In 1992, when I was at the Los Angeles Times, I couldn’t help overhearing a discussion a colleague was conducting with a chef. Finally my curiosity got the better of me. “Who have you been talking to?” I asked. “He sounds really depressed.”
“Thomas Keller,” she replied.
The spring of 1992 was not a happy time for the man who would become America’s most celebrated chef. The previous year he’d been hired by one of the most visionary food people in the United States, Bill Wilkinson, to run the restaurant at Los Angeles’ Checkers Hotel. Wilkinson, who was on a self-declared mission to make American food the best in the world, was willing to take chances. But six months later Germany’s Kempinski Group acquired the hotel, and the first thing they did was start cutting costs.
Keller put on a brave face, gamely telling Nation’s Restaurant News that “skirt steak is much more flavorful than a fillet or sirloin at one-third the cost...and cod is a great value and so versatile: you can sauce it or not sauce it or do it in a bouillon." But privately he told my colleague that he was not happy about it.
He had, after all, just left New York to escape a similar situation. When his partner at Rakel insisted on turning their luxury restaurant into a modest bistro, Keller opted out and fled to the West Coast, and his first menu at Checkers was extremely ambitious. Looking back more than 20 years later, it is easy to see that Keller was ahead of his time. This is part of my review:
“He likes to send out little amuses-gueules while patrons wait for their meal, but his are a far cry from the sedate toasts and mousses served in most high-end restaurants. One night the waitress announced ‘shrimp cocktail’ and proceeded to pass martini glasses around the table. These were empty but for bits of shrimp and a sort of confetti of diced vegetables. The waitress then took a cocktail shaker and poured a clear liquid—a fabulous concoction of roasted tomatoes, with an astringency that hinted at vodka--into each glass. If this was a joke, it was a delicious one.”
“Right after that review,” Keller says today, “the Germans walked in the door and they wanted to do pretty much the opposite of what I wanted to. It was horrible.” When you pit a chef against an owner, the chef never wins: before long Keller was out of a job once again. “I went through a soul-searching process,” he says, “wondering what I was going to do.”
At loose ends, Keller started selling olive oil and vinegar as he contemplated his next step. My colleague at the paper kept in touch, and she was always telling me about his exploits. “He keeps going to New York for meetings of something called ‘Chefs From Hell,’” she told me.
“It’s some kind of club,” she continued, “15 chefs, all under 40, who phone each other every day and get together once a month to eat and do crazy things. Apparently one of the bylaws is that you have to do something insane to the chef who’s sponsoring the dinner. The other night Brendan Walsh drove his motorcycle right into the restaurant.”
I was shocked; the cerebral Thomas Keller? He had a reputation as a very cool character who was always in control, and it struck me that he must be extremely uncomfortable in California. I worried that he would go scurrying back to New York for good, depriving California of one of its most talented chefs.
But Keller was not limiting his travels to New York; he was also spending time in the Napa Valley. “The girl I was dating was a wine broker,” he says, “so I came up with her once a month. One day I stopped in to see Jonathan (Waxman), who was opening a restaurant (Table 29). He told me that The French Laundry was for sale, and that was that.”
As Keller tells it now, his ambitions were modest. “I thought I was just going to continue the French Laundry pretty much the way it was,” he says. “After all, it had already been here for 17 years.”
The French Laundry wasn’t just any restaurant. It was a beloved Napa Valley institution, a lovely old stone house where vintners brought their clients when they wanted to show off their wines. Sally and Don Schmitt served one simple five course meal every night, beautifully cooked but completely unpretentious. Between courses diners were encouraged to go outside and stroll through the herb beds as they looked at the stars.
“So,” says Keller, “I started asking local people what changes they would like to see to the restaurant. People told me that they’d like more choices than just one menu every night. They also said they’d like it to be open more than four days a week. So that’s what we did. And then...,” he pauses for a minute before continuing, “it just evolved. When you’re working, you’re so focused, you don’t look outside. All you’re doing is thinking about getting to work the next morning.”
That may well be how Keller really sees himself, but to the rest of us he’s famously perfectionist, detail-oriented, incapable of doing anything by half measures. By the time I got to The French Laundry the menu had evolved back into one single meal, and the chef was having a hard time reining himself in. My first meal there went on for so long - it was after two in the morning when we finally staggered out the door - that I swore I’d never go back. But of course I did; there may have been too much of it, but the food was thrilling, and by year three Keller had created the most exciting restaurant in the country.
But he still wasn’t satisfied; Keller’s desire for perfection grew so intense that at one point he contemplated opening an inn. As he told a reporter in 1992, "I want to control the entire experience, not just from the minute you walk into the restaurant but from the minute you get to Yountville. I want dinner to be just part of the overall experience. I don't just want to satisfy your hunger. I want to influence your experience here, from beginning to end."
It was that impulse that drove Keller to his latest venture. “Do you remember,” he asks, “when nobody had any allergies? When I was growing up I never knew anyone who was allergic to peanuts or gluten. But then more and more people started asking for gluten-free meals....” It was an accommodation he was happy to make, but it also filled him with a certain frustration—he wanted his guests to experience the cornet, a crisp, tiny ice cream cone filled with a lush mixture of salmon tartare and creme fraiche. “The cornet is such an iconic dish. It sets the tone for the restaurant.”
Four years ago, Keller decided that there must be a way to do that. When Lena Kwak, a young woman with a specialty in nutritional science, arrived to intern at the restaurant, he asked her to try to develop a gluten-free cornet. “The only benchmark,” she says, “was to make the coronet look, taste and feel the way the gluten one does.”
“She did it!” says Keller, still sounding surprised. “So then I said to her, ‘If you can do this, why not do the rolls?’” And soon guests were getting emotional about the bread. “One day I went into the dining room and found a guest crying over the rolls,” Keller recalled. “She said she hadn’t tasted bread for such a long time.”
What’s next? Now they’re working on pizza dough, bread flour - and.... “We’re not sure what will come next,” he says. Judging by Keller’s past, it will probably be something big. He has a habit of tiptoeing into a project with modest ambitions—and then blowing the world away.
More about Thomas Keller: