There’s a fine line between re-creating the past and ignoring the lessons of history. Play it too safe, and a creator—be it a chef, a mixologist, an artist, a musician—seems to be simply copying those who have come before. Too far in the other direction, and the creation simply fails: Certain sounds, certain tastes, certain colors go together for a reason.
But those artists who can stand astride that boundary and find peace with both the modern and the handed-down knowledge can evolve an art form.
Life Is Beautiful’s 2015 lineup is filled with such creators, such as the spirit of Nina Simone that flows through singer Andra Day. On the chef side, no one represents the idea of taking the old and making it new quite as well as Hubert Keller, who used his classical French cooking background and focused on, of all things, the all-American hamburger. Eleven years later, Burger Bar is still a hit for Mandalay Bay, and has expanded to San Francisco and Beijing.
We caught up with Keller in advance of his cooking demonstration at Life Is Beautiful to talk about inspiration and applying classic knowledge in new ways.
Why on earth would a French chef want to take on the hamburger?
It’s true, you kind of think, “Where is the junction?” When I started Burger Bar, it was more of an accident. Bill Richardson, who owned and built Mandalay Bay, gave the opportunity to me. He had signed a deal with somebody [that fell through], and he wanted something in that location because he didn’t want to open [The Shoppes at Mandalay Place] with an empty restaurant. I had few choices. So I thought, “What about a burger?” And I remember the morning that the gate opened up, and I thought to myself, “That was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” Because no chefs at that time would put together a burger place. It didn’t exist as a concept. And particularly not an American chef, because in our industry at the time, when you were a complete loser, you thought, “Well, I can go make burgers.” And we had no clue about burgers, so [chef] Laurent [Pillard] and I went on a crash course. We ate burgers everywhere.
What did you discover about the hamburger?
I was thinking that burgers are what, for French people, steak frites is. If you give them a good steak frites, they grow up with it, you eat it your entire life; it’s something that just works. You can never take it away from a French person. The burger is the same thing.
Is there something in particular in the preparation of a hamburger at Burger Bar you can point to as coming from your training background?
I always say, if you cook a burger like you would cook a filet mignon, you would never put it on a grill and squeeze all the juice out of it. You would sear it and you would let it rest and let the juices redistribute. So that’s what we did: We cooked burgers like I would cook a filet or a rack of lamb. We transferred what happens in a three-star Michelin restaurant to what we did with burgers.
Do you remember the first time you felt free to break out of the traditional French cuisine box?
I worked with Jacques Maximin. He was the chef at the [Hotel] Negresco in Nice. He was probably five or six years older than me … and here was that young guy who just broke the rules. Whatever I had learned in those classical places, he broke those rules. And for me, it was like a light going on. The cuisine, the techniques, everything looked similar, and suddenly here was a gentleman who dreamed up this stuff. For me, that was a breakthrough from the classic to finding that freedom where you can express yourself.
But the rules themselves were essential.
An example was nouvelle cuisine. It became a joke, because young chefs were trying to break off from the classical and create their own cuisine, their own art. And it became a disaster, because there were so many unqualified people who jumped on the wagon. But there were chefs who were geniuses, who really came up with these great things. The ones who did it but didn’t have the foundation were the ones who failed. They didn’t have the technique.