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. That would be Thomas Keller.
In fact, before the pandemic, you would have thought a rock star had shown up when he made appearances at culinary schools, with long lines of giddy students looking for autographs. His appearance at any food-related event elevated his prestige, and shy onlookers could often be seen gathering the courage to approach him, perhaps to pick up one of his signature salmon tartare cones. .
Few conductors, if any, enjoy the admiration of their peers as much as Keller. He is the only American chef to operate two restaurants with three Michelin stars each – The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in New York – but far beyond that, he has transformed the American culinary landscape through his innovation and his 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. Thanks to them, as well as to Keller himself, his approach of constantly improving culinary techniques in a professional setting has spread to gastronomy.
“I think the best thing we have here [at Per Se] is the evolution of the small, intricate pieces we make every day,” Eli Kaimeh, then head chef at Per Se, told Nation’s Restaurant News in 2010. That’s when the restaurant was inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame – one of countless awards Keller has won, including every James Beard Foundation award available and, now, his induction into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame.
Keller began working in the restaurant business in South Florida, at a Palm Beach restaurant run by her mother. After working in American kitchens for many years, he moved to France in 1983 and received a classical French education working in top restaurants including Guy Savoy and Taillevent.
In 1986 he opened his first restaurant, Rakel, in New York City, which was met with critical acclaim if not financial success.
He took over The French Laundry in 1994 and began its transformation into the fine dining icon 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 said, “It won’t be The French Laundry per se,” and realized that the Latin term for “as such” made for a fancy restaurant name.
He closed The French Laundry for five months when Per Se opened, then connected the kitchens of the two restaurants via closed-circuit television to maintain the corporate culture.
It is this culture that is probably Keller’s most enduring legacy – that and his mentorship.
Keller works to foster excellence in young chefs. With chefs Daniel Boulud and Jérôme Bocuse, he founded the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation – now called Ment’Or – which was originally founded to support American competitors in the biennial Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in Lyon , in France. It has since expanded its role to foster a community of young kitchen professionals by providing grants, training and mentorship.
Like most other restaurant industry leaders, Keller has reflected on the impact the pandemic has had on him and his staff.
“These past two years have left a strong mark on our profession and continue to test our ability to adapt,” he said. “Although the difficulties 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 faced 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 the Bouchon concepts in Yountville and Las Vegas, The Surf Club in Miami, and Ad Hoc & Addendum and La Calenda in Yountville.
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