Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thomas Keller and The French Laundry in my life

Eleven years ago, my writing career was still in its early days. I had written for a travel channel on cable, finished a book, and a few published clips. I was young and na├»ve.  I met Thomas Keller, in a food writers conference at the prestigious CIA(Culinary Institute of America) in Napa.  He spoke before about a hundred food writers about his newly released booked “The French Laundry.”  We sat in awe.  Before us was a man with extraordinary culinary brilliance.  He was humble and unassuming.  But his name precedes him. It was impossible to get a reservation in his restaurant, The French Laundry, unless you plan two months ahead of time. 

With my meager income as a writer, I distinctly remember hesitating for a second to buy his book. But it was gorgeous coffee table book, I could pour through page after page.  His book was celebration of his passion for excellence in the kitchen and in the entire dining experience. I parted with my $50 for a chance to be in the company of Thomas Keller, for a few seconds, while he signed my book. 

Many years have passed since that day.  I wrote hundreds of articles. I lived in the Philippines, Australia, Singapore and now Hong Kong.

Last year, I wrote my second book. On the day I received a copy of my second book, a devastating flood hit Manila and most of Luzon, in my home country, the Philippines.  My family home was not spared.  My sister and my mom were the only ones at home at the time, with my father stranded in the hospital with my brother.  My sister called me in Singapore at around three in the afternoon. Her voice was visibly frightened.  She was asking for prayers. The flood had entered our home and kept rising.  My father has built our house a few feet higher than our neighbors. He had experienced a flood before, and had the gumption to protect his family.  His ingenuity worked.  The elevation spared us from many floods in the past, but not this one.

A rubber boat transported our elderly neighbor out of their bungalow, with an ambulance standing by a few streets away.  The dogs had to be brought up to the second floor.  Luckily, aside from some minor cuts and frayed nerves, no one was badly hurt in our household.  My family and house survived the storm and flood. But many other Filipinos were not so lucky losing all their personal belongings and loved ones.  One year after the fateful, Ondoy, things are still in boxes.  The carpenters have not finished the long list of renovations and repaired left by the devastation. My sister lost her car. And my father’s car remains damaged. 

My workshop was on the first floor of our home. It was a cozy guest room I converted into a sanctuary to write, to paint, to create, and to dream.  It housed my favorite things, among them my prized signed cookbooks.  On the lowest level of the bookshelf were the biggest and heaviest coffee table books.  My all time favorite was The French Laundry by Thomas Keller.  The very first expensive cookbook I bought.   The book was lovely, but it also brought back memories of being that young food writer.

When I returned home from Singapore from the holidays, my parents showed me what was left of my workshop. They did not have the heart to throw anything away, knowing each thing there meant something to me.  The photo albums were now empty, with the faces and images washed away by the water. My black and white portfolio of photos I shot and printed for many hours during my senior year in college were soaked. The books were soaked, and now moldy. I held them in my hands, and cried. The cookbooks are gone. The photos are gone.  It felt like a huge chunk of my life had been deleted.  It was as if I had been struck by amnesia.

Some of the damaged cookbooks I had to throw away

Moldly and all glued together

But these were just things. Many Filipinos lost everything, even their loved ones. Losing my photos and books was nothing to the ordeal they had been through. I sensibly knew, it was not apt to publicly lament my loss.

I now live in Hong Kong, immersed in the vibrant food and wine scene here.  My calendar is filled with wine tasting and appointments.  But it was an appointment last Monday at 4 to 5pm that meant the most. Thomas Keller was in town for a few days to bring The French Laundry experience to Hong Kong. 

Thomas Keller and I in Hong Kong

He greeted me with a warm smile and firm handshake. I told him we had met many years ago. Who would have thought I would meet this man again? The interview was easy. His answers flowed so easily from questions. His words were nuggets of wisdom any serious cook should take to heart.  To Keller, creating the best food experience is an art form from sourcing the best ingredients, to cooking it, and ultimately serving it in the best way. 

At the end of the interview, he handed me a book. He signed it with many swift, yet graceful strokes. On the page, he left a stunning autograph reminding me it is all about finesse. It is an artwork.  I tease him that his autograph much better than the way he signed my book many years ago. He laughs and explains that eleven years has made him much better. 

The artistry even in his autograph

My heart leapt that day. Who would have thought I meet Thomas Keller again? Even better, I would get a copy of a signed copy of his book again. But it was good reminder of where I am.

The book now sits on a prime spot in my tiny shoebox studio flat in HK.  It is the first thing I see when I wake up.  Safe from the floods, it rests on a shelf high up from the floor and five flights below the ground. It is a beautiful reminder that God abundantly provides, and in trusting in His ways.  Just when you least expect, He thoughtfully throws a sweet surprise leave you in awe. 

When I bid him goodbye, I told Thomas, I hope it won't take another eleven years until I meet him again. I know with certainty, it won't. 

Copyright Maida Pineda 2010. 12.12.2010.2:55pm

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