whole idea of branding is a whole new thing with chef. In a career where none of that existed before, it exists today.

On "celebrity."
The idea of celebrity began with the media. There's not a chef today that's a well-known chef that says, "I'm a celebrity chef." Tom Cruise doesn't go around saying he's a celebrity actor; Alex Rodriguez doesn't say he's a celebrity baseball player. Get over the word celebrity, please. Thirty years ago, it may have been something that had some meaning to it, because in America, nobody knew what a chef was anyway. So okay, now we have well-known chefs, and to really make an impact, someone said, well, they're celebrity chefs, but it's an archaic term right now. Get over it, stop using it. Now, we have credibility in our country from a culinary point of view. We have some of the best restaurants, best chefs, best farmers in the world. We don't have to diminish the stature of a chef by calling him a celebrity. Let's call him a leader. We're leaders in our profession.

When you think of celebrity, to me it's almost— I don't want to say comical, but sometimes it's used in a diminishing way. 'He's acting like a celebrity' means what? He's being spoiled. My point is that that word is used in many different ways. If we're talking about a true profession that's had meaningful impact on our country and the reputation of our country, then how do we want to recognize the people who are leading that profession? Do they really need to be celebrities or can they just be leaders?
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