The Laundry Man

Undeterred by a tumultuous culinary past, Thomas Keller turned the French Laundry into one of America's top restaurants
By Paul Chutkow | From Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02
The Laundry Man

What is his secret? What separates Thomas Keller from the rest? What makes him one of the most gifted chefs creating in America today?

His kitchen offers clues, even at 11 in the morning. The place is immaculate, every burnished silver pot and pan is in its place, every sous chef and every preparer is trained, coiffed and busy at his station. Thanks to large skylights and windows that open out to the distant vineyards, the light coming in is natural and soothing, and even with all the activity, the kitchen is remarkably quiet, almost reverential. Immediately you know that this is a place for serious work, and you also know that nothing here is left to chance. It is all part of a single guiding ethos, a quest for perfection, a place where second best will never do.

And then there's the man himself. At 46, Keller is tall and handsome, with a strong build and a rugged jaw. As he moves in and out of the kitchen, overseeing preparations for the day's performance, Keller's demeanor is calm and focused; he seems completely in command and at ease in his domain. In conversation, too, he is tightly focused and surprisingly self-effacing, despite his towering reputation and the fabled finesse of his creations. He comes across, instead, as a regular guy, a man's man, a fellow who nine times out of ten would skip the Kir Royale in favor of a hearty, honest Beaujolais. But there is a whole other dimension to Keller, and it comes to the fore when he moves into the garden and starts talking about his love affair with the French Laundry.

It began back in 1992. A friend told him the place was for sale, and Keller drove to Yountville, in the heart of the Napa Valley, to have a look. "It was a Monday and the place was closed," Keller recalls. "There was nobody around; I didn't go inside. But I walked along the walkway and saw an antique rosebush. Further along I saw antique wooden benches in front of a window. I immediately had an emotional contact, an emotional experience with the place. It was one of those days—you see them in movies—when things get kind of cloudy and you get teary-eyed; that was what was happening inside me. I was going, 'Wow. This is it. This is where I should be.'"

As he recalls that moment and what he then did to make the French Laundry his own, Keller's businesslike demeanor peels back and you see what's pulsing inside: the heart of an impassioned, driven and unbending artist—fiercely uncompromising when it comes to his vision and his standards. Every culinary artist obsesses about taste, color, originality and getting the tiniest detail exactly right. Keller has mastered those elements and moved into a different realm: he obsesses about feeling. The feeling of the setting, the building, the lighting, the plates, the glasses and, of course, the look, taste and feel of each delicacy he sets before his guests. As Keller explains, his goal is not just to create a magnificent meal; he wants to engender in his guests enduring feelings of contentment, conviviality and well being.

"Our food is serious, but we want people to have a good time with it, we want our food to be part of a wonderful social experience," he says. "I hate that description 'making a pilgrimage to a gastronomic temple.' That's absurd. It's a restaurant. It should be enjoyed. My hope is to bring people here and give them one continuous, wonderful experience."

Fine cigars help engender those feelings of contentment and well being. Keller invites his guests to complete their dining experience with a cigar and a Port, or a single-malt Scotch, in the garden. To that end, he keeps a well-stocked humidor in a place of pride, with some serious smokes inside. Bolivars and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas from Havana. Macanudo Vintage 1993. A. Fuente Gran Reservas. Montecristos. Royal Jamaicans. Ashtons. And more. On summer nights, if he finishes early in the kitchen, Keller likes to join his guests in the garden. "It's a wonderful place to smoke, especially in the summertime. Cigars are also a real opportunity to bond. As much as you see females now starting to smoke cigars, it's still kind of a man's thing. And I don't think there's enough bonding going on, certainly not in my life. I have a few friends, but I'm not able to spend enough time with them. I'm always so immersed in what's going on here."

Keller began smoking a decade ago. "One day a friend of mine who really appreciates cigars said to me, 'Thomas, I'd like to give you something that I think is a wonderful thing. Try it.' At first, it was like the first beer you have, or the first Scotch. You ask yourself, 'What's this about? OK, I have to learn about this to really appreciate it.' I prefer Cubans and Dominicans. My favorite cigar is a robusto, because it's not a big commitment. The cigar I choose if I have a lot of time is a Hoyo de Monterrey No. 2. That's my cigar of choice. I used to smoke Cohibas when I went to Europe, but I don't find them as satisfying as Hoyo de Monterreys."

Keller and his girlfriend, Laura Cunningham, who helps run the French Laundry, live in a house behind the restaurant; off their living room is a nook where Keller keeps his private humidor. Beside it is a magnificent portrait of Madelaine Largenté, the original French "laundress." The portrait means a lot to Keller: he believes that part of his personal mission is to preserve the spirit and cultural integrity of the French Laundry, a place with a long and colorful history in California wine country.

The French Laundry was built in 1892 with local rock and timber, in the middle of Yountville, a rustic, somewhat raffish hamlet located between the town of Napa to the south and St. Helena and Calistoga to the north. The place started, as the name suggests, as a French steam laundry. It later had other lives as a private home, a salon, a brothel and finally a restaurant run by an endearing Yountville couple, Don and Sally Schmitt. It was the Schmitts who sold the place to Keller, sensing it would be a magical match.

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.