YOUNTVILLE, Calif. | On a sunny morning in Napa Valley, America’s most celebrated chef is reflecting on his career, the culinary empire it spawned and why he just spent $10 million to upgrade his famed restaurant, the French Laundry.
Thomas Keller describes himself as detail-oriented, a perfectionist and passionate about fine food and design. All of this is apparent in the chef’s gleaming new workspace, a 2,000-square-foot state-of-the-art kitchen, which feels more like a sleek, modern art gallery than a cramped, hectic kitchen.
At 61 years old, Keller entertains the thought of slowing down. Just not right now.
He’s got a new restaurant project underway at New York City’s Hudson Yards. He flew to Hollywood last week for a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live. And he is clearly mindful of his legacy, which is part of the inspiration for remodeling the revered restaurant he opened in 1994.
Keller says he embarked on the French Laundry’s renovation to ensure it thrives for the next 20 years. Aside from the new kitchen, there’s a 16,000-bottle wine cellar, extensive solar paneling, a new office annex and 9,000 square feet of new landscape design. The renovation took more than two years and was not stress-free.
“For weeks, I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Oh my God, I ruined the French Laundry,'” said Keller, who holds three coveted Michelin stars for the restaurant, and another three for its New York counterpart Per Se. The distinctions make Keller the only American chef, past or present, with two sets of three-star Michelin ratings.
On a tour of the new kitchen and the French Laundry’s lush culinary garden, Keller is vocally enthusiastic about the upgrades. He is also gracious, and humble, when asked about his significance to the culinary world.
“I don’t wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and go, ‘I’m looking at the greatest chef in America.’ It very seldom comes up for me personally,” he says. But when the issue is raised, he feels “an enormous amount of responsibility, that burden of responsibility on my shoulders to make sure that I’m trying to exemplify what that chef would be like.”
As a measure of his ambition, Keller compares the French Laundry’s remodel to the renovation at one of the world’s great museums, the Louvre in Paris, citing how I.M. Pei’s 1989 addition of the glass pyramid added a modern statement to a historical site.
The Louvre was “iconic. It was historic. Everybody knew it. And the French Laundry kind of represented that for me,” said Keller, who even presented his architect with two pictures of the Louvre — one pre-I.M. Pei and one after — to capture the essence of his vision.
Keller teamed up with Snohetta, an architecture and design firm that spearheaded the recent three-year renovation of the San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The restaurant stayed open during the construction, but the culinary staff relocated to a temporary kitchen built inside four shipping containers. Final touches on landscaping are wrapping up this summer.
“To actually stand in the new kitchen is the ultimate reward. It’s absolutely amazing,” says 36-year-old chef de cuisine David Breeden, who has worked for Keller at the French Laundry and Per Se for 12 years.
Gone is the stainless steel austerity of most restaurant kitchens, this one is white, spacious and sunlit by skylights and wraparound windows overlooking a garden. It has swooping vaulted ceilings meant to mimic draped linen.
Keller describes it as “more feminine than most kitchens” because of its soft lines and curves. It was designed with attention to ergonomics, acoustics and ease of cleaning, including all walls and counters made of an anti-microbial material.
The countertops were raised several inches from the standard height to avoid backaches. There’s a “ventilated ceiling” that does away with the typical noisy overhead hoods. Now they’re embedded in the ceiling with infrared sensors that gauge the appropriate speed, rather than whirring at high all day long.
The attention to detail is typical of Keller, says Breeden. “We call him the omnipresent chef,” said Breeden, who described Keller as a master craftsman who guides by example in his “search for that constant improvement, constant refinement and reflection.”
Perfectionism comes with a price. The 9-course prix fixe menu, which changes every night, costs $310. But a meal for two with wine and a vintage after-dinner cognac could easily top $1,000.
The 62-seat restaurant is typically booked solid weeks in advance.
Keller has not cooked full-time in years but is still very much the face of the French Laundry, which is inside an old stone cottage in the heart of California wine country. And when he’s in town, he’s at the restaurant, impeccably dressed in in his custom-made chef jacket, tailored black pants and shiny black clogs.
During the flurry of a recent dinner service, Keller’s guiding hand was at work plating caviar, making artful, final touches on dishes, instructing waiters on the details of each course and even helping out in the dishwashing area.
In the span of two decades, Keller has transformed the image of the American chef and the fine dining experience in America with his innovative, playful interpretations of fine French food, says Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America.
Ryan describes Keller as a “mixture of humility and ego.” Unlike today’s celebrity chefs, he had no reality TV shows but earned recognition through hard work in the kitchen, Ryan says, and to this day no one has matched his achievements or influence.
“Thomas Keller is the most important chef in American history. Period. Ever,” said Ryan in a telephone interview from New York. “I’m sitting right now in a building filled with 2,000 aspiring chefs. There is no one in the world I could bring here that would generate more excitement among the student body than Thomas.”
In the streets of Yountville, Keller is a local celebrity. Tourists stop him in the street to take selfies together, or pose outside the French Laundry sign. His success has spawned a dozen other bistro-style restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and Yountville, where he lives next door to the French Laundry when not traveling.
As he’s grown older, Keller said, he’s more comfortable with the idea of less running around. Ultimately, he’d like to return full-time to his brand new kitchen.
“One day do I want to come back and solely be here? It’s a dream. It gives me great sense of comfort to be here at the French Laundry,” said Keller, who has long talked of building an upscale Inn alongside the restaurant. “So we’re looking at that.”
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