If the American culinary world had a rock star, it wouldn’t be the charismatic chefs on television or the countless “influencers” and other performers on social media. It would be Thomas Keller.
In fact, before the pandemic, you would think a rock star had shown up when he would make appearances at culinary schools, with long lines of giddy students seeking autographs. His appearance at any food-related event elevated its prestige, and shy onlookers often could be seen working up the courage to approach him, possibly to take one of his signature salmon tartare cones.
Few chefs, if any, enjoy the admiration of their peers as much as Keller. He’s the only American chef to operate two restaurants with three Michelin stars apiece — The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York City — but well beyond that he has transformed the American dining landscape through his innovation and mentorship.
A generation of great chefs got their start in Keller’s kitchens, including Grant Achatz, Corey Lee, Eric Ziebold, Jonathan Benno and René Redzepi, among many others. Through them, as well as through Keller himself, his approach of constant improvement of culinary techniques in a professional setting has spread across fine dining.
“I think the greatest thing that we have here [at Per Se] is the evolution of the small, intricate parts that we do every single day,” Eli Kaimeh, then the chef de cuisine of Per Se, told Nation’s Restaurant News in 2010. That was when the restaurant was inducted into the publication’s Fine Dining Hall of Fame — one of the countless awards Keller has won, including every James Beard Foundation Award available and, now, his induction into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame.
Keller first started working in foodservice in South Florida, at a Palm Beach restaurant managed by his mother. After working in American kitchens for many years, he moved to France in 1983 and got classical French training by working at big-name restaurants including Guy Savoy and Taillevent.
In 1986 he opened his first restaurant, Rakel, in New York City, which enjoyed critical acclaim if not financial success.
He took over The French Laundry in 1994 and began its transformation into the fine-dining landmark that it is today. He opened a French bistro, Bouchon, in 1998.
Keller returned to New York with the 2004 opening of Per Se, so-named because when he was preparing for its opening he was asked if it was going to be an East Coast version of The French Laundry.
He would say, “It’s not going to be The French Laundry per se,” and realized that the Latin term for “as such” made for a fine restaurant name.
He closed The French Laundry for five months as Per Se opened, and then connected the two restaurants’ kitchens via closed-circuit TV to maintain the corporate culture.
It is that culture that is likely Keller’s most enduring legacy — that and his mentorship.
Keller works to foster excellence in younger chefs. Together with chefs Daniel Boulud and Jérôme Bocuse, he founded the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation — now called Ment’Or — that was originally founded to support American competitors in the biennial Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in Lyon, France. It has since expanded its role to foster a community of young culinary professionals by providing grants, training and mentorship to them.
Like most other leaders in the foodservice industry, Keller has reflected on the impact the pandemic has had on him and his staff.
“These past two years have greatly affected our profession and continue to test our ability to adapt,” he said. “While the hardships of the pandemic are not nearly over, we persevere with a renewed appreciation for our friends and family, restaurant teams, guests and communities. The challenges and obstacles we have faced have made us stronger; we have evolved and remain hopeful for the future. We are grateful every day to have our doors open and to our guests and teams who continue to support us as we navigate this new path together.”
Along with The French Laundry and Per Se, Keller and his team operate Bouchon Bakery concepts in Yountville and Las Vegas, The Surf Club Restaurant in Miami and Ad Hoc & Addendum and La Calenda in Yountville.
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