All achievers

Thomas Keller

Culinary Impresario

Interaction around a dinner table. That, to me, is the most important. That truly defines our success.

Thomas Keller was born in Oceanside, California. His father, a United States Marine, was stationed nearby at Camp Pendleton. When he was seven his parents separated, and Thomas moved with his mother and two older brothers to Palm Beach, Florida, where his grandmother and great aunts helped raise him and his brothers.

Keller’s mother managed a restaurant in the area, and both Thomas and his older brother Joseph worked in the restaurant kitchen from an early age. Thomas was considered too young to work as a cook so he started as a dishwasher. He enjoyed the teamwork of a restaurant kitchen and resolved to become a professional cook. He studied briefly at Palm Beach Junior College but knew his real education would come by working at the best restaurants he could find.

The French Laundry on Washington Street in Yountville, California.
The French Laundry on Washington Street in Yountville, California. (Courtesy of Thomas Keller)

Keller began his career as a professional cook at the Palm Beach Yacht Club in 1974. After two years, he moved to Rhode Island, working first as chef de partie at the Clarke Cooke House, and the following summer at the Dunes Club in Narragansett. There he worked under the French chef Roland Henin, who inspired him to master the exacting art of French haute cuisine.

Returning to Florida, he opened his first restaurant, the Cobbley Nob, with two partners in West Palm Beach. The trio had hoped that their proximity to a sports arena would provide them with a steady flow of business, but the arena’s patrons were not interested in the sophisticated fare he was offering, and the restaurant closed its doors. In the next few years, Keller would pursue his interest in French cooking, developing close relationships with the cooks and proprietors of French restaurants in his own country while applying for jobs in France.

Following the failure of the Cobbley Nob, Keller became sous-chef at Café du Parc in West Palm Beach. His employers there, Pierre and Anne-Marie Latuberne, recommended him to René and Paulette Macary, who operated a restaurant of their own, La Rive, in Catskill, New York during the summer season. Keller spent the next three summers at La Rive in Catskill, where he learned to source produce locally, growing many of his own vegetables, and even trying to kill and dress small game, an experience that gave him greater respect for those who produce the food we eat.

Chef Thomas Keller places a high value on fresh, local produce. Thirty percent of the vegetables served at the French Laundry are grown in his three-acre garden, across the street from the restaurant in Napa Valley.
Chef Thomas Keller places a high value on fresh, local produce. Thirty percent of the vegetables served at the French Laundry are grown in his three-acre garden, across the street from the restaurant in Napa Valley.

After his second summer at La Rive, he decided to try his luck in New York City and was hired as chef at Raoul’s. The owner, Serge Raoul, became a lifelong friend. Keller still believed that to become the chef he wanted to be, he needed to study French cuisine at the source by working in France’s great restaurants. For three years he wrote to restaurants all over France. After a third summer at La Rive, he was working at Polo Restaurant in New York City when he finally received a job offer from a restaurant in Arbois in Northeastern France and packed his bags.

The job in Arbois turned out be far less promising than he had imagined, and he headed for Paris. His New York friend Serge Raoul allowed Keller to stay in his Paris apartment. He took advantage of the traditional stagiare system in which unpaid apprentices, called “stages” in English, learn the skills of the classic French kitchen one by one. By living frugally on his savings, Keller was able to undertake a series of unpaid apprentice positions in the city’s finest restaurants including Guy de Savoy and Taillevent, Michel Pascuet, Gerard Besson, Le Toit de Passy, Chiberta and Le Pré Catalan.

After two years in Paris, Keller returned to New York, confident of his abilities in the kitchen and eager to prove he could run a kitchen in a first-rate establishment. When he was hired as chef de cuisine at La Reserve, he was the first American to lead one of New York’s distinguished French restaurants. Keller was full of new ideas he was eager to implement, but he and the owner did not agree, and Keller moved to a smaller restaurant, Raphael, which he found far more congenial.

Thomas Keller is interviewed inside his New York restaurant, Per Se, in the Time Warner Center in 2004.
Thomas Keller is interviewed inside his New York restaurant, Per Se, in the Time Warner Center in 2004. (AP Photo)

By 1986, he felt ready to try his hand again at opening a restaurant of his own. He joined forces with his friend Serge Raoul to open a restaurant whose name combined the first letters of the partners’ last names: Rakel. The new restaurant got off to a good start, but the stock market crash of 1987 cut deeply into their business. The businessmen who had constituted the base of their clientele went looking for lower-price, more casual dining options until the economy recovered. Serge Raoul was ready to scale down his expectations and convert to a more casual format, but Keller longed to practice the haute cuisine he had mastered in France and left the business, which closed two years later.

Keller remained in New York, consulting, but was completely unsatisfied. Friends urged him to try his hand on the West Coast, and he accepted an offer to become executive chef of the dining facilities at the Los Angeles hotel Checkers. Once again, things got off to a good start, and Keller enjoyed making friends with colleagues in the West Coast restaurant scene. When the hotel was sold, Keller clashed with the new owners and found himself again at liberty. To get by, he started a small business, EVO, importing Italian olive oil.

Chef Thomas Keller during a demonstration at the first annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival at Pebble Beach, California.
Chef Thomas Keller during a demonstration at the first annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival at Pebble Beach, California. (© Craig Lee/San Francisco Chronicle/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis)

On a 1992 visit to the Napa Valley, he was introduced to Don and Sally Schmitt, owners of a small restaurant in Yountville, a small town in the heart of the wine-growing region. Housed in a building once occupied by an actual laundry, the couple had named their restaurant The French Laundry. They had enjoyed several years of modest success but were now looking to sell their business. Many residents and visitors to the area were lovers of fine wine and well-versed in contemporary trends in fine dining. Keller loved the location, and thought the little town in the heart of California’s wine country would be the perfect place to practice the fusion of tradition and innovation he had long imagined.

The Schmitts wanted $1.2 million for their business, and Keller had nothing resembling that kind of money, but they agreed to take $5,000 from Keller to hold in escrow while he returned to Los Angeles to raise the money he needed. Keller took a $5,000 cash advance on his credit card to retain an attorney who helped him structure a private placement offering. Then the hard work of attracting investors began. Working with a list of everyone he could think of who might have an interest in a restaurant or fine food venture, he called 400 prospects and finally attracted seed money from 52 individuals, one paying as much as $80,000 and some as little as $500 for a share of the business. Armed with his investors’ contributions, Keller secured a bank loan and a federal small business loan.

Thomas Keller outside his flagship restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California. (Courtesy of Thomas Keller)
Thomas Keller outside his flagship restaurant, The French Laundry, in Yountville, California.

In 1994, Keller closed the deal and set about renovating the facility. One of the first employees to sign on was a young woman named Laura Cunningham, a Berkeley graduate with some experience in the Napa restaurant scene. The two would work so closely together that within a year she had moved in with him in the house behind the restaurant, and the couple have become partners in life as well as business.

At The French Laundry, Keller applied everything he had learned from his years as a chef and his own previous ventures. He opened the restaurant for more days of the week and gradually evolved a policy of offering two nine-course tasting menus, one vegetable-based, and a second based on animal protein. He combined his thorough knowledge of French tradition with his own flair for humor and imagination, offering his guests a seemingly endless series of exquisite small plates, such as a miniature ice cream cone of salmon tartare, or a small serving of oysters and caviar resting on a bed of tapioca.

The French Laundry in Yountville, California is the cornerstone of the still-expanding Keller Restaurant Group.
The French Laundry in Yountville, California is the cornerstone of the still-expanding Keller Restaurant Group.

Visitors to Napa brought word back to San Francisco, where favorable mention in the press drew interest from even farther away. In 1996, the James Beard Foundation named Keller “the Best Chef in America.” A 1997 article by the influential New York Times critic Ruth Reichl pronounced The French Laundry “the most exciting place to eat in the United States,” and soon lovers of fine food from all over the world were making the pilgrimage to Yountville to sample Keller’s fare. On its list of “50 Best Restaurants in the World,” Restaurant magazine named The French Laundry “Best Restaurant in the World” for two years running.

Keller and Cunningham opened a more casual establishment, Bistro Bouchon, in Yountville in 1998. Thomas Keller, who had been inspired by classic cookbooks as a novice chef, published The French Laundry Cookbook in 1999. TIME magazine named him “America’s Best Chef” in 2001. Two years later, Keller opened Bouchon Bakery in Yountville and started his own wine label, Modicum.

The French Laundry restaurant on Washington Street in Yountville, California, is pictured on June 23, 2011. (AP)
The French Laundry restaurant on Washington Street in Yountville, California, is pictured on June 23, 2011. (AP)

In the years that followed, Keller and Cunningham expanded their operations in a number of directions simultaneously with new restaurants and manufacturing ventures. In 2004 they opened a Bouchon Bakery & Café in Las Vegas and a new fine dining establishment, Per Se, in New York City. Keller served as a consultant on the feature film Spanglish, and in collaboration with restaurant designer Adam D. Tihany, created K + T, a collection of silver hardware and cocktail ware for Christofle Silversmiths.

In 2006, the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group continued to expand, adding the family-style restaurant Ad Hoc in Yountville, as well as outposts of Bouchon Bakery in Las Vegas, and Bouchon Bakery & Café in New York. That same year, the bible of international food connoisseurs, the Guide Michelin, paid its first visit to New York and awarded Keller’s Per Se its highest rating: three stars. It was the first American restaurant to receive this honor. The following year, Michelin inspectors came to the West Coast and gave The French Laundry three stars as well. In a few years, Keller’s restaurants would collectively receive seven stars in a single year’s Michelin Guide.

The Keller empire expanded to Southern California with the 2009 opening of Bouchon and Bar Bouchon in Beverly Hills. The same year, Keller published a book of family-style recipes, Ad Hoc at Home, which spent six weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. In 2011, Keller opened branches of Bouchon Bakery in Beverly Hills and in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

Lyon, France: Master chefs Paul Bocuse, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller at the Bocuse D'Or, the international cooking contest, January 28, 2009. (Owen Franken/Corbis)
Lyon, France: Master chefs Paul Bocuse, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller at the Bocuse D’Or, the international cooking contest, January 28, 2009. (Owen Franken/Corbis)

Keller’s 2012 cookbook, Bouchon Bakery, was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly two months. The following year he added two additional locations of Bouchon Bakery at The Venetian in Las Vegas while continuing to vary his commercial ventures. With Lena Kwak, the research and development chef of The French Laundry, Keller had developed Cup4Cup, a gluten-free flour. In 2013, Keller and Kwak introduced gluten-free pancake, waffle, brownie and pizza mixes. As a consultant for All-Clad Metalcrafters, Keller advised on the creation of the All-Clad Copper Core Bocuse D’Or Cookware. With the porcelain manufacturer Raynaud and the design firm Level, Keller created the Hommage collection of white porcelain dinnerware.

Thomas Keller with one of his heroes and mentors, French Chef Paul Bocuse, and the statuette named for him, awarded in the world cooking competition he founded. (Courtesy of Thomas Keller)
Thomas Keller with one of his heroes and mentors, French Chef Paul Bocuse, and the statuette named for him, awarded in the world cooking competition he founded. (Courtesy of Thomas Keller)

In France, Keller formed a friendship with the legendary chef Paul Bocuse, sponsor of the Bocuse d’Or competition, the Olympics of international cooking. With Paul Bocuse’s son Jerome and their fellow chef Daniel Boulud, Keller founded the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation (Ment’or) in 2008 to “inspire culinary excellence in young professionals and preserve the traditions and quality of classic cuisine in America.” Keller and the Bocuse family hoped to see young American chefs compete successfully in this competition, but a number of years would pass before American chefs would reach the winners’ circle. The French government named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the traditions of French cuisine and his role in elevating culinary art in America. His old friend, Chef Paul Bocuse, presented Keller with the Legion’s medallion in a 2011 ceremony in New York City.

Awards Council member Dr. Andrew Weil presents master chef Thomas Keller with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco, California.
Awards Council member Dr. Andrew Weil presents master chef Thomas Keller with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco, California.

In 2015, Thomas Keller realized a longtime dream when Team USA won the silver medal at the Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France. Today, Thomas Keller and Laura Cunningham make their home in a house behind The French Laundry, while they operate fine dining establishments — as well as casual bistros, cafés and bakeries — in New York, Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and the Napa Valley. Thomas Keller’s books, his dedication and imagination, have brought his informed and inventive cookery into homes from coast to coast and around the world.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2014

Thomas Keller grew up in the restaurant business, in Palm Beach, Florida, working his way up from dishwasher to cook. As a teenager, he fell in love with the art of French cooking and learned his craft working in restaurants up and down the East Coast before moving to France to complete his training.

In 1986, he opened his first restaurant in New York City, but the Wall Street crash of that year hit his business hard and he headed west. In 1994, he set his heart on a converted laundry building in Yountville, in the heart of California’s Napa Valley wine country. It took 19 months to raise the money to purchase the place, but in 1994 he opened his restaurant, The French Laundry, and quickly made it a destination for gourmets and connoisseurs from all over the world. Twice named “Best Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant magazine, it was soon joined by other Keller establishments: Bouchon and Ad Hoc in Yountville, and Per Se in New York City.

Keller has written five bestselling cookbooks, starting with The French Laundry Cookbook, and has received “Best Chef” honors from TIME magazine, the James Beard Foundation and the Culinary Institute of America. Keller is the first and only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings from the prestigious Michelin Guide and is the first American male chef to be designated a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, France’s paramount honorary order.

Watch full interview

How did you come to take over The French Laundry? What did you have in mind?

Thomas Keller: In 1992 I visited the Napa Valley from Los Angeles. I wasn’t doing anything. I had left Checkers. I was unsure of my career. I had now failed in two restaurants and a chef de cuisine position — or executive chef position — at Checkers Hotel. I had moved to a new community, didn’t really know anything about the community, felt very uncomfortable again trying to find a home, trying to find a place I could really embrace and be the chef. I was questioning my ability as a chef. I knew I could cook. Cooking wasn’t the question, but could I lead a team better? Could I interact better with those around me who influence our restaurants? Not just in the kitchen but in the management positions, in the ownership positions, everywhere that I kind of struggled in the past. The kitchen was my comfort zone, and I was very successful in the kitchen, but outside of that I wasn’t so much so.

Keys to success — Vision

Thomas Keller: On a trip to Napa Valley one spring day, Jonathan Waxman, who is a friend of mine who had opened a restaurant in New York and now is opening a restaurant here in Napa Valley. I stopped to see him, say hello, see how he was doing. And he had told me about this small restaurant in Yountville for sale called The French Laundry and I should look into that. He thought that would be the perfect kind of place for me, small, manageable, in a beautiful community here in Napa Valley. So I passed by out of curiosity. And I walked on the property. It was kind of this magical place, and I just felt an instant connection to it. And I thought, “Wow, this may be a great opportunity for me. It may be my last chance.” I was in my mid-30s. I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I need to do it now.” And I went back to Los Angeles. I got in contact with the owners, Don and Sally Schmitt. I explained my intentions. They invited me up to meet them. I came up. I remember she served me on that day. She served me one of the best sandwiches I ever had, which was beef tongue. We sat in their kitchen in their house next door. We made an instant connection, and we agreed on a price, and I was going to buy The French Laundry. Of course I didn’t have any resources whatsoever. I didn’t have a job. I had already closed two restaurants. I had been fired from another. I was a semi-well-known chef with, I guess, a checkered reputation, and now I needed to go out and raise the money to buy this restaurant. I was in an area in California — I was in Los Angeles — I didn’t really know that area that well. I had only been there for a year, but I was determined. I was committed. If I was going to make a career, if I was going to be successful in my chosen vocation, I needed to raise this money. I needed to commit myself to doing something I had never done before. And I always say my biggest asset at the time was my ignorance. Had I known everything that I was going to have to do over the course of the next 18 months, I would have given up right away. It was such a daunting task, the things that I went through. But each day, waking up each day finding some success kept me motivated to the next day.

Did you commit to purchasing it before you raised the money?

Keys to success — Courage

Thomas Keller: The Schmitts, lovely people, had agreed to sell me their restaurant for $1.2 million. They agreed to take $5,000 in escrow. They believed in me. Had they not, I wouldn’t be here today. An attorney in Los Angeles named Bob Sutcliffe, who I was introduced to by way of Joachim Splichal, Bob was an attorney who did, on the side, restaurant deals. He loved food. He loved wine. He loved chefs. So he worked with a couple chefs in helping them raise money, organize their businesses. So I went to Bob’s office with this idea of The French Laundry and hoping that he would be my attorney. Now, before I went to see Bob, you have to realize that I had worked on this business plan, right? And there was another friend of mine in Los Angeles who taught me how to use a computer. There was a friend here in Napa Valley who was a banker turned vintner who helped me with finance, and who helped me with putting together the financial component of the business plan. So when I went to see Bob Sutcliffe, I had a 300-page business plan and a bottle of olive oil. And this olive oil was a small olive oil company I began to kind of keep me solvent in some ways, but also keep me motivated and keep me busy and have kind of — I wouldn’t even call it plan B. Maybe it was a plan D as an olive oil purveyor. So I went to talk to Bob and I gave him this whole spiel about The French Laundry and here was my business plan. And he said, “Okay, this is how much this is going to cost you.” And I said, “You know, Bob, I really don’t have any money, but I have this olive oil.” I put this olive oil on his desk and I told him about this olive oil and what I was doing with it and The French Laundry and all this. And for some reason he said, “Okay, Thomas. I believe in you, but I need something. So if you can give me $5,000, then I’ll take on the project, and if it’s successful, we’ll take our money on the back end.” I said, “Great.” So for the next two weeks I went to the ATM machine, and on my credit card I took out $500 until I got $5,000, and I took $5,000 in cash and gave it to him and he started to modify the business plan and produce a bona fide business plan that I could then present to partners, which we did.

Keys to success — Perseverance

Thomas Keller: Every morning there was a ritual where I would wake up and I would call my list of people asking them for money. “Hello, my name is…” You know, “I have this idea of… … and I’d like you to consider it. Can I send you a copy?” Right. And so that was over 400 people I called during that period of time. Out of those 400, 52 agreed to write a check, for a lot of different reasons, for any amount of money. I think one of my investors invested 500, and the one who invested the most I think was 80,000. So you can see there was a wide range of investment. I wanted to have a large group of people, because of my experience at Rakel. Serge was my only investor (in Rakel) so his life was impacted by the failure of Rakel. I said, “I’m never going to do that again. If I’m going to raise money from a lot of different people so it doesn’t impact — if I’m not successful, it’s not going to impact their lives.” So that was the process with the private placement business plan. On my makeshift desk was — I clipped out of The New York Times during this time — during this period in my life there was an article which was titled “Having a Dream Is Hard. Living It Is Harder.” And that became my inspiration every morning, because I had a dream to buy The French Laundry. But now I had to actually act on it, that dream, and make it reality. So living that dream became one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done in my life. My ignorance, as I said earlier, just continued to motivate me, to propel me forward. The success has motivated me and propelled me forward. The ignorance allowed me to do it. But not only did I have to raise money from private partners, I had to buy the property. So we had to have a commercial bank loan. So I went to different banks, several banks. All of them loved the idea but turned me down. Turned me down primarily not because there wasn’t value in the property, but because I had a tax lien in New York City, and this tax lien was based on our failure at Rakel. So I had to go back to Serge because I didn’t have any money, and I had to ask Serge to satisfy the tax lien, which my portion of it was considerable. And he agreed to do it. So he wrote a check to the New York tax authorities to clear us up, which allowed me to get a bank loan. Not only did I get a commercial bank loan, I also went to the Small Business Administration because I was still short on money. And of course as a white, middle-class, educated American, I wasn’t on the top of the list of somebody the SBA was going to give money to. Yet at that time, Bill Clinton was just inaugurated, became our president, and one of his goals was to fund the SBA and try to get small businesses to be thriving again. So at that right moment, in that right period of time, I was able to put my application in and be approved for an SBA loan. So between private placement, commercial bank loan, and an SBA loan over the period, and with the help of Don and Sally Schmitt and Bob Sutcliffe, my attorney, as well as the 52 partners, we were able to put together enough money to buy The French Laundry, and on May 1, 1994 we finally closed on the deal.

From the beginning, did you have the idea of doing a tasting menu, rather than a long menu of choices?

Thomas Keller: In the beginning, when Don and Sally Schmitt had the restaurant, there was one menu. It was in the era of Chez Panisse, you know. The French Laundry was open almost at the same time that Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse. So it was one menu every day. It changed, whatever the seasons brought, whatever the vegetables were. It was a four-course menu that changed every day. So when I was doing my research and asking people in the Valley what they thought about The French Laundry, they all loved it. It had been here for a long time. It had become part of the fabric of restaurants in Napa Valley, and certainly of Yountville. And one thing they said, “It’s not open enough.” They were only open four days. “And there’s no choices on the menu, so it’s a problem for us.” So I thought, “Well, when I open The French Laundry, we’ll extend hours of operation and we’ll offer choices in each category. We’ll offer a four-course menu and a five-course menu.” So we started out with a menu that had up to seven or eight choices in each category. So we were producing — if it was five, we were producing 40 items, 40, 45 items a day. And that became part of our — and it changed, not every day. We changed every day. Not everything changed every day, but the menu changed every day. It was part of our culture, part of our philosophy, part of the philosophy that we had embraced from Don and Sally Schmitt. As time went on and we became more and more popular, we realized that we wanted to add a tasting menu. So we added a vegetable menu, which was seven courses, and we added a tasting menu, which was nine courses. So now we increased our production from 40 items to 60 items. It was a daunting task for us every day to produce this menu. And as time went on we realized that we started selling more and more tasting menus. And so in conversations with the dining room, the course of a person’s experience there was they would come in and they would ask — they finally got into The French Laundry, it was a great — it was a wonderful moment for them. They didn’t want to make the wrong choice, so they would ask the captain, “So, what should I eat tonight?” “Well, we have this and we have this.” And so 80 percent of the guests were choosing the tasting menu. So it just became a natural evolution for us to do away with the five-course menu because 80 percent of our guests were choosing the nine courses, and 20 percent were choosing the 40 others. So for us we just started to focus on the tasting menu, and it became the two tasting menus, the vegetable and the menus with the proteins.

It’s very much like going into somebody’s home. What is the chef cooking today? As a customer, you come in and you put yourself in the hands of a chef. That’s really a different mentality, isn’t it, than ordering off a big menu?

Keys to success — Vision

Thomas Keller: We used to think about luxury as choices, right. The more choices you had, the more luxurious it was. Well, I could choose, you know, you go to a hotel and you had six pillows to choose from. It’s like, “Wow, I can choose any one of these pillows.” But which one really is the best? You don’t know. Which one do I want? It creates an anxiety in you actually. So when you go into a restaurant like The French Laundry and you have to make a choice, it’s like, “What do I choose?” Right? What does the chef think I should choose? People become very anxious in those moments. And luxury to me is not having to make a choice, having somebody guide me through an experience that’s going to result in something that is memorable. And that’s how we define success, that’s giving people those memories. So our job is to make sure that we’re choosing those ingredients of the moment. We’re putting our — we’re composing our dishes in a way they’re going to be compelling for people, but we also have the ability to modify anything we do for somebody who has a dietary restriction or who just doesn’t like something. We have to be able to give them options but restrict their initial choice to something that we believe they would enjoy. So that’s what we do. We try to limit the choices, relieve the anxiety, and give somebody an experience that then, when they leave the restaurant, it’s memorable.