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Thomas Keller: True gentleman

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After four decades in the business, Chef Thomas Keller tells Tina Nielsen that his love for the profession and a sense of duty mean it will be some time before he hangs up his apron

As he reflects on 25 years at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller shares his secret to the success of the Napa Valley restaurant. “The secret is this: go to work every day and do better than you did yesterday,” he says. “There is no long answer. It is guys and girls going to work and doing better than they did yesterday.”

It would take a long memory and considerable time to list the many accolades and awards bestowed on Keller during his career. He is the only chef in the US to hold three Michelin stars in two restaurants – The French Laundry and New York restaurant Per Se – for starters.

He has been named Chef of the Year by the Culinary Institute of America and Outstanding Restaurateur by the James Beard Foundation. In 2012, he became only the third American in food to be made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur for his work in promoting French cuisine in America. The other two recipients are Alice Waters and Julia Child. And, as president of Team USA, he brought home the gold from the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition in 2017.

He wears the success lightly, mind. “Everything that is written about you today is what you did yesterday. It is nice that people wrote nice things about you, or unfortunate that they wrote bad things, but that was yesterday,” he says.

The down-to-earth attitude has won him many fans among an army of young chefs who have trained in his kitchens. Grant Achatz, the chef owner of Alinea Group who first entered The French Laundry kitchen in 1996, says Keller exudes professionalism.

“He is somebody who is really proud of his profession and he is constantly trying to elevate the industry, not just his own restaurants or his team members. He is the advocate for professionalism in our industry,” he says. “Chef Keller was the first one in the kitchen in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. He made it his credo to lead by example, knowing that all the young cooks were watching him the whole time.”

Cooking to nurture

Keller credits his mother with giving him a robust work ethic; laying the foundations before he even entered a kitchen. “My mother raised me as a single parent and she helped me understand the importance of awareness, of paying attention and the importance of detail,” he says. “Those are things that I found in my home life and that is what gives you the foundation for your professional life.”

He received early cooking lessons from his older brother Joseph who was the first to show an interest in cooking – and who continues to work as a chef today. “He would teach me how to make hollandaise sauce or cook an omelette, he helped me understand lots of those things as a first mentor,” he explains.

The interest in cooking may have been piqued early on at home, but Keller didn’t embrace a career as a professional chef until 1977. In Rhode Island in the kitchens of The Dunes Club, he met another mentor – chef Roland Henin – who became a major influence on the young cook’s career. “One day Chef asked me why cooks cook,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to say, but he said: ‘No matter who you are or where you are, we cook to nurture people’.”

The words resonated with him; his path was set. “That summer, in July 1977, was the moment I decided to become a professional chef,” he says. Henin was French and in the 1970s French cooking was the way for young chefs coming through – Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel were the big names and nouvelle cuisine was making waves. It was an exciting time to be a young cook, says Keller. “Aligning yourself with the great French chefs and this idea that chefs didn’t need to stay in the kitchen, they should be a person who had the ability to interact with guests, from the kitchen to the dining room.”

It marked the beginning of Keller’s career and his quest to move to France, which he eventually did in the early 1980s when he spent two years working in Paris. “It was monumental for me,” he says. “Coming back to New York after having experienced life in France, I took up the mantle of becoming the best chef.”

He always knew he wanted to open his own place. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart, I am a nurturer and I always wanted to have my own restaurant,” he says. The first opportunity to be a restaurateur had come in the late 1970s before he headed across the Atlantic Ocean to France. Along with two friends, he opened the Cobbly Nob in South Florida – a short-lived venture that lasted around a year. “We were super inexperienced, super naïve and we lost whatever savings we had in that restaurant,” he says. “I was humbled by the experience, we all were.”

There were some lessons in the failure, “though I didn’t learn from our mistakes in the way I’d hoped to because I made some of the same mistakes in my second restaurant,” he says. The second shot came in 1986 when Keller opened Rakel in New York City’s Hudson Square neighbourhood. It was a heady time. “It was just extraordinary, the energy about the restaurants and the young chefs coming up. You are in New York, the centre of the universe, and you have an opportunity to make a stand and make a name for yourself.”

Visions of France in Napa Valley

In 1994, all of his experiences culminated in Yountville. That he ended up in Napa Valley was a coincidence. “Chalk it up to destiny or fate,” he says. He was driving through Napa Valley and a friend had suggested he check out The French Laundry. “I wasn’t planning on moving to Yountville but The French Laundry was there,” he says. “It was that simple. Sometimes life takes you to places that you don’t know you are going to get to.”

Taking over The French Laundry from Don and Sally Schmitt was a dream come true for Keller who had been inspired by seeing how restaurants in idyllic locations in the French countryside operated.

“In urban environments – Paris, New York or London – the restaurant experience begins when you walk through the door, but we are in a rural setting and the experience begins outside in the garden,” says Keller. “This is more of a holistic experience, it is wonderful seeing the chefs walking across the street picking herbs, the bread being picked up twice a day on bicycle from the bakery. All that happens here in a location like Yountville and it will happen in the countryside in France.”

The inspiration from France in the restaurant was obvious from the start. Critic Michael Bauer said: “Visions of the French countryside flooded my consciousness” when he pulled up to the restaurant for the first time in September 1994. He awarded The French Laundry 3.5 stars in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It was also chosen as one of the 10 best restaurant openings in America by Esquire magazine. But the biggest impact came with a recommendation from society writer Herb Caen who enjoyed himself so much that he dedicated two paragraphs of his column to the restaurant. It changed everything.

“All of the sudden Herb Caen saying he had an amazing experience at The French Laundry set us on a path of great awareness with people who were interested in dining. Coming to Napa Valley started to become something people did. That was the beginning of the success of the restaurant,” says Keller.

In the years since, Keller has opened a string of restaurants. Per Se came first, 10 years after The French Laundry. The two are similar in spirit yet different. “They are not identical twins; but we have the same format on the menus, which change every day,” he says. “Corey Chow who is the chef de cuisine at Per Se and David Breeden at The French Laundry come from different backgrounds. They both come from the Thomas Keller background but they have different points of view; Corey is Chinese and David is from the Blue Mountains. Your fundamental personality and work ethic are brought to you by those who teach you and parents are the most important.”

The menu changes every day and is never written by one person; it always has been a job for the team, says Keller. “We sit together around the table at the end of the night and we all influence the menu. I have never written the menu at The French Laundry or Per Se because it is a collaborative effort.”

The approach represents a real opportunity for young chefs. “They get to influence the menu; we want to make them part of the process,” says Keller. Other restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group are Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and, the most recent opening, the TAK Room (left) in the new Hudson Yards development in New York City.

Elevating standards

In a culture that embraces the concept of the celebrity chef and as someone who could have benefited from the status that this brings, Keller rejects the notion of the rock star chef. “When I started it wasn’t about rock stars or celebrity chefs. I didn’t become a chef to be considered a celebrity. Who really cares?” he asks. “I am a cook, I go to work every day and I try to inspire my team and make an impact. I try to be part of the process.”

He is keen not to overplay his role. Perspective is everything. “I don’t kill anybody and I don’t save anybody’s life. I might overcook your steak, but, you know, I will cook you a new one. That is the worst I can do,” he says. “Our wine team takes a cork out of the bottle and pour the wine. It is all easy.”

An enthusiastic sports fan, he looks for an appropriate analogy to express his belief in the team over the individual. “I started cooking because I couldn’t play baseball. I loved playing baseball, but I was never going to be good enough to make a living from it,” he says. “I realised I needed to find something else and the kitchen gave me that experience of team work. I fell in love with the spirit of kitchens.”

Certain of the power of mentorship from the start of his career, he has embraced the mentoring of young chefs to the full as he looks to pass on the mantle. “There is a point in your career when it is not about you and your restaurants any more. It is about the profession and how you elevate standards; the only way to do that is by mentoring and letting those mentees leave your restaurants and go out and express those standards,” he says.

“It is up to you to empower them and allow them to be successful and make mistakes and help them to understand what their mistakes were. If you continuously train them and mentor them they become better than you. If they are not better than you, sorry, but you have done a shitty job.”

Across the US and beyond, chefs who have passed through his kitchens speak to this focus on people. “Chef Keller is a true gentleman. He treats everyone with the same respect, whether it is a guest who has just spent thousands in his restaurant or a dishwasher in his kitchen,” say Sandia Chang and James Knappett of Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs in London. They both worked with Keller at Per Se in the early 2000s. “He always believed in nurturing his staff and give us everything we needed to succeed. He is a very giving man. The work ethic he passed down to us is what has made us successful.”

He is proud to say the chefs in his kitchens are better than him. “I did a good job of giving them what they needed when they needed it – the opportunity to be hired, the training and the mentorship. When they leave they go out into the profession and raise the standards.”

For a professional who has been so prolific and so successful, it is perhaps little wonder that another award arrived, somewhat prematurely, in 2012 when Keller was recognised by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants with a lifetime achievement award.

The award might hint at the end of a career, but in the seven years since, he has opened several more restaurants and two and a half years ago The French Laundry underwent extensive construction work to install a new kitchen. He is passionately dedicated to the Ment’or Foundation, leading Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or competition and won silver in 2015 before bagging the gold in 2017.

Is there much chance of Chef Keller hanging up the apron anytime soon? “No, I don’t think so. I am 64, I have great teams in my restaurants and they don’t really need me any more but I enjoy being there and I want to continue being in The French Laundry and Per Se and continue being excited by the work they are doing,” he says.

“That I am where I am today is extraordinary. It is more than a dream. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. When I walk around and see it through the eyes of diners who visit for the first time I realise how lucky I am to be here and have such amazing people.”

Tina Nielsen

 

Photos: Deborah Jones, William Hereford