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Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller The Evolution of the Modern Chef

by Matt DeLucia

The practice of being a great chef is in many ways not unlike the craft of an orchestral conductor. These artists equally breathe life into their unique creations, and sharing their skills with friends and loyal followers is both craved and coveted. Although their toil is rarely applauded, they live vicariously through this enjoyment that they create for others, this invitation to come and share their vision.

The great conductor Leonard Bernstein once said that “The measure of success of any great work of art is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world, and the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.” Mr. Bernstein was almost certainly speaking of the art of music as he uttered these divine words, but this description could also include the world of fine cuisine. The musical conductor, which in French is termed “chef d’ovchestre”, has the impossible task of turning dozens of musicians and thousands of notes into a coherent, beautiful sculpture of sound. And the person who is entrusted with this position is not generally a young artist with a few years of experience. It is rather a master who has spent years working his way up a tiered ladder, and who now can almost telepathically impassion large numbers of creative people with the mere lifting of a baton. Not unlike an experienced chef.

But some chefs are not satisfied with this occupational satisfaction alone. A few, such as Thomas Keller, hold themselves to a much more complex set of standards and seek to create a completely inclusive experience for their customers. He is not entirely fulfilled unless his customers have been lifted to an entirely new level, and have in effect “breathed this strange, special air” that Bernstein speaks of.

One of the goals I had set for myself during my interview of Mr. Keller, perhaps naively, was to make an attempt to break his code. To try and discover why some of the greatest chefs on the planet look upon him as a leader, a hero, a role model. How could one chef (and an American one at that) be so worshiped by food lovers, three-star Michelin chefs, and by four-star masters of New York’s food industry. Could his cooking abilities be that far ahead of so many other incredible chefs, many of whom are routinely referred to as geniuses?

Perhaps he is and perhaps he is not. But the actual act of cooking the food is, to again use a composer analogy, just a few lonely, passionate bars near the end of a long musical piece. Final dish preparation is a microcosm of a long and dramatic journey that ends, to thunderous applause, with the customer placing the food into their mouth. What makes Mr. Keller so far ahead of others in his field is that each note of his entire ensemble is a masterpiece. From preparation and storage to choosing the perfect ingredients, to the research and creativity and personality behind each dish, and the exquisite delivery of the final product to the customer. Mr. Keller creates the perfect dining experience by approaching every minute step that leads to the final product with the same combination of repetition and perfectionism that he brings to his cooking.

Youthful beginnings

The youngest of five boys, Keller was born in 1955, the product of a meticulous restaurant manager and a Marine drill instructor. “I think my work ethic certainly comes from my mother. My sense of organization and cleanliness comes from my mother. And my sense of hierarchy comes from my father.”

So it seemed natural for him to be drawn to the repetitive, military-like precision of the restaurant life. Instead of going home after school, he would go to the restaurant in a South Florida yacht club where his mother worked, first as a dishwasher, and soon after as a chef. “My parents were divorced, and there was no babysitter at home, so I’d go to the restaurant and wash dishes. I really enjoyed it. The part that I appreciated so much was the repetition. If you’re looking for something new every day, you shouldn’t be a cook.”

Keller’s mentors and the turning point

Every hard-climbing artist reaches a plateau in their work, a defining moment in their career when they come to the realization that they have reached a new level in their abilities. For Keller, these achievements came in small carefully prepared steps along his career.

“There’s never one moment, but the moment that I realized I really wanted to embrace this as a profession and try to perfect what I was doing through repetition was in July 1977 when I met Roland Henin at the Dunes Club in Rhode Island. His point of view was different. The point of view that he brought to me was that there was not a physical connection to cooking; there was an emotional connection to cooking. Up to that point being a young man in the restaurant industry was really a physical activity - not that it isn’t today, but it used to be more about that. It was about competition, either competing with your fellow cooks or competing with the orders. And then Henin made that emotional connection that it was about making people happy. And from that point on, it really broadened my point of view about what I was doing, and to make people happy was really what it was all about.”

Sometimes these defining moments are just subtle bounces, barely noticed at the time. It can occur when we are doing something that at the time seems routine, but is actually extraordinary. It can occur when we suddenly make the realization that we’ve reached a level of achievement that we had only dreamed about. And suddenly, things begin to happen - good things.

“Roland helped me a great deal, giving me direction to get to France, and making sure that I was prepared mentally to go there. What that meant was having a solid foundation in cooking technique so that when I got to France it wasn’t about learning the foundation, it was about learning what made the French chefs and the French restaurants so great at that level. It was about the detail, it was about being aware of what was around you. It was about being able to absorb that in a way that you could identify the details that you wanted to realize, and say ‘okay, I understand now.’”

Henin saw the young chef’s sense of adventure, and noticed his talent. “Some people call it ignorance and some people call it courage,” Keller says. “It means the same thing.”

Per Se

Anyone in New York who was not familiar with Keller’s emotional connection to cooking would soon see it first hand. While many chefs of his stature would not even dream of temporarily shutting down one profitable restaurant in order to open another, to Keller it was his only natural choice. He closed the French Laundry for four and a half months not only for a $1.8M remodeling, but also to concentrate on personally opening Per Se in the Time Warner building. He felt that he had to dedicate 100% of his time so he would have an easier time translating the philosophy and culture he had established on the west coast to Per Se in New York.

“It’s not about ‘okay let’s open a restaurant in New York and we’ll train some people for a time and then send them off.’ In order to open a restaurant you really need to be there. You need to be part of that opening because that’s the time when decisions need to be made quickly.”

But his presence alone was not enough. He flew in staff members from every department of his Napa Valley staff to New York – fourteen employees in all - to help open the new restaurant and train the new staff. This fact alone speaks volumes about the commitment to the quality of the restaurant that Keller adheres to.

“We need to be at the property so that we’re attached to that core group of people that are inoculating everyone else with the culture and the philosophy and be able to make decisions, and be dynamic and flexible. You can’t do that from 3,000 miles away. We spent four months here, and I think the foundation that we established is evident today. I come here, Laura comes here, and it’s a wonderful experience because they’re doing such a tremendous job. The job they’re doing is so recognizable, it’s scary.”

Laura Cunningham

Laura Cunningham is not only the director of operations for French Laundry, she is Mr. Keller’s companion, which means that they spend almost all their time together.

“It’s the opposite of a couple having two separate careers that never see each other, that are totally committed to their careers and don’t see each other. We are two people who are totally committed to the same career,” said Keller, who adds that Cunningham embodies everything that comes out of French Laundry, Bouchon, and Per Se. “Her attention to detail is extraordinary. So when it relates to the front of the house, that’s Laura.”

Cunningham also hired an instructor from the American Ballet Theater to teach the Per Se waiters how to properly strut around the room. In 2003, she added her own award to Keller’s growing collection when she was awarded the “Outstanding Service Award” by the James Beard Foundation. “She was part of the design of this (Per Se) dining room, it was really up to Laura Cunningham,” said Keller. “She can look at a fabric and see the color and quality much better than I can - if this tablecloth was two tones darker and two tones lighter, it’d probably be just as fine to me, but for her it had to be something specific that she’s looking at.”

The Birth of the Modern Chef

If there’s anyone who can relate to the new 21st century definition of “The Modern Chef”, it’s Thomas Keller. The modern chef is no longer focused or committed to one restaurant, or to one menu, or to one kitchen. They have become restaurant designers, cookbook writers, business plan experts. They have had to become media experts, do interviews, and demonstrate their abilities on television.

“The modern chef is somebody who has developed a style, developed a personality with their cuisine and their restaurants, and now opportunity comes to them. It’s an American thing, and you can see how it’s proliferated throughout the world now. It began here, I believe, with Wolfgang Puck in the 70’s when he realized ‘oh my goodness, all these opportunities, now what do I do?’ It wasn’t something that he chose, it was something that he was faced with. There’s never been any kind of book written about it. We don’t have the training on opening multiple restaurants, or photo shoots and TV. We’re learning as we go, and along the way you see some of our colleagues who have made mistakes, and it’s horrendous. You wonder, if I take that next step, am I going to make that same mistake?”

“Everybody wants to know, ‘Thomas, when are you going to be in the restaurant because I want to be there when you’re in the kitchen, when you’re the chef?’ And honestly I want to be there too, but I need to be responsible for other things too, and I’ve been really responsible to making sure that my kitchens in my restaurants run very high quality whether I’m there or I’m not there. And I can give opportunity now to people. I can give Jonathan Beno the opportunity to be chef de cuisine in this restaurant. I can give Jeffrey Cerciello my executive chef of Bouchon the opportunity to write a cookbook. So you look around and you say, ‘how can I be responsible about the opportunities that I’m faced with, and how can I impact other people with that?’ And that’s the modern chef. That didn’t exist before. There wasn’t even part of the plan for anybody.

Hiring staff

Keller’s advice to young chefs is to accept and embrace the repetition of the job, and to perfect what you’re doing each day so you can bring it forward and use it as a solid foundation for building your career. Most importantly, make sure you’re well prepared if you’re lucky enough to get invited for a trial period.

“We have new staff come in and work for a day or two. It’s more important for them to see us than for us to see them. They need to understand that this is a commitment and this is the level of the expectation. They need to buy into that, they need to get comfortable with that. Of course we look at skills, but really it’s about attitude. It’s about the way somebody moves through the kitchen. It’s about the way somebody presents themselves. Are their shoes clean when they come in, do they tie their apron correctly, are their knives sharp. It’s those little things that you can see in a young person that has the focus. And then they see what we do and they say, ‘okay, I can do that. I want to be part of this. I want to learn about it.’”

As someone who had spent over twenty years in the restaurant industry before finally finding his “home” and his true calling in Yountville, his most important advice is to be patient.

“It’s at least a two-year process just to get to the point where you’re going to be a quality cook. The thing about being a young cook is that you have to enjoy the experience. There are so many young cooks who want to become chefs right away. Why? You have so much fun being a cook, there’s so much to learn! There’s so much to experience - don’t rush it.”

Closing a Restaurant and moving forward

If there is one singular experience that is both humbling and enlightening to a chef/restaurateur, it is the closing down of a restaurant that had been a labor of love. Mr. Keller had this experience at Rakel, which he started in 1986. After it closed and he returned to California, he worked at Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles in 1991, and eventually was fired. It wasn’t until finding and purchasing the French Laundry building in 1992 that he was able to finally utilize all this “enlightenment”, and turn it into success.

“There are three departments that are critical to success; accounting, kitchen, and front of the house. It’s a tripod. And you need to have all that very well organized and intact. And preparation is something that is extraordinarily difficult because you don’t always know what you’re preparing for. I learned an extraordinary amount, and the one important thing I learned was that it wasn’t about food. I could cook but I couldn’t keep books. I couldn’t run the front of the house. So I needed to find somebody who could do my numbers, and somebody who could run the front of the house. That was the way I started the French Laundry, and then I just built from there.

I closed Rakel’s. I closed two restaurants and I was fired from two. You just keep going forward. You don’t want to lose your values, and it’s important to establish your core values early, on what’s important to you, and live by that. Your core values aren’t really about the restaurant as much as they are about life.”

Eating and Sleeping

Just across the street from the French Laundry is a three-acre gently sloping parcel of land where Mr. Keller will soon be busy working on an exciting project; a twenty-room inn designed specifically to accommodate the discriminating guests at his world-famous restaurant.

“If you look around the hotel industry, they have restaurants as amenities because they need to feed their guests. We have a restaurant that wants to have rooms as amenities. Now the French Laundry will have a place for you to stay.”

Inspired by the inns of France but influenced by the landscapes of Napa, the building’s material finishes include compacted earth, translucent and colored glass, oak, concrete, and stainless steel. Each room will have a mirrored outdoor room combined with a dining and lounging area, a spa, and gardens.

“What is a restaurant experience about? It’s about controlling the environment. Controlling the service, controlling the food, controlling that total experience for a guest. Most restaurants only have that opportunity when they walk in the front door. So with the Inn we can have our guests experiencing it before they get to the restaurant. Then we can make sure that they have the experience after they leave the restaurant.

Bouchon Bakery New York

The new Bouchon Bakery will be in the Time Warner Center, just down the escalator from Per Se, and will be similar to what he established in Napa three years ago in everything but its appearance.

“We can’t take that country bakery and put it in Time Warner, it would be too Disney-esque. It has its own contemporary style to match the building and to blend in where it is. But the products and certain images will be identical. There’s a cafe attached to it too, sandwiches and soups and salads and things.”

“The wonderful thing about Bouchon are the people, like Jeffrey Cerciello, Mark Hopper, people like Nicholas Benno, who have established those restaurants. If an opportunity comes for Bouchon that I think is a good opportunity, then I can say ‘here, you guys do it.’ I don’t need to be a part of the process, they know they process - it’s defined. It’s about a menu, it’s not about interpretation. It’s about the quality and the preparation that has tradition behind it.

Time Warner

Everyone wants to know who is coming to Time Warner to replace Charlie Trotter. Everyone, as it turns out, including Thomas Keller. As of our interview date on the day before Thanksgiving, he didn’t yet know who the replacement would be. Although he calls himself a Time Warner “advisor”, on paper he still retains the ability to approve or disapprove whatever restaurant does come into the building. His sincere hope is that when that does happen, it will be the sole New York City outpost of that chosen restaurateur.

“Charlie was a recommendation, everybody liked Charlie, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out. So I’ll make different suggestions and hopefully we’ll get somebody else. My whole point is I don’t want to bring somebody into Time Warner that already has a restaurant in New York City. They’re not bringing anything new. I have some great friends and some great colleagues who have great restaurants here, and some of them want to come here. But I want something that’s only here, that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the city, so that it draws people here. Masa doesn’t have any other restaurant in New York. We don’t have another restaurant. Jean Georges, well, Jean Georges was already here before that. Gray didn’t have a restaurant, so, if you want Gray’s food, you’ve got to come to Time Warner. You can’t go somewhere else. That’s my philosophy.”

Leaving behind a legacy

When someone like Thomas Keller opens a restaurant in New York City after being pronounced the best chef in the country, the continent, and the world by various food writers and chefs, few people questioned why he made this bold move. Some may have seen it as a logical step and a natural extension for Keller to come to New York. Especially New Yorkers, who have come to expect sooner or later, the best of everything will eventually wind up within walking distance of their co-op. But one very powerful reason behind his opening of Per Se as well as his other growing list of projects may be that Mr. Keller had decided that in the spirit of the modern chef, the French Laundry and Bouchon were not quite everything he wanted to be remembered for.

“I realized five years ago that I’m not going to be able to do it forever, and five or six years ago I made that decision to say “okay I need to really be open to opportunities,” because I don’t want to be 65 years old and working in one kitchen, one restaurant. What happens to my restaurant when I can’t do it anymore? Does it die too? There’s no integrity in that. There’s no legacy in that. I look at restaurants that out-live people, and that’s what I want to do. Four Seasons is 45 years old, and it’s an extraordinary restaurant. To have a restaurant around that long that continues to be not only successful but to be at the top of its game, that’s what you want to be able to say. You want to be able to establish a standard in your restaurant that outlives you, and the next group of people who come in have that standard to work to, and then they establish a higher standard.”

“I have no doubts that Jonathan Benno, as he continues to evolve, will become a better chef than I was. And the legacy of my commitment to this restaurant will be through him, and then he’ll establish a legacy. So hopefully Per Se will be here for 20, 25, 30 years. It’s not about doing a restaurant for the immediate gratification of it. It’s about doing something in your life that outlives you. There lies true legacy and true impact.”


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