The Confluence of Taste and Memory

 Chef Hubert Keller is now the executive chef of Fleur at Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay Chef Hubert Keller is now the executive chef of Fleur at Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay

Chef Hubert Keller’s award-winning cuisine is inspired by the tastes of his childhood in the Alsace region of France. His parents owned a pastry shop in Ribeauvillé, Alsace, where Keller often helped with the baking. His grandmother was famous in his family for her Sunday dinner extravaganzas, made from local meats, vegetables and herbs.

I have been to the Alsace region twice and enjoyed traditional food there each time. So as I enjoyed brunch at Fleur restaurant in Las Vegas, where Keller is head chef, I asked him about a traditional dish from the region — the tarte flambée Alsacienne.

He smiled and his face lit up as though my acquaintance with a dish from his homeland were an acquaintance with one of his friends or relatives.

“The tartes Alsacienne are the Alsace versions of pizza,” he said. “[They] have been part of our regional cuisine for generations.” He described the tartes and how they differ from pizza. “Our tartes have a cracker-thin crust. And the flambée topping is basically a fromage blanc and crème fraiche. Many Alsatians use cooked bacon and ham or onions on top.”

“At Fleur, we do sweet and savoury variations — both are tastes of my past, again delivered to the present. I will give you the recipe,” he said.

At age 16, Keller apprenticed at the three-star Michelin restaurant L’Auberge de L’Ill, near his hometown. There he learned the artistry of haute French cuisine. He eventually moved to the south of France and studied under the great French chef, Roger Vergé.

Vergé’s brand of nouvelle cuisine was called cuisine du soleil, or “cuisine of the sun.” Nouvelle cuisine is a modern style of French cooking that contrasts with the haute French cuisine in that it prefers lighter, more delicate dishes, and focuses more on presentation. Vergé taught Keller to work with Mediterranean food, enhanced with vegetable essences and fruit reductions.

 The exterior of Fleur, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Fleur offers small plates with casual seating at the bar, lounge, and patio as well as a more intimate experience in the dining room. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay The exterior of Fleur, at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Fleur offers small plates with casual seating at the bar, lounge, and patio as well as a more intimate experience in the dining room. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay Ribeauvillé, Chef Keller’s birthplace, one of the oldest medieval towns in the Alsace region of France, in existence since the 9th century. Oliver S / Shutterstock.com Ribeauvillé, Chef Keller’s birthplace, one of the oldest medieval towns in the Alsace region of France, in existence since the 9th century. Oliver S / Shutterstock.com

As Keller’s career progressed, he got his own TV program on PBS, Secrets of a Chef. He has also appeared on other programs, such as Top Chef. He has won awards, including several of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in America and Outstanding Chef awards. He has cooked for several U.S. presidents; he was once invited to the White House to prepare healthy, sophisticated menus for President Bill Clinton and his family.

Though Keller has long been in America, he is not that far from Alsace in terms of his memories and tastes. His most recent book, Souvenirs: Stories & Recipes from My Life, reverberates with the food legacy of the region and his past.

As I sat to brunch at Fleur with a small group, Chef Keller himself was at our service. Always with a cheerful smile, his silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, he looked just like the images in his book. His personality was as bright as his smile, and he was curious, always wishing to learn what we thought of his food combinations and presentations.

 Chef Keller with his creation, the FleurBurger 5000 — America’s most expensive burger. Priced at ,000, the Wagyu beef burger comes with foie gras and black truffles. When the FleurBurger is ordered, the guest receives a bottle of Chateau Petrus 1995, a premium wine that accounts for the high price of the meal. The wine is poured into an Ichendorf Brunello glass, which guests can take home.  Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay Chef Keller with his creation, the FleurBurger 5000 — America’s most expensive burger. Priced at $5,000, the Wagyu beef burger comes with foie gras and black truffles. When the FleurBurger is ordered, the guest receives a bottle of Chateau Petrus 1995, a premium wine that accounts for the high price of the meal. The wine is poured into an Ichendorf Brunello glass, which guests can take home.  Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay

His brunch was a complex though complementary set of tastes, and Keller discussed these with us. First came the breakfast pastries: chocolate croissants, banana french toast with Nutella filling, cinnamon beignets. And then his signature brunch dishes: carnitas hash, combining roasted pork, fingerling potatoes, tomatillo salsa and poached eggs; and his Hangover Angus Short Rib Benedict, a slow-cooked short rib with a jalapeno-based hollandaise sauce served on a potato cake.

The libations were as surprising: artisanal light fruit beers, hard ciders, and a bloody mary with unique accoutrements — pieces of bacon, carrot, and olive to be consumed along with the drink.

 A special dining experience can be reserved on the upper floor of Fleur, in the vast, multi-level wine-storage area.  Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay A special dining experience can be reserved on the upper floor of Fleur, in the vast, multi-level wine-storage area.  Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay The Fleur bloody mary is a libation created from bacon-infused vodka and tomato juice with additions of cooked pieces of bacon, shrimp, carrots, olives and peppers. This bloody mary almost becomes a meal as well as a drink.Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay The Fleur bloody mary is a libation created from bacon-infused vodka and tomato juice with additions of cooked pieces of bacon, shrimp, carrots, olives and peppers. This bloody mary almost becomes a meal as well as a drink.Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay

I could see the open wine room on the upper floor from my first-floor dining table. It was seductive, I wanted to explore and see what wines were there.

I asked Keller if he could take me on a tour of the wine room upstairs. He was happy to show it to me. A special dining table was set in the room for those who wanted to dine amidst some of the most expensive champagnes and wines in the world.

It was there that I asked him about his famous, and somewhat sensational (even for Las Vegas), item at Fleur — the $5,000 burger. I wanted to know why it was so expensive.

 Carnitas hash — the hash combines roast pork, fingerling potatoes, tomatillo salsa and poached eggs. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay Carnitas hash — the hash combines roast pork, fingerling potatoes, tomatillo salsa and poached eggs. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay Chef Keller’s Hangover Angus Short Rib Benedict — the short rib is slowly cooked and placed on top of a potato cake. A jalapeño-based hollandaise sauce tops the short rib, and atop that is a poached egg. This is part of the Fleur brunch experience. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay Chef Keller’s Hangover Angus Short Rib Benedict — the short rib is slowly cooked and placed on top of a potato cake. A jalapeño-based hollandaise sauce tops the short rib, and atop that is a poached egg. This is part of the Fleur brunch experience. Photos Courtesy of Mandalay Bay

“Ah!” he said. “Well, I must tell you a secret! The burger is free. But the bottle of the rare, aged Chateau Petrus isn’t!”
This Petrus comes with the burger, as the perfect pairing. Though the wine accounts for most of the price, the burger ingredients are also premium — for example, it includes a patty of Wagyu beef (about $100 per pound) and sliced black truffles ($1,500 per pound).

Keller’s dishes now range from the quintessentially American — his burger expertise extends beyond the Fleur’s famous burger to Keller’s other restaurant, called the Burger Bar — to a variety of other flavours from around the world. But the tastes of Alsace remain his foundation.


Tarte Flambée Alsacienne

Recipe from: Souvenirs: Stories & Recipes from My Life by Hubert Keller
Serves 4

  A baked, ready-to-eat tarte flambée Alsacienne, with fromage blanc, ham and bacon. aliasemma / Shutterstock.com  A baked, ready-to-eat tarte flambée Alsacienne, with fromage blanc, ham and bacon. aliasemma / Shutterstock.com

The Dough (Makes 4 tartes)

1½ teaspoons active dry yeast
⅔   cup warm water
2    cups unbleached bread flour
½   teaspoon sea salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
1    tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

The Topping

4  slices bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
1  medium yellow onion, very thinly sliced
½ cup fromage blanc
½ cup crème fraiche
½ teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 cup coarsely shredded Gruyère cheese (optional)
Pinch of piment d’Espelette (Basque chili pepper powder)
Sea salt/ground black pepper

To make the dough: 

In a small bowl, stir the yeast into the warm water. Measure the bread flour, salt, sugar, and olive oil into the bowl of a standard mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Turn machine on low to combine ingredients. With mixer on low, gradually add the yeast and water mixture.
Knead for five minutes, let the dough rest for 20 minutes, then continue to knead for another five minutes. You should have an elastic, non-sticky dough. Roll the dough into a ball, dust a large bowl with flour, add the dough, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for an hour. Then gently punch the dough down and divide into four portions. Roll each into a tight ball, set on a lightly floured counter, and let them rise again. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 500⁰ F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

 An uncooked tarte flambée Alsacienne, ready to bake in a wood-fired oven.By Gyuszko-Photo / Shutterstock.com An uncooked tarte flambée Alsacienne, ready to bake in a wood-fired oven.By Gyuszko-Photo / Shutterstock.com

To make the topping: 

In a large skillet, fry the bacon until the fat is gone, but the bacon is not yet crispy. Remove bacon to paper towel to drain. Discard all but one tablespoon of bacon fat for the skillet. Add the onion, pinch of salt, and ½ cup water, and place over medium heat until the onions are soft, about 7 minutes. Continue to cook until no liquid is left. Remove, set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the fromage blanc, crème fraiche, vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and piment d’Espelette. Whisk until smooth and set aside.

To make the tartes: 

Pat each ball of dough flat. On a lightly floured work surface, roll each into an oval — about 5 inches wide, 15 inches long, or into a circle. Work sequentially, allowing one crust to relax while working on the others. The dough should be very thin, less than 1/8 inch thick. Transfer the crusts to the prepared baking sheets and parchment.
Spread the cream mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a ½-inch border all around. Divide the onions and bacon evenly between the tartes. Sprinkle them with cheese. Bake until the crust has browned and the topping is brown and bubbling — about 7 minutes. Serve immediately.

English Text by Susan Kime

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