Exclusive Interview with Chef Thomas Keller
Chef Thomas Keller talks about what’s next for his world-famous restaurant in Wine Country.
Yountville’s The French Laundry has been considered one of the finest restaurants in the world for two decades, and its chef, Thomas Keller, one of the most talented chefs of his generation. But never ones to rest on reputation, Keller and his team are shaking things up, with the completion of a major remodel in early 2016 that promises to build on The French Laundry’s reputation without abandoning the qualities that made it a Wine Country legend. And although he balks at the term “celebrity chef,” Keller is ready to have all eyes once again turned to Yountville.
Q: What prompted the upgrade to The French Laundry?
A: We did some remodeling of The French Laundry [back in 2004], but we were still constrained by space. Being cramped in your space doesn’t allow you to find efficiencies or give you a sense of comfort that you need for your staff. Of course, we also wanted to do it in a way that would exemplify what a great kitchen is today.
Q: What makes a great kitchen?
A: Again, space is a big thing—to give the team the space they need to work to the level of expectations they have and I have.
We removed a lot of the prep areas, and moved half of the prep out of the kitchen and into a new building, where we’ll do butchery for fish and meat. We will also do vegetable and pastry production in the new building: That will allow those chefs to work in an environment that is temperature controlled for those specific uses. We also added a few components so we can do new techniques we weren’t able to do before.
Q: Like what?
A: Classic techniques. At Per Se [Keller’s restaurant in New York City], we put in a rotisserie, and it served us really well. So we’ve added a rotisserie to The French Laundry—a natural fuel–fired rotisserie. We’ll also have a natural fuel–fired grill.
Q: How involved were you with the renovation?
A: The process started with conversations between my pastry chefs, sous chefs, and executive chef for the restaurant group on what we wanted our food to be. We are based in classics and traditions, and wanted to express those foundations in a way that is elevated by the quality of execution and products. The kitchen is a result of that.
The inspiration for the architectural design came from me. I saw the Louvre in my mind. The Louvre represented a time and place, and then I.M. Pei came in and built the [glass] pyramid, and it worked. Just as that iconic museum mixes old and new, The French Laundry represents a time and a place with historic value.
Q: What will guests notice most about the changes?
A: Once the kitchen is done, we will create a new entrance, and that will be a totally different experience.
Guests will be dropped off at a porte cochere on Washington Street. This entrance will frame our iconic blue door. Guests won’t get a glimpse of the new kitchen until they actually walk onto the property. Then, they’ll see the juxtaposition of the new work and the historic restaurant. That’s when the experience will invoke visiting the Louvre.
Yes, this is a big project, but the restaurant is still The French Laundry. We want people to focus on that. We want them to come and feel the magic of the property. We still want to give people a strong sense of place.
Q: Will you still bring guests back into the kitchen upon request?
A: Absolutely. That’s a tradition [Don and Sally Schmitt, former owners of The French Laundry] started 37 years ago, and something we are happy to continue.
Q: What will the changes mean for your chefs?
A: Time will tell, of course; but I think we’re going to be incredibly inspired.
At the same time, we need to make sure food is the focal point—and that our food is wholesome. That’s the most important thing for any cook: To make sure it’s high quality and tastes good.
Then, you get down to the nuances of composition and plates, and the fun stuff such as china, silverware, and presentation. People come to Wine Country to experience food and wine. We want to make sure the food we’re serving is something they will truly remember.
Q: Where do you see the new iteration of The French Laundry fitting in to Napa Valley’s restaurant scene?
A: We’ve got an extremely diversified group of restaurants here—something for everyone. Right now, you see that in Yountville and St. Helena; it’s starting to expand into Calistoga and Napa, too. I hope The French Laundry will remain a restaurant that continues to drive people to Napa Valley.
Q: On top of The French Laundry kitchen renovation, you also had a pop-up restaurant, Ad Lib, at Silverado Resort and Spa. What prompted you to try that concept?
A: We really did two kitchens with the pop-up concept: Ad Lib and the temporary kitchen here, which was fashioned out of shipping containers.
The thing that we struggled with for quite a while when we planned the remodel at The French Laundry was what to do with the staff. We have more than 125 people who work at the restaurant, and at least a third of them live here in Yountville. We wanted to try to keep as much of our staff as we could. The pop-up restaurant concept solved that problem.
Q: You have served as a mentor for so many of today’s great chefs. Whom do you consider to be your mentor?
A: Roland Henin was my mentor. He set me on my career path. He told me that all cooks cook to nurture people, and that really resonated with me. It’s why I became a chef. To give others something that is good for them and makes them happy—that’s the base of a chef’s emotional connection to his guests.
After him, I admire other icons who have showed the rest of us the way. First and foremost, Paul Bocuse. He changed the basic fiber of the restaurant business by bringing service to a new level. Jean-Louis Palladin, who was the chef at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., is one. He came in the 1970s and defined what our relationship to suppliers should be, prompting all of us to ask, “Where are we getting our food from?” In the Bay Area, Alice Waters is known for doing the same thing, but for me, in my mind’s eye—and not to take anything away from Alice—the first person to do it was Jean-Louis.
Q: Nowadays, it seems every chef is appearing on reality television. What’s your take on this trend toward celebrity?
A: I really don’t like the word “celebrity.” I prefer to think of the real stars in our profession as leaders. People call me a “celebrity chef,” and I shy away from that completely. That’s not what I’m trying to be, and it’s not what I want to be. I’m trying to be a leader and set examples for the next generation, so they can see some of the opportunities that are available to them if they apply themselves in a committed and dedicated way.
The truth is that, in many ways, our profession is somewhat aimless. We need to have a forum to discuss challenges and opportunities, and to help us make tough decisions. The law profession has this. The medical profession has this. But we don’t. We’re always so busy, and the only time we come together is when there’s an event—and even then, we still really don’t have time to talk to each other because we all are working.
I would like [the chef community] to be able to create our own narrative and tell our own stories, instead of having to rely on [outsiders].
Q: Does that mean we won’t be seeing you on Top Chef again anytime soon?
A: [Laughing] Look, Tommy [Colicchio, one of the executive producers of Top Chef] is a good friend of mine. I did a show with him when we did the Bocuse d’Or challenge. I respect what he does. I respect what they all do. They’ve made a choice to do something they believe in. It’s good for their careers; I’m not going to be judgmental.
Q: You’re known for setting high standards and being detail oriented. And you are often described as being “uncompromising.” True?
A: I don’t believe anybody can be uncompromising. It would get the world in great trouble and danger if we weren’t willing to compromise.
In our business, we have to compromise every day. In the kitchen, we set everything up as best we can with expectations for what we’re going to be able to achieve. At the same time, if you are a guest in my restaurant, and you walked in and said, “I want to eat this,” we’d do our best to give that to you and make it happen.
Q: What term would you prefer people use to describe you?
A: I don’t know. I do know that if you’re not compromising, you’re just stubborn. I don’t want to work for someone like that.
Q: What is your perfect meal?
A: Dinner around the table with close friends and family. That’s the most important thing when you’re dining out: It’s not necessarily about where you’re going but whom you are going with.
In terms of what I’d order for my perfect meal, I eat simply: A beautiful roasted chicken always resonates with me. That, with a simple salad, a chocolate tart for dessert, a great espresso, and a wonderful bottle of red wine.
Q: Where do you like to dine in Napa Valley?
A: We celebrated our chef de cuisine’s and general manager’s birthdays just last week with [chef] Christopher Kostow up at [The Restaurant at] Meadowood. Chris is an extraordinary young chef, and I love his connection with using local products, whether they’re from his garden or from other regional sources.
Closer to home in Yountville, I like Redd and a little restaurant here named Ciccio [Napa Valley]. It’s casual, easy, very familiar—and when I go there, I almost always see someone I know. In terms of a good local steak house, Press is still great. Then there’s Mustards [Grill]. That has been an iconic restaurant in the valley since I started coming here in the early 1980s. It’s just as good now as it was then.
The Talk of the Town
Three top foodies on why The French Laundry’s renovation matters.
“In a world where everybody is after the next shiny new object, this new kitchen gives The French Laundry a new start so people will look at it with fresh eyes.”
—Michael Bauer, restaurant critic/editor at large, San Francisco Chronicle
“We all work for perfection. None of us will ever get there, but Thomas [Keller] has gotten closer than most because he has been totally focused on demanding excellence and putting his people in the best position to deliver it.”
—Charlie Palmer, chef-owner, Harvest Table, St. Helena
“[Keller] wants to create a work environment that . . .
allows his chefs to be more efficient. I don’t know another restaurateur who would close a successful restaurant for three months and build a new kitchen to make it better like that.”
—Michael Minnillo, general manager, The French Laundry
The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St., Yountville, (707) 944-2380, thomaskeller.com/tfl.