Posted On: 09/01/2008
Justin Keimon has been behind the stove at Franco since the restaurantís debut two years ago, and the food has never been better than it is today. This steady progress is a result of Keimonís continuous menu-tweaking and his desire to reach a higher level. As a member of the American Culinary Federation and a certified executive chef, Keimon sees a great deal of value in continuing his culinary education. ďI donít think you have to be a CEC to be a great chef by any means,Ē said Keimon, ďbut it is a test that shows your peers that youíre able to do these skills and do these skills flawlessly Ė you have to be flawless when you take the tests.Ē
What does it mean to be a certified executive chef?
To become a certified executive chef, you have to be tested in front of your peers. When I took the test, I had to have a minimum number of years of experience as an executive chef, and I had to go through a rigorous one-day test that included a three-hour practical cooking test. It takes three hours and involves three courses Ė a fish course, a salad course and an entrťe course.
Why did you bother to do it?
Itís a test that I wanted to give myself for my own skills, so I could look at my mentors in St. Louis, the chefs [who] I think are extremely talented (theyíre in country clubs, unfortunately, so the public doesnít get to see them). Ö I wanted to not only prove to myself but to them that they have developed me in a way that Iíll be able to pass this test. íCause I have a lot higher aspirations than just being a CEC.
What are those aspirations?
Besides owning my own restaurant, I want to become a certified master chef. But Iím a long time away from that; I have years. I have a five-year plan thatís pushing me there. With the likes of Aidan Murphy and Paul Kampff and Kevin Storm, theyíre the ones [who] have helped me achieve what Iíve already done with the ACF. I want to go further and be part of something bigger.
Why is it that you find most of these certified chefs in country clubs?
Country clubs allow you to use more ingredients and usually you have a larger staff. You have the time to do these things. You just donít see that in the restaurant industry. Country clubs like to hire chefs that are CECs or are in the ACF. They bring it to the club and say thereís going to be a competition here, Iíll get you trained for it Ö it all comes down to the cook: Does this cook want to do this? Iíve always enjoyed being pushed to my limits, and this type of cooking competition, to me, is the most satisfying, because youíre cooking for people [who] are internationally and nationally known. When master chefs come into St. Louis to critique you and judge you, you are with the best chefs. They might not own restaurants and they might not be in the public eye, but they are the best chefs. They have great palates. They have an understanding of culinary technique that is beyond compare.
Do you think that your food shows a certain level of precision from these technical skills that youíve learned?
Not always, but mostly. When you compete on the ACF level, you only compete for one reason, and thatís to strive for perfection. So when youíre poaching, poaching always has to take place between 160 and 180 degrees. Anything lower or above it is not poaching. Proteins change chemically, and if youíre in a competition and you say youíre doing a poached salmon, well, that salmon better be cooked at those low levels. Chef will come over and see the water boiling and say, ďChef, I say Ďpoach,í and I see itís simmering.Ē Theyíre not always very nice about it. Theyíre very strict.
What about food do you love other than that precision?
The passion just continues to grow in me. There are a lot of cooks today [who] think itís an easy career. I donít know what it is. I think maybe itís the Food Network thatís made people have a false image of what we really do as cooks and chefs. I considered myself a cook until I got my first sous chef job. I worked very hard for it. People used to call me chef and say I went to chef school, and I said, ďNo, itís not chef school, itís culinary school.Ē Iím learning a craft Ė Iím a craftsman before anything. The craft of what we do is the most important thing; then the artistic side. The artistic part is making a nice plate, but making something taste good is a craft. The older Iíve become, the more simple I make my food. Itís harder to make it simple ícause your flavors have to be really pure.
Thereís no room for error when your food is simple.
I remember years ago, after culinary school, Iím cooking and I put 15 flavors in a dish and itís so confusing, and itís like, ďJustin, what are you doing? Does this really make sense?Ē And at that time I thought it made sense, because I thought the more I put into it, the better I was at what I was doing. Eventually, I found out thatís not true at all.
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