Thomas Keller | Coming of age

18 May 2015
5 min read
Celebrating a monumental 21 years of The French Laundry, Thomas Keller talks to Kerstin Kühn exclusively for our FOUR USA Spring 2015 edition.

“Trends are ridiculous,” says Thomas Keller, defiantly. “By definition, they have a beginning and an end so why would anybody want to be part of a trend? We’re not trying to be trendy, we’re just trying to be consistently good at what we do and offer an experience to our guests that is memorable.”

Over the past three decades that’s exactly what Thomas has become synonymous with around the world. In a country that was not so long ago known primarily for its burgers and fast food, he has helped to redefine an entire industry, and by keeping to his classic French style, he has influenced a whole generation of chefs and food lovers alike. Yet, despite his celebrity status and distinguished and long lasting career, Thomas remains grounded: his two guiding principles are those of modesty and collaboration. “It’s very important to be modest,” he explains. “And that goes from me all the way through my team. It’s not about boasting about how great we are but about proving to ourselves, our colleagues and ultimately our guests our ability to provide a great experience. It’s about integrity and performing your work honestly and caringly. And it’s about respect.”He adds: “True form of collaboration is what we strive for. It’s only through teamwork that any individual can achieve a higher level of understanding, skill and reputation. People use the word passion but it’s really misunderstood and overused. It’s really not about passion; passion comes and goes, it’s not consistent. What it’s about is desire. You have to have a constant desire to succeed otherwise you never will. Passion can elevate that desire but passion alone is not enough. It’s the desire that drives you everyday and will keep you on track.”

Thomas’ own desire to succeed has seen him create an empire of restaurants without ever compromising his impermeable high standards. He is the only chef in America to hold two sets of three Michelin stars; has been named the country’s best chef by Time magazine, won numerous James Beard awards and been granted a knighthood by the French Legion of Honour, while his iconic French Laundry has twice been crowned the best restaurant in the world. Last year was especially worth celebrating for the chef: his two three-Michelin-starred flagship restaurants, The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, marked their twentieth and tenth anniversaries, respectively. And despite their coming of age, Thomas and his team’s unwavering devotion to offer the highest level of service and sophisticated French cuisine has ensured both restaurants remain at the very top of their game. Both embody the ideal dining destination—The French Laundry perfecting rustic charm and elegance and Per Se, its urban counterpart, exemplifying understated luxury and contemporary style—and continue to attract gastronomic pilgrims from around the world.

The key to their success is their dedication to constant improvement. “The one thing that we live by every day is our ability and desire to improve,” Thomas says. “That can be something minor—tightening your apron, sharpening your knives or peeling your vegetables better. Most people look at change in such grand ways that it’s almost impossible to comprehend how to achieve it. But every grand thing is built on many minor things and that’s what we want to focus on—the things that are achievable day to day.”

Thomas’ classic French food with an American accent is refined yet playful, displaying a resounding confidence in the execution, typified by The French Laundry’s chef de cuisine, David Breeden, in the presentation swordfish showpiece dish and recipe dishes, such as the Coffee and Doughnut. Menus embrace seasonality and draw on only the best quality produce, sourced both from The French Laundry’s own kitchen garden and top suppliers from around the USA. No ingredient is repeated twice on any menu and each dish is in perfect harmony and balance. Menus continue to evolve with new creations but Thomas’ world-famous signature dishes—Oysters and Pearls, a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar; salmon cornets, tiny cones of salmon tartare topped with crème frâiche; or Coffee and Doughnuts, cappuccino semifreddo with cinnamon-sugared doughnuts—have stood the test of time and continue to delight diners. “We take immense pleasure in making these iconic dishes every day,” says Thomas. “Ultimately, cooking is repetition and great cooking is repetition squared. Trying to do something new every day never allows you to truly perfect what you are doing. We never grow tired of making those dishes, we enjoy continually improving them in little ways.”

Thomas began his culinary career at a young age working as a dishwasher in a Palm Beach restaurant managed by his mother. He quickly worked his way up the ranks and discovered his passion and desire for cooking. After training with Roland Henin, who took him under his wing and guided him through the process of mastering the culinary arts, Thomas moved to France in 1983, where he worked in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including the celebrated Restaurant Guy Savoy and Taillevent in Paris. “The most important lesson I took away from France was consistency,” he recalls. “The greatest restaurants were the most consistent restaurants. They didn’t necessarily do the most groundbreaking cuisine, but they were the restaurants that every day maintained a very high level of execution through the ingredients they were able to acquire and the skills they were able to teach. To be truly great meant that you needed to be great every day.”

He returned to the USA to become chef de cuisine at La Reserve in New York, before opening his first restaurant, Rakel, also in New York, in 1986. Although the restaurant was a critical success, loved by the city’s restaurant reviewers, Thomas ultimately fell out with his business partner, who, following the stock market crash in 1987, decided to change the menu to simpler bistro fare. Unwilling to compromise his style of cooking, Thomas left to move to the West Coast, where he was appointed executive chef at the Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles.

In 1992, Thomas stumbled upon The French Laundry in the sleepy town of Yountville in the heart of Napa Valley, just 60-miles north of San Francisco. Housed in a century-old stone cottage surrounded by a country garden complete with roses and perennials, it had originally been built as a saloon and then operated as a French steam laundry, before being turned into a restaurant in the 1970s. Thomas was instantly drawn to the charming building and spent more than 18 months raising funds to buy the property before reopening The French Laundry in 1994. The restaurant quickly became a fine dining institution recognised far beyond the borders of California and indeed the USA. It topped the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2003 and 2004 and debuted as the only three-star restaurant in Michelin’s inaugural guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area in 2006. “Being able to buy The French Laundry was one of the biggest achievements in my life,” he admits. “I set my goals on something, which in hindsight would have been perceived as unachievable. One of my biggest assets at the time was my ignorance—not knowing what was lying ahead of me but being able to achieve small levels of success on a daily basis to propel me forward.”

Thomas’ restaurant empire now spans across the USA. In addition to The French Laundry, he runs the Michelin-starred Bouchon Bistro, the original Bouchon Bakery and family-style restaurant Ad Hoc in Yountville, as well as two further Bouchon restaurants and bakeries in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills and two bakeries in New York. Yet Thomas has been measured in his expansion and has grown his business organically and slowly, repeatedly declining offers to open restaurants both in the USA and abroad. “Opening a restaurant is like having a child,” he says. “You have to make sure that you give it all the support it needs in its infancy before you can start to think about doing something else. Distractions in our industry are rapid and in many ways diminish our ability to focus on our primary goal: to make a restaurant successful in the long term.”

With The French Laundry and Per Se each recently celebrating their own milestones and Bouchon continuing to deliver top-class bistro dishes, Thomas has certainly achieved that long-term success. He has committed his entire life and career to French cuisine, has always stuck to his discipline and refused to follow changing fashions. But will the future bring us more restaurants and finally see him export his brand abroad? “I would never say never,” is all he will reveal.

“Opening a restaurant is like having a child. You have to make surethat you give it all the support it needs in its infancy before you canstart to think about doing something else.”