Icons & Innovations: Thomas Keller: Prince of Yountville

  • Michael Ruhlman

Thomas Keller slogged through the brutal, precarious world of the restaurant industry for 20 years and through four states, both as a chef and a chef-owner, and lost money every step of the way until he purchased and assumed control of the French Laundry in 1994. When the then 39-year-old entered the office of his new restaurant in California’s Napa Valley, he was mortified to see that his meager staff was using milk crates for furniture. This cannot happen again, he vowed. Within three years, Keller would be hailed as the best chef in America, if not the world, leading one of its most famous and revered restaurants, adored like a movie star by diners, and esteemed perhaps beyond all others by his fellow chefs. The milk-crate-furniture days ended swiftly as well. The French Laundry recorded its first profit in 1996, and while Keller declines to reveal the restaurant’s current revenues, a February 2004 Time article stated that it grossed more than $7.5 million annually.

The food, of course, had much to do with Keller’s success. He is a culinary innovator whose creations often are copied; his salmon tartare in a cone inspired not just imitations, but its own serving device (Cone Serving Tray, $23.70 from J.B. Prince). Keller had the preposterous idea of serving oysters and caviar on top of tapioca without even tasting it, and the dish has become one of his most celebrated. He is even credited with techniques that he didn’t invent. The French have been poaching lobster in butter for a long time, and some chefs in America, such as David Bouley, did so before Keller, but Keller made it famous.

Keller’s food, though, is not the true source of his success. His food is merely a by-product—a fortunate one, to be sure, but a by-product nonetheless—of qualities that would likely have translated well in any number of other businesses. “I would have been a good carpenter,” Keller says. Indeed he would have, for Keller is a superlative craftsman; just as young Pablo honed his draftsman’s skills before he became Picasso, Keller, before he became a great chef, learned how to cook a green vegetable perfectly and how to make the ideal stock.

“It’s all the little things that make the French Laundry great,” says Jonathan Benno, chef de cuisine at Keller’s four-star Per Se in Manhattan and formerly of the French Laundry. “It’s the details, like folding the towel underneath the asparagus after they’ve been blanched so they don’t soak, having a clean side towel, seasoning from above rather than from the side.”
 
Having learned these standards early in his career, Keller never altered them, even when his restaurants struggled. To compromise his principles, he knew, would be the end of him. Keller remains among the hardest workers in a business in which you have to work hard just to achieve mediocrity (“Why is America so quick to accept mediocrity?” Keller asked shortly before opening Per Se in 2004).

Keller’s diligence immediately became evident to Grant Achatz, the innovative chef-owner of Alinea in Chicago, when the two first met at the French Laundry in 1996. Keller, who already had established his stature by this time, was sweeping the kitchen floor, which to him was every bit as important as mincing his own shallots. “Thomas taught me how to cook in the philosophical sense,” Achatz says. “In the literal sense as well, but more about how to treat food, how to express yourself through food, get excited about it. There are a lot of cooks who just cook, and there are cooks who think about what they’re cooking, care about what they’re cooking, understand what’s happening with their cooking, have a vision for the final step of the cooking. I think that’s what he projects really well, that this isn’t a mechanical execution, or that that’s a small percentage of it. It starts up here,” Achatz says, touching his temple as he pauses to find the words. “Whether it’s passion about a particular ingredient, the process that you’re going to use to manipulate that ingredient, or the end result once you have it in your hands.  I had never seen that before.”

Ultimately what sets Keller apart from his colleagues is the depth of his observations about food and cooking, about serving people, and about how to approach life. Keller realized early that if you want to be a chef-owner, you have to act like one. “You buy into the whole thing for your whole career or you don’t do it,” he has said. “You don’t create good habits all of a sudden. Do you really care about everything that’s going on around you, or just the finished plate? Because it doesn’t begin with the plate. It begins when you wake up.” This is why Keller sweeps the kitchen floor himself, and why he, and not a prep cook or one of the cleaning crew, gets on his knees and scrubs the shelf below the sink at the French Laundry canapé station. Keller knows that cleaning the equipment is no less important than making a killer bordelaise sauce for the butter-poached lobster.
 
Chefs frequently are presented as artists, but they are not; they are craftsmen. However, when a craftsman raises his work to an artistic level, he might reasonably, and meaningfully, be called an artist. If the purpose of art is to make us see, as author Joseph Conrad once suggested, then a chef can be called an artist if he helps to shape our vision of the world. This, in the end, is what Keller has done, through his culinary innovations, hospitality, and service.

 

Michael Ruhlman co-authored The French Laundry Cookbook (Artisan, 1999), and is the author of The Soul of a Chef (Penguin, 2000), which includes several chapters on Thomas Keller and the French Laundry.

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