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Critic-Turned-Cook Gets a Smackdown From Thomas Keller

My cooking career might be toast. None other than uber-chef Thomas Keller stuck a fork in me earlier this week.

I got a chance to chat with the chef while he was signing copies of Ad Hoc At Home at the University Bookstore in Seattle, telling him the quickie version of my journey from writing restaurant reviews to working in kitchens.

"How do you like it?" he asked.

"It's so hard," I said, my feet throbbing after finishing a shift at Alpha Sigma Phi.

"Well, then, you must not be doing it right," he said. "It's not brain surgery."

Ouch.

Now, he didn't say this in a cruel way. Later, in front of a standing room only crowd, he talked about what it takes to be a great cook: using the best ingredients, having the right tools, and doing tasks over and over and over again until you master them.

The Makings of a Great Chef

I've been thinking a lot lately about whether the best cooks are born with that fire to create incredible food, or whether anybody has the ability learn to succeed on the line. Getting behind the scenes in the kitchens I used to critique makes me lean toward the belief that great chefs are like great athletes. They're naturals who are driven to be the best, almost to the point of being consumed by what they're trying to achieve.

So, if Thomas Keller is LeBron James, I'm the third string bench warmer. Heck, maybe that's even aiming too high. But, you know what? I'm fine with that.

I sat next to a young woman during Keller's compelling discourse on how he came to write his fourth book. She had driven six hours for the chance to meet him. She's studying chemistry at Washington State University, but as soon as she graduates she's going to culinary school despite her parent's objections.

It was a meal at the French Laundry that changed her life. How powerful! Even in our short conversation, I could tell she had the fire.

Who Has 'The Fire'?

As a critic, I was always looking for signs of that fire, whether it was at a humble home-cooking cafe or a fine dining venue. It shows up in attention to detail. It's obvious when the kitchen loves what it's doing. I handed out only two sets of four stars when the chef had a good idea and was able to consistently execute—like Thomas Keller. (I've had memorable meals at French Laundry and Bouchon. I can still recall the thrill of some of bites even though they were nearly 10 years ago.)

Getting back to our brief exchange, chef Keller said maybe it was the environment I was working in wasn't right for me.

"Oh no, I'm having a blast."

"Well, that's good," he said.

That's good, but is it good enough to fuel me? I can't help but wonder what might spark my fire, what might give me the all-consuming need to feed.

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been working in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and recently launched a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.

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