Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | 12:32 p.m.
Acclaimed chef Hubert Keller is no stranger to big knives, pricey meat or television.
His Mandalay Bay restaurant Fleur de Lys serves up a deluxe burger that goes for a cool $5,000. They’re not “flying out the door,” he admits with a laugh.
Keller has his own show on PBS, and with his lingering French accent and shoulder-length white hair, he has been a recognizable face at the judges’ table during three seasons of the Bravo TV network’s hit kitchen competition "Top Chef."
In fact, the first-ever episode of "Top Chef" was filmed in Keller’s flagship restaurant, Fleur de Lys, in San Francisco. And on the big knife front, well, he’s a chef. He’ll also likely be using one tonight on the debut of "Top Chef Masters" (Bravo, 10 p.m.), but not to scare some chef who overcooked their calamari. Keller is trading his judge’s seat for chef’s whites — that’s right, he’s competing.
The man behind Mandalay Bay restaurants Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar will join fellow local chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood and a roster of 22 other elite chefs in sautéing, slicing and sous vide-ing for the title of Top Chef Master and a $100,000 check for the charity of the winner's choice. Here’s what Keller had to say about stepping up to the competition, dealing with the cameras and succeeding in Las Vegas:
What was your experience like as a judge on "Top Chef?"
As a judge it’s not really very complicated. It’s actually a pretty cool experience. You’re totally surprised when the dishes come in front of you to see how well the chefs are doing that day. … I think, as judges, it’s very important that each time when we’re sitting down we do not judge how that chef has performed in the past. He’s really judged on that single “quickfire” or that single challenge. Like any other thing in sports, that’s your chance, that’s your race. Right now, here’s your moment.
Did your experience judging on "Top Chef" help you as a contestant on "Top Chef Masters?"
No. I think some of the other chefs were saying, ‘Well, at least you know things there, at least you have been there, you know how certain things work." In reality, … as a judge you kind of imagine what’s going on back [in the kitchen], but if you are not doing it on your own, and you can’t stand in the shoes feeling that particular pressure and the surprises that have been thrown at you, even having been a judge it doesn’t help anymore. You stand alone … just competing against who is left and right of you.
As a chef in your restaurants are you being judged from scratch every time a dish goes out or a new customer comes in to dine?
We are in a daily competition. We’re in a daily Top Chef race. Every night when we open up the doors it’s a performance. … You have an audience and the whole idea is to make sure that audience leaves that showroom or the restaurant with happy faces. I think that as a chef we have to keep in mind it’s not only about the cooking. I think it’s about the entire experience. You only look so good as your last performance, and the next day you have to roll it out again. Whoever is able to play the card of consistency – that will be the winner at the end.
As a restaurateur and a chef your job is to feed people and make them happy. How much of a struggle is there between what you think the customers want and what would be exciting for you to create?
I think it’s basically what your doctor tells you to do and what you’re really doing in reality. It’s about the same thing. (Laughs) There’s a pretty fine line, and I think over the years where you’re developing a style, you’re developing a personality, you’re developing something where people put themselves in your hands after several years of you proving yourself.
What about being a contestant on "Top Chef Masters" surprised you the most?
We didn’t have cameras, of course, in our bedrooms, but besides that and for the very few hours that we slept at night, you constantly had a camera on you. You constantly had somebody with you; you’re never left alone. So, it’s an extremely serious competition in the sense of there’s no escaping. ... It’s extremely fair, but pretty intense. Not to go into detail, but if you go to the restroom someone’s going to come with you and wait outside the door. ... But at the same time it makes it real. There’s not one thing being shown and in the back it’s much cooler or things are arranged. No.
Cheftestants on "Top Chef" often have a hard time taking criticism. How did the master chefs who’ve had so much acclaim react to being critiqued?
I think you will see it through the show; the criticisms are much more based on real facts. We don’t have to prove anything anymore. I know I sound pretentious, but we came together as "Top Chef Masters" and we have proven part of ourselves through our restaurants, so we didn’t go to the competition to be discovered. … We were competing like professionals. … It’s not like the guy puts his pan on the fire and one of us turns his fire off or crank up the oven; it’s not about that. … I think it’s like the Olympics, we are competing on that level. … And the viewer can say, “Oh my god, look at these guys and how they think.” In certain situations our mind works a little different, and that’s what makes "Top Chef Masters" very exciting.
As an already successful chef, did you learn anything from the show?
Not in the sense of something I could implement in the restaurant. For me, it worked in the other way totally around. I was able to use everything that I use in my restaurant and use all the tricks and trades in the competition. Of course, I never cooked pasta in a shower, and hopefully, I’ll never have to cook pasta in a shower to cook macaroni and cheese again, but it was more like using things, ideas, techniques, recipes and combinations of flavors that I used in the past in the restaurant.
Some chefs say they have to be careful what they serve in Las Vegas, because of the population that comes here. Have you found that at all with your Las Vegas restaurants?
I disagree on that. I think, when it comes to Las Vegas, you can definitely carry a menu that I would put in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago or New York. Those are absolutely great restaurant cities. … Today, I think now there are so many good restaurants in Las Vegas and not enough people probably for all the restaurants that it becomes competitive. And I think competitive is good, because it knocks off the ones who are not the best ones and the other ones stay. It becomes like San Francisco, where I have had Fleur de Lys for 22 years, and that’s what we’re doing for 22 years: We’re competing. That’s what makes a real restaurant city. Who would have thought Las Vegas would be on that level 10 years ago? And today it’s absolutely there.