What in the world do you cook for Thomas Keller, the culinary icon?
This question has been on the minds of four Pittsburgh chefs who have been chosen to prepare a full menu for "From Garden to Table: A Gala Tribute to Thomas Keller," hosted and organized by the new Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. The June 12 event will be held at the Duquesne Club, Downtown; tickets start at $350.
"We have been talking about this for months and months," said Justin Severino of Cure in Lawrenceville, one of the selected chefs.
He will join Tim Fetter of the Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, Derek Stevens of Eleven in the Strip District and Keith Coughenour, executive chef of the Duquesne Club in planning the menu.
Each chef is more than familiar with the to-do list for collaborative dinners -- whether they're held in the home kitchen, on a farm, at a food festival or in a colleague's restaurant in another state.
Yet none of them has experienced such strenuous planning for a visiting chef.
Case in point. This past Wednesday, nearly two months before the dinner, in the luxuriously large and well-stocked kitchen of the Duquesne Club, each chef created eight hors d'oeuvres and renditions of three courses: an amuse bouche, fish and lamb.
It was a planning session that looked like a Top Chef competition, with less at stake and more forgiving judges.
Iconic American chef
Mr. Keller is among the most recognizable chefs in the world. His reputation has soared with the success of The French Laundry in the Napa Valley community of Yountville, Calif, which each day offers two nine-course tasting menus, none of which uses the same ingredient more than once .
In The New York Times in 1997, then-restaurant critic Ruth Reichl declared The French Laundry "the most exciting place to eat in the United States."
He followed it by opening Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and ad hoc in Yountville, followed by the East Coast tasting menu temple, Per Se in New York. He continues to open restaurants in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas.
Mr. Keller has also trained quite a troupe: modernist brainchild Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, Eric Ziebold of CityZen in Washington, D.C., and Rene Redzepi of NOMA in Copenhagen.
He is the only chef in the U.S. to have won three Michelin stars for two restaurants in the same year -- The French Laundry and Per Se.
And he has roots in Pittsburgh. His father Ed Keller, who left the family when Thomas was 5, was born and reared in Pittsburgh, later moving to Monrovia. He moved to Yountville in 2006 to live closer to his son.
In the opening pages of his 2009 cookbook, "Ad Hoc at Home," Mr. Keller chronicled his father's last meal before he died in 2008. It was barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens braised in butter and bacon fat and strawberries in Grand Marnier for dessert.
The meal was markedly simpler than the cuisine at The French Laundry and signaled a change in direction for the chef, who later shifted to focus on family and more casual fare that's no less attentive to detail.
The appetizer tasting
Back at the Duquesne Club, each chef made up to eight appetizers, from mini braunschweiger garnished with pickled ramp to a bite-sized tostada with wild nettles.
Mr. Severino sat out this round because he's making the charcuterie in the spirit of the meat boards at his restaurants.
The job of the tasters was to weigh in on favorites.
"This is sharper than the last time I tried it." Event planner Nancy Byrnes who had visited the kitchen earlier tried a poached Kumamoto oyster garnished with mint, grapefruit pearls and a drop of Tanqueray gin. She thought it was more fishy than another batch of oysters.
It was one of several appetizers served on a spoon.
Another dish featured bright green asparagus stalks cut across to create a terrine. It was dressed with tiny chopped morels and chervil with a wisp of goat cheese.
Even though the presentation made it challenging to eat, it was a welcome contrast to the dominance of meat-centric appetizers. Some expressed concern that along with the charcuterie all this meat would be redundant.
Tasters chose eight dishes overall among dozens prepared.
The dinner tasting
When four chefs plate an amuse bouche, it becomes clear that the presentation differs among chefs. An amuse bouche is a complimentary, bite-sized hors d'oeuvre that arrives when diners first sit down. The plating and flavors display a chef's approach to cooking.
Ironically, because he was under the impression he was creating a first course and not an amuse, Mr. Severino's plate featured big portions and high drama, much like his dishes at Cure.
A quenelle of what he called "foie blonde" rested opposite caramelized strawberry sorbet. On either side was strawberry pine nut granola, strawberry honey and lovage, garnished with dehydrated pickled red onion that looked like a red, scribbled signature. It was salty and crisp, like an artful cracker.
The bowl was finished tableside, with a pour of bright red strawberry ice wine consomme. The dish was very brown, red and creative.
His style was a contrast to Mr. Fetter's straightforward presentation of foie gras with rhubarb chutney and brioche toast points. Mr. Stevens' torchon was more whimsical with a garnish of popcorn and a square of marmalade gelee. It was the brightest of the choices, a result of garnish and condiments.
Mr. Coughenour's plate was the most precise, with foie gras garnished with cocoa nibs, freeze-dried licorice, cherry gel and pickled strawberry and a row of edible flowers.
Such was the case for the next three courses, as chefs assembled ambitious dishes and tasters discussed, jotted notes and considered each one.
It was a lot of food. And, despite Wednesday's production, it's still a menu in progress.
In a separate wing of the kitchen, a battalion of pastry chefs baked cookies, scooped little spoonfuls of sorbet, frosted cupcakes and assembled parfaits for an array of 30 desserts.
The level of detail was impressive. Little bees and granola cookies featured honey from the beehive on the roof of the Duquesne Club. Little marshmallow star cookies inspired by Mallomars were glazed with chocolate and gold flecks.
Head pastry chef Will Racin aligned chocolates filled with pineapple butter, blueberry and exotic fillings.
Which desserts they'll choose for a sprawling buffet will take several more rounds of discussion. Some tasters hope that a tribute to Mr. Keller's desserts will be a part of it.
Mr. Racin prepared several servings of cappuccino semifreddo in coffee cups paired with cinnamon pastries, a take on "coffee and doughnuts."
It's a creation that's one of Mr. Keller's greatest hits from "The French Laundry Cookbook," which was published when Mr. Racin was a child. But he knew the dessert by heart.
"This," he said, "is my nostalgia."
For details about the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, being created on 460 acres of reclaimed land near Settlers Cabin Park, see pittsburghbotanicgarden.org.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.