Company of the Cauldron
Chef Joseph Keller Puts His Own Spin on a Familiar Place
by: John Stanton
photography by: Terry Pommett
A chef and a deliveryman stood in the kitchen of The Company of the Cauldron one morning in early June, just chatting the way people here do in those moments when the summertime has not yet demanded all their attention. Mornings in restaurant kitchens have an expectant kind of quiet. The rush of final preparations and service is hours away. The tables are empty. The menu for tonight has not yet begun to manifest itself into plates of food heading out to diners.
The deliveryman mentioned that his grandfather was Charlie Sayle Jr., who died in 2014.
“I remember Charlie very well,” the chef said. “When I came back to the island I was devastated to hear he had died.”
They both agreed that the clam powder Sayle put into his chowder is something chowders should not go without.
“It is amazing stuff, even for chefs who think they know everything,” the chef said.
They both agreed that it is always something simple that makes the difference in great food. Then the deliveryman headed off to his next stop.
The chef ’s name is Joseph Keller. The small moment on that quiet morning described, as much as anything, what being back on Nantucket means to Keller. This spring he bought The Company of the Cauldron. He is 63 years old and has seen the highs and lows of the culinary world.
In 2003 and 2004, The French Laundry, which Keller helped open with his brother Thomas in the Napa Valley town of Yountville, Calif., was rated the best restaurant in the world. Among their other restaurants are the Bouchon Bakery, also in Yountville, and Per Se, in Manhattan.
The French Laundry changed the way people saw highend dining, with nine-course meals often taking as long as four hours to eat, starting at $300 a person.
“There are two lines of thinking in the whole process of a restaurant and how you experience that meal,” Keller said. “Meat and potatoes is where we came from. My dad was a meat-andpotatoes guy. But there’s a philosophy about sitting down to a four-hour meal, with 15 courses, and experiencing all the different flavors, or gnawing on a steak for 45 minutes.”
Now he seems happy to be in the small kitchen on India Street, focusing his skills on the next step of his life.
“This is about having a home-cooked, familystyle meal,” he said. “This is about coming to my house and enjoying a good time with family and friends.”
Keller’s version of a home-cooked family meal, of course, is one cooked by a chef of demanding standards, steeped in culinary tradition. In the early 1990s, feeling the need to refocus himself and refine his skills, he stepped away from a successful restaurant he owned and went to France, to work in the kitchen of chef Roger Vergé for two years. He also worked with chefs Bernard Loiseau and Alain Ducasse.
“One day Vergé asked the chef de cuisine how the American was working out,” Keller said. “He told him I worked in the kitchen like a Frenchman. That was just what I needed to hear.”
Part of his pleasure at taking over The Company of the Cauldron is handing down some of what he has learned to his cooks.
“For me now what it’s all about is how much I have learned to share with the next generation of chefs,” he said. “I want to make a difference. I want to be remembered. My joy is seeing these guys get it.”
The Company of the Cauldron is a restaurant about tradition, not trends, he said.
“The important thing is creating something, like this restaurant has been for 29 years, that is an icon and rich in history. There is a built-in audience here for three months, then the question is can you stand the test of time for the other four or five months until winter? And who knows? Cinco, when I was here last, was the hottest place in town. Now it’s gone.”
Keller said he feels most comfortable in the kitchen of a bistro. His philosophy on food
matches the expectations that grew over the years at The Company of the Cauldron.
“People were worried about who was going to take it over and would that person destroy their place. They had come to see this as their place,” he said. “This place just fits into my idea of what I want to do. I was not interested in opening another place. If this didn’t happen I would be back in California doing family business.”
Before all that, however, Keller was a young chef working on Nantucket, mostly at The Woodbox on Fair Street. In 1998 he left to help his brother open The French Laundry. When the owners of Greydon House asked Keller to consult on the new restaurant that is part of that inn, he found himself back on Nantucket.
“I was here for 22 years and then away for 18 years,” he said. “Now I am back and plan on making a statement. The only way to do that was to luck into Company of the Cauldron. I didn’t plan it. You couldn’t plan on it. If Greydon House had not asked me to help them out a little longer, if I hadn’t stayed that little extra time on Nantucket, I would have headed back to Napa.”
When his work at Greydon House kept him on-island longer than expected, Keller began thinking of coming back to live here. At the same time The Company of the Cauldron came up for sale. All and Andrea Kovalencik had owned and operated the restaurant for 29 years. To Keller it is a place of local tradition on an island losing some of its traditional restaurants.
“I’m continuing on what All did, except we’re bringing it up to the Keller level,” he said. “All and Andrea did a great thing and left something everybody talks about and I’m very sensitive to that and want to make sure I do it right. I want to make sure I do right by them.”
The set three-course menu will remain. A quick look at a couple of menus define comfort food with entrées such as standing rib roast with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and cottage-fried potatoes; buttermilk fried chicken with roast corn and cherry tomatoes; and meatloaf, broccoli and au gratin potatoes.
“It is a very personal thing,” Keller said. “You’re coming into my place and eating my food. Comfort food. We did fried chicken one night last week and now everybody wants fried chicken on the menu once a week. It is all about the food and all about the little things you do to make it the best. That’s the challenge and that is where your passion has to be.”
Keller, who has seen the highs and lows of the restaurant world, pointed out that success often brings chefs out of the kitchen and into the front of the house, where he does not think they should be.
“To me it’s about the love of cooking and the love of making something the very best it can be, and that is very detail-oriented,” he said.
“To me, the difference of a mediocre onion soup and a great one is technique. How did they caramelize the onions or what kind of stock did they make? What makes a difference are the simple little things like that. I love classic cuisine. There are no revelations. But every restaurant is personal to the chef.” ///
John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and writer living on Nantucket. He is working on a film about the history of European traditions in Nantucket fine dining.