I was chatting on the phone with French Laundry chef Thomas Keller last week when I complained that it seemed like ages since we’d had a chance to just hang out and talk. “Hey, we’re going to be doing the L.A. Food and Wine Festival on Thursday night, why don’t you come by?” he said. A couple of days later I got an email from his assistant, telling me that I would have a chef’s jacket in my size waiting for me at the Bouchon booth. I was expected to show up by 5:30 p.m.
And that’s how I wound up handing out my share of more than 1,600 oysters, 1,200 shrimp and 800 mussels, helping out Bouchon chef David Hands, sous chef Alison Trent, and four very determined behind-the-scenes shuckers.
I’ve known Keller for a couple of decades now -- he’s been a contributor to the Times’ Master Class series since it started -- and I’ve learned that “hanging out” with him usually means work of some kind. That’s how he built a restaurant empire that includes two Michelin three-star restaurants, plus a half-dozen assorted Bouchons, Bouchon Bakeries and more.
And Keller certainly did his share Thursday night, prowling the front of the booth, signing autographs, posing for pictures, calling for one of the Bouchon beach balls whenever anything slowed down, and making sure that every one of the hundreds of passers-by got fundraising information for his favorite charity, the American team for the Bocuse d’Or cooking competition.
My night started by blowing up the beach balls, and not nearly well enough at first. “Tight,” Keller said. “These have to be tight. Do them again.” (I was reminded of a scene in a video his partner Laura Cunningham put together for his 50th birthday party several years ago, in which a Keller imitator offers stern counsel to a hot dog vendor in Central Park: “Do you call that clean? Keep it turning! Come on! Come on! Is that the best you can do?”)
My technique corrected, I was promoted to handing out the delicious Beausoleil oysters (there were also absolutely magnificent Misty Points). The crowd never seemed to lessen, an endless loop of smiling faces nodding eagerly when I asked “Would you like an oyster?”
Could there be anything more fun than that? Just hanging out.
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