The Laundry Man
Undeterred by a tumultuous culinary past, Thomas Keller turned the French Laundry into one of America's top restaurants
From the Print Edition:
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By the time he came to them, Keller had a wealth of knowledge and feeling about food. His mother, Elizabeth, gave him his first job in a kitchen, as a dishwasher in her restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida. He then apprenticed at restaurants in Florida and Rhode Island, and by 1983 he was in Paris, working in the great kitchens of Taillevent, Guy Savoy and Le Pré Catalan. For Keller, this was a joyous immersion in the passion, artistry and guiding ethos of French cuisine, and he came away with a lifelong love of foie gras, truffles and other delicacies that he would later bring to the French Laundry. Then came New York. Keller worked as a chef at La Réserve and Restaurant Raphaël, and influential food critics, from The New York Times on down, hailed his dazzling culinary gifts. Keller and a partner, Serge Raoul, then launched Rakel, a restaurant in Manhattan. The critics again raved and business was good—until the stock market plunged in 1987. Rakel went under three years later.
In 1990, Keller moved to Los Angeles to be executive chef at the Checkers Hotel. That, too, soon went sour. Thomas the uncompromising artist couldn't get along with the suits. "By then I had very clear ideas about how a restaurant should be operated," he explains. "Taking care of your purveyors, taking care of your staff. But this was a corporate world and the hotel was not doing well. So they kept cutting back, to save money, and they did things that I did not think had a lot of integrity." After months of bickering and bad blood, the suits sent him packing. And worse was still to come.
"I started an olive oil company, Evo, with a little bit of money I'd saved, and I thought, maybe I'll go into retail." Fulfilling it was not. "I'd be in a supermarket, at the end of the counter, shouting: 'Wanna try some olive oil?'" For a chef who had known the glories of Paris and New York, hawking olive oil in L.A. was a miserable comedown. But Keller did not lose his moorings; he just kept telling himself, over and over, "This is not what I can do."
A few months later, in the fall of 1992, destiny reached down and sent him to the French Laundry. The artist had finally found his place, the canvas on which to create his masterpiece—with no one insisting he cut costs or corners, and no one stifling his freedom to create. The results are legendary. In 2001, Time named Keller the best chef in America, and critics routinely name the French Laundry one of the best restaurants in the country. No wonder it takes two months to get a reservation. And no wonder the French Laundry Cookbook has become an instant classic.
Five years after acquiring the French Laundry, Keller launched Bouchon, a fun little bistro down the street in Yountville, featuring simple, hearty fare. Soon to come is the Bouchon Bakery, which will provide fresh bread for his restaurants and the public. But Keller has something even more ambitious in the works: a small inn, to be located across the street from his pride and joy.
"It's really a natural extension of the French Laundry," he says. "You have a wonderful restaurant; where do you want your people to stay? You want them to stay close by, so they can have a wonderful three-hour meal here and drink two or three bottles of wine and then sit out here in the garden, smoke cigars, then walk across the street and go home. It will be very small, 18 or 20 rooms, and most of the people who stay there will be eating here. That is the philosophy of what I have in mind: just a wonderful place to stay."
Keller is also creating a restaurant for the new AOL Time Warner Building going up in New York City. "We'll bring in elements of the French Laundry—the wood, the stone, the brick, the fire. Very basic elements. But we will bring all of it into an urban style." The New York venture will mean time away from Napa, but Keller sees a silver lining: "If I don't break the ties with the kitchen now, I'm afraid I'm going to end up, in a few years, resenting what I do. Physically I just can't do it. I just went for my third knee operation. Being a chef is like playing a sport; it's a very athletic thing to do. You know, 14 or 15 hours a day for 23 years, it starts to wear on you. So that's one reason for going to New York, to pull me out of the kitchen. Otherwise, I'd never leave."
As Keller contemplates what's ahead, his thoughts naturally turn to passing on the torch. "Sooner or later you realize, 'OK. I have to inspire. I have to teach. I have to create a great foundation for somebody else to come in.' Not to do exactly what I do, because we're all individuals and we all have our own things we do. But for somebody who will maintain the tradition, maintain the standards, and maybe raise the standards.
"Defining success for me is not a personal thing. The restaurant has become the standard-bearer for itself. And that is what I want to leave as the legacy here, after I leave. It's not Thomas Keller's French Laundry. It's just the French Laundry. And as such, it will have a set of standards that other people will aspire to and expand on. That's my goal."
Paul Chutkow is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gérard Depardieu, and coauthor of Harvest of Joy, the autobiography of Robert Mondavi.
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