Chef Keith Lord‘s thirty-year career has taken him from Roy’s Kahana Bar & Grill in Maui, HI to working with Chef Mark Franz of Farallon in San Francisco, CA. He moved towards catering when working at 20th Century Fox Studios where he reinvented their food service program and special events. Since then Keith has been the Corporate Chef of numerous catering companies one being the Picnic People in San Diego, CA, helping his growth as an already established leader in the catering field.
Now Keith is the Director of Culinary & Operations at The Wild Thyme Company, a catering leader offering borderless cuisine in the San Diego region. He most recently won the notable ICA CATIE Chef of the Year 2017. Chef’s Roll got the scoop on how he got to where he is now and what is next.
You recently stated that 2016 was your proudest year ever, but it seems like 2017 is off to a good start! How did it feel to win the ICA CATIE Chef of The Year?
2016 was an insanely amazing year for me and I am extremely proud of what I accomplished, but you’re right, 2017 is off to a great start! It was humbling and gratifying to win the ICA CATIE Chef of The Year. The award was presented to me by a very good Chef friend of mine, Robin Selden, in front of industry peers, leaders and chefs making the experience a bit overwhelming and more than gratifying. It is not often we are all in a room together celebrating one another, recognizing our work, and achievements. That’s why it was a pretty emotionally charged evening.
You have an incredible amount of experience in both traditional restaurants as well as high-volume settings, but for the past decade you’ve been working mostly in the catering world. What appeals to you about working in that environment?
I had always been a restaurant Chef. I love the rush, creativity and gratification of service more than just about anything. At one point I became the Executive Chef for 20th Century Fox Studios in Beverly Hills. I went in not knowing anything about studio foodservice, except the reputation of it being horrible. I opened an all organic, free range restaurant there in 1999 with a menu that changed each day and took over the other restaurants and even treated the child care center with the same values of organic, free range and daily menus. I thought all that was pretty cool, but what I didn’t really realize, was that there were also 50+ events each week from screenings to premiers, business lunches, high end dinners for heads of state, and internationally hosted groups at the same time as all this cool restaurant stuff was happening. Just like that, I was a Catering Chef, and I liked it, a lot.
Your company fed over 100,000 people in 2016, including 4,000 at a single event. Those are incredible numbers! Does service at that scale come naturally to you? If, not, how have you been able to increase your capacity to this level?
I never fancied myself as organizational, but culinary logistics makes sense to me – the numbers, the volume of food purchasing and prep, the execution of multiple events on the same day (upwards of 30), the consistency of product and the satisfaction of building a team that loves it as much as I do. The one thing that I’ve held onto is à la minute service, it’s all I’ve ever really known and I’ve always treated catering the same way. Cook everything you can last minute, execute service with all your creative and organizational might, and make people happy. My long time restaurant chef friends think I’m insane, but I just love that every day is different and with that different challenges, different foods, different successes, collaborations and learning. It seems I get bored easily as it turns out, and I manage to stay pretty well caffeinated. #caffeinateanddominate
Different chefs handle stress in different ways. How do you deal when you find yourself in the weeds?
I’ve never really been affected in a stressful way by being in the weeds, but actually thrive on it. I’ve never been a pan thrower, but find that I am actually more creative and laser sharp attentive in those moments. It took some time to understand and recognize that for what it’s worth. It’s the same way now with my team, I feel as a company, we work better and make fewer mistakes when under that pressure of the busiest of times. Of course a good drive home afterwards at kinetic speed with really loud kickin’ tunes doesn’t hurt the whole process…
You’re outspoken about eliminating waste in kitchens. How did you first become aware and passionate about this?
It’s hard to really nail it down, but I think it came while I was working at The Lark Creek Inn, north of San Francisco. We didn’t really have purveyors, we had a purchaser. He went to farms and producers during the day and loaded up the walk-in overnight. I made menus each morning out of what was in there, with a goal of using everything. This involved rotation of product as everything we had was peak of ripeness or freshness. There were two new soups each service period (lunch & dinner), tons of prep, amazing dishes all with the ultimate goal of only having this incredible ham hock stock we made in the wood oven, and crème fraiche left at the end of each night. This would allow room for our purchaser to bring in new product, and the ability to write ultra-seasonal menus for the next day. I guess it’s been a part of me ever since. You probably couldn’t make a sandwich at my house right now, because the only thing in my refrigerator is half an onion, some nectarines I just picked, and some arugula…but it sounds like their is going to be a great chutney happening for dinner tonight, and so it goes.
For chefs that are interested in joining the no-waste movement, what are some resources that they might find useful?
I started a hashtag on Instagram, #nowastechef as a means for us all to communicate and collaborate, to let each other know what we are up to and how to keep each other going in this pursuit. Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm in New York is really the resource for all things on this subject. I give seminars about it, and there is a film out in Tribeca right now produced by the same people behind Mind of a Chef and The Rockefeller Foundation, it will to be eye opening and extremely helpful. The easiest way to join in the movement is to simply adopt it. Placing pans at each cooks stations for all produce waste is a good way to understand what’s happening in your own kitchen, re-educating and training those cooks and looking into what can be done with all those leek greens instead of trashing them. At Wild Thyme we char them, dry them and blend them with kosher salt to make leek ash salt – trust me on that one.
Tell us, why do you cook? What’s driven you to keep pursuing culinary excellence?
I grew up French Canadian in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. I knew from a very young age that the pâté in our fridge was better than our neighbors, and I knew why, and I appreciated it. My father worked for an airline company and we traveled for food as a family all the time, even for just a quick overnight trip to get lobsters in Maine. I am so passionate about food, dinning and the experience of making someone happy through food – there is really no greater pleasure. I think that as long as there’s heart, passion and someone around with an empty stomach, I will always pursue what’s next, what’s incredible, what’s stupid, what’s crazy, what’s that flavor, what can be learned, collaborated on, when’s lunch…
I understand that some people live their lives without a natural passion and the instinctual skill set to be able to pursue it. I recognize that it is my gift, and I want to share it with everyone I can. That alone keeps me on a daily quest for culinary excellence.
Now that you’ve been named the ICA CATIE Chef of the Year, what are you setting your sights on next?
With the ICA win I have redirected some of my focus this next year to the educational branch. There’s nothing better than sharing knowledge with others, if anyone expresses any sort of interest, I’m hooked. I am committed to helping the growth of the associations mentor mentee & scholarship program which is something I truly believe in.
I’m excited for what the year is going to bring The Wild Thyme Company and its growth through the year. There are some really great projects on tap in the upcoming year. I’m also heading to Nashville next month to learn all about hot chicken and to also experience the music part of the city. I’m also ready to go hang with Sean Brock and cook down South with him. It would be inspiring to cook at the James Beard House, and then, there’s Japan…