The Chef de Cuisine of Thomas Keller’s Landmark Restaurant on His Exchange Program with Per Se, the meaning of Green Tape Moments, and the Pitfalls of Molecular Gastronomy
NEW YORK, NY — Timothy Hollingsworth, chef de cuisine of the French Laundry since summer 2009, has been participating in the first-ever chef de cuisine exchange program between his home restaurant and the other three-Michelin-star jewel in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) crown, New York City’s Per Se. Hollingsworth possesses some of the deepest institutional knowledge of TKRG, having moved up the ladder from commis (prep cook) to chef de cuisine, all at The French Laundry, and also serving as part of the opening team of Per Se. With a few days left in his stay (he’ll be here through Tuesday, February 28, while Eli Kaimeh is serving as CDC out West), we sat down with Hollingsworth the other morning in Per Se’s Salon, to ask him about his time here, and catch up on issues large and small (Note: Read our companion interview with Per Se’s Eli Kaimeh here):
TOQUELAND: There’s always been some cross-pollination among the restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, such as periodic manager retreats, but is this chef-de-cuisine switch new?
HOLLINGSWORTH: This is the first time we’ve done it. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. But because of staffing and how busy each restaurant was, it just never panned out. But, finally, we were at a point where we felt comfortable enough that maybe we could move on it. It’s a very natural thing because three out of the five sous chefs here, I worked with at The French Laundry. So I know them. I have a personal relationship with them. It’s the same systems. It’s a very easy transition.
TOQUELAND: You were part of the team that came East from The French Laundry to open Per Se about ten years ago.
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, as far as kitchen is concerned, I was the only CDP [chef de partie] to transfer here, then go back to The French Laundry.
TOQUELAND: Do you notice changes or evolutions here? Things that are different since Per Se first opened?
HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s evolving. You see it evolving. You see the differences between Jonathan [Benno, now at Lincoln] as the chef de cuisine, and now Eli [Kaimeh] as the chef de cuisine. And the managers. And we’re always pushing ourselves to take things to the next level, so, yeah, it’s evolved immensely since I was first out here.
TOQUELAND: But those changes probably aren’t that apparent to guests of the restaurant. Perfect isn’t a word that gets tossed around the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG). [As readers may know, Keller opened his The French Laundry Cookbook with the now-iconic assertion that there's no such thing as perfect food; the paragraph is featured on plaques in both The French Laundry and Per Se kitchens.] But most people who have dined here would say it’s been pretty perfect pretty much from the go, since you were already operating at such a high level. So to them, the changes might not be perceptible. Can you give an example of what a significant change is to the team here?
HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s the little changes. It’s hard to state a specific example because little changes are made every single day. You’re constantly thinking of what we at TKRG have defined as The Green Tape Moment: For years and years and years, we labeled everything in the kitchen with green tape and we tore the tape, and put it on a Lexan [durable plastic container], or used it to tape a tablecloth to the pass. We tore it. And then one day somebody picked up the scissors and cut the tape. And then, another day, somebody sees somebody cut the tape and acknowledges that and says, “This is what we’re going to do from now on; we’re going to cut the green tape.” And now, if anybody were to rip the green tape it would be like. ..
TOQUELAND: Nails on a chalkboard?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah, exactly.
TOQUELAND: Did that at some point get passed down from Thomas himself?
HOLLINGSWORTH: That was a defining moment here at Per Se. The day we opened here, Zion, the expediter (now a manager at Bouchon), cut the green tape at the pass. Now, he wasn’t the first person to cut the green tape. We like to think about evolutions as, really, a two-step process: It’s one person doing it and another person recognizing that’s what we should be doing, and moving on from there. And that’s the philosophy that everybody’s taken. I had cut the green tape before, but it wasn’t policy, not at all. It took Thomas seeing it and that’s what we call The Green Tape Moment.
Now, we inspire the different line members, the different staff members in the dining room as well as the kitchen or office or anybody, to have their Green Tape Moment.
TOQUELAND: So that’s something you talk about?
TOQUELAND: That’s a very small thing. If somebody walks through the kitchen, they might notice that. Or they might not notice that the tape’s been cut. They might just notice it was neat…
TOQUELAND: So it’s not just that happening, but how it gets transmitted. Somebody who hears that might be affected in any number of ways depending on which team they’re a part of: It could affect plating, how somebody sets a table, or how somebody keeps the podium?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes. All of it. We’re always looking for ways to improve that.
TOQUELAND: There’s an almost symbiotic relationship between The French Laundry and Per Se. Thomas has said something like, it’s the same restaurant but with two kitchens, and of course you have those large-screen TVs where the cooks at The French Laundry can see the team at Per Se, and vice versa. But when you come here, was there a preparation? You don’t have your own farm across the street as you do in Yountville, or Jacobsesn Orchard, to call on. Here, it’s different purveyors; you’re in the middle of a city. ..
HOLLINGSWORTH: No. Not at all. It may sound crazy to say, but you don’t have to prep at all. Because the structure that has been set up here is so strong. You have an executive sous chef, you have a team of sous chefs, you have a team in the dining room, and everybody is so strong at their position that all they do is just support you. It’s the same thing with Eli going to The French Laundry.
TOQUELAND: But you don’t have a Salon (the lounge at Per Se, where menu items are available à la carte) at The French Laundry.
HOLLINGSWORTH: There are two things that are different here than at The French Laundry. One is The Salon. The other is that, at lunch service, they offer a five-course menu [in addition to the longer Chef's Tasting Menu]. What’s funny is that it reminds me of old-school French Laundry when we had the five-course menu as well as the Tasting Menu as well as the Vegetarian menu at dinner. So that was something that, as a line cook, I grew up with. So all of those things that make it harder, like now you’re picking up that with this and this with that, it takes a lot more thought as far as that’s concerned.
So, yes, you have to pay attention to it, but in a good way. It makes me rememeber growing up as a line cook; it’s something I remember Thomas expediting to me.
And then Eli going over there, the kitchen is a lot smaller, so as the expediting chef, not only are you responsible for plating food but it’s more of a physical station, where you’re right there on the stove, you can literally touch the stove. Here, it’s more about the organization where, if you’re going to help somebody, you have to actually walk over to them. At The French Laundry [without walking anywhere], you’re turning around here you’re cutting the foie gras, you’re slicing something, you’re differently involved. They do more covers here but they also seat later, so everything kind of equals out.. . it’ll be interesting to talk to Eli and see what he experienced. It’s fun.
TOQUELAND: We think of the kitchens at The French Laundry and Per Se as serious kitchens: there’s no music, etc. and everybody is very focused on their work. To visitors, it seems incredibly quiet. But I wonder if you can share a moment of irreverence, specifically having to do with those television sets that let the teams in the two kitchens see what’s going on across the country.
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah, definitely. It could be a moment of somebody holding up a sign saying “Go San Francisco 49ers.” Yeah, we’re at work, but there is a comaraderie, too, and a friendship, I’ve worked with these guys and they’ve worked with us. .. there’s that kind of joking around, there’s the zooming in on the pass. Like if Per Se gets an accolade or French Laudnry gets an accolade, we’ll support them by taping something on the pass like “3 Michelin Stars.” Or when a chef de partie came from here at Per Se to work at The French Laundry, he was working meat, so they zoomed the camera on the meat station for the whole service.
TOQUELAND: You mean you can control the camera in the other kitchen?
TOQUELAND: So the shot isn’t fixed: You can pan, you can zoom? Like a security camera?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah. It’s cool.
TOQUELAND: The weather in New York today is mild: there’s a light misty rain, temperature is in the high 40s. It’s like a winter day where you come from, so you probably feel a little at home. But when you’re here, are there things you miss after more than a week?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah. New York has so much to offer. It’s really a fantastic city. But I miss walking my dog and just walking. .. not that you can’t walk here, but that small-town walking. I miss the garden [The French Laundry's farm] across the street. I miss a lot of my staff and working with them, that constant working with a team and developing them and watching them grow. It’s great to be here and to understand their staff and to get to know the different cooks and dining room managers and everybody, but I miss my team.
TOQUELAND: You started so young at The French Laundry, as a commis [prep cook] in your early 20s. You’ve staged at a few other places, but you’ve basically been there your entire adult life. Do you ever feel fully matured? Do you ever feel fully removed from the kid who started there more than ten years ago? Do you even want to move on from that person entirely?
HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s been a natural evolution. I’m asking guys to do things that I did in the same environment that I did it. I can relate to them and tell them stories about it. I can say, “I know it’s hard. I was there, in your position. I know. Trust me, you’re going to get it one day. It’s going to click and you’re going to get it and be successful”. You can really tell somebody from a firsthand experience and have them believe in that.
TOQUELAND: Where have you eaten during this stay in New York?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Corton, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Dovetail, Boulud Sud, Minetta Tavern, Employees Only. That’s pretty much it. .. so far. (laughs)
TOQUELAND: General question: what do you see the role of, for lack of a better phrase, “molecular gastronomy.” What do you feel about it as a category or genre unto itself?
HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s a fad. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around like “foodie.” What does that mean? Does it mean that you’re using different techniques like hydrocolloids? I mean we use it, but we use it to allow us to use certain techniques or elevate the food or do something better. Never is a dish begun by our saying, “Oh I want to use this technique, so let’s design a dish around wanting to make a sphere out of this.”
TOQUELAND: You mean that it starts with the flavor?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah. For me a lot of that molecular stuff mutes the flavor. I’m more about the product than I am about the manipulation of the product. So, to add something that you don’t need goes somewhere that I don’t believe in, that I don’t naturally go to. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t enjoy it. I just don’t prefer to cook that way a lot of the time.
TOQUELAND: Do you think in some ways this dividing line that’s been drawn between, let’s say, “conventional food” and “molecular food” is a fake line? I think guys your age – you’re in your early thirties – all of these relatively new techniques are just there for you, the same way that, say, I didn’t have a computer growing up, but my kids know how to use an iPad. It’s not a choice between molecular or not, it’s just that there are all these things cooks can now can avail themselves of if they choose to, whether in an avant garde way, or a traditional way.
HOLLINGSWORTH: I think it’s very true. But I would add to that that I feel comfortable in both areas. I grew up in the fundamentals of cooking and now these things are available, so I can do this, or I can do that, but I still firmly believe in those fundamentals in cooking and the ability to do something right and correct and that you understand how to do it before you take a product that allows you to do something. ..
These young cooks, so much information is available and they can learn and read, but a lot of these molecular techniques are just an equation – you put these certain ingredients together and this will happen. But there’s not that physical connection of saying, “I can cook beef to medium-rare” or “I can glaze an onion,” or “I can glaze carrots.” They don’t know how to do that anymore. That’s where the generation gap is. You have people who are maybe in their 40s who are real fundamental cooks who don’t understand new molecular processes; then you have people who are my age who may understand both sides, hopefully; then you have people who are younger who only understand the molecular side and they’re very intelligent about it but . ..
TOQUELAND: They don’t have the classic cuisine reference points or the fixation on the flavor, or on getting where classic cuisine would take you?
HOLLINGSWORTH: That’s why somebody like Grant [Achatz], he’s so amazing because he has those fundamentals of cooking. I’ve never eaten at any of his restaurants, but I’m planning on going very soon. But it’s interesting to see him and what he does. I know that he understands physically cooking, that he has that foundation.
TOQUELAND: So you think the danger is that people get too hung up on the science and the cosmetics and then, at some level, you’re creating art, you’re not creating food?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, and it’s, like, okay, I can cook a piece of beef to medium-rare in a bag and sear it and serve it to you and you’re going to think it’s great. But can I go to a barbecue down the street in the park and barbecue a steak? Can I really cook? Do I know how to cook a piece of meat?
Or with braises. Are they just put in an oven and you just push a button and it has a certain program that’s set inside of it? Or do you sear it and make your own stock and that kind of thing? There’s always the fear of that. But it seems that most diners these days are going back to the product. They’re very smart. In California, and here, too, they’re so product-oriented, they know the purveyors around them and they want that simple food.