Meet Thomas Keller, America’s Real Top Chef

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Food

Chef Thomas Keller in The French Laundry culinary garden in Yountville, Calif. (Photo: Deborah Jones)

Yahoo Food is proud to present a new weeklong series called “Master Class.” Throughout the year, we’ll visit with some of America’s top culinary talents and share a behind-the-scenes look at the worlds they’ve created. First up, the country’s most revered chef, Thomas Keller. Check back all week for news about Keller; interviews with his team, purveyors, and people he’s inspired; and, of course, some recipes.

What Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Warren Buffett, and Michael Jordan are to their professions, chef Thomas Keller is to his. In culinary circles, he is the guy. Six months shy of his 60th birthday, Keller is already a legend, an icon, the gold standard of what it means to be a chef in this country.

But know this. He’s not such a big shot that he won’t pick up litter near his restaurants. (We witnessed this twice.) He began his career as a teenage dishwasher. He didn’t go to culinary school. His first restaurant failed. And he had a fallow period where he had to live off his credit cards.

So in other words, he’s an American success story.

Born at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego County, where his father was stationed, Keller was raised in Palm Beach, Florida, by his mother following his parents’ divorce. His first big break came from his mom, who ran restaurants. One of her chefs failed to show up, so she put her son to work at the stove. From there, Keller worked various kitchen gigs in Rhode Island, New York, and France for several years before opening his first restaurant, Rakel. Located in downtown New York, Rakel was a critical hit, but struggled after the stock market crash of 1987. Keller headed west and worked as a consultant, ran a hotel kitchen, and launched an olive oil brand. But nothing really clicked for him.

Everything changed in 1994 when he became chef/owner of The French Laundry, a homey restaurant in California’s Napa Valley that had been owned by a local couple, Don and Sally Schmitt. Keller heard the spot was for sale, scraped together a group of investors, and opened for business. A loyal audience and accolades quickly followed, but one review in 1997 put the place on the map. The French Laundry, wrote then-New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, “is the most exciting place to eat in the United States … a meal at the French Laundry is a wild ride, an exhilarating flavor carnival.”

Thomas Keller in the original French Laundry kitchen in 1994. (Photo: TKRG)

Twenty years, three Michelin stars, and countless other reviews and awards later, The French Laundry remains a must-visit destination for gourmands the world over. For some, the steep price tag — a nine-course dinner starts at $295 before alcohol and extras — makes it a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list adventure. The same is true of Keller’s other three-Michelin-star restaurant, Per Se, the stately, serene spot overlooking New York’s Columbus Circle. There, a nine-course meal is $310. 

But you don’t need to be rich to experience a taste of Keller’s universe. A macaron and a small cup of black coffee will set you back about $6 at his well-regarded Bouchon Bakery. Bouchon Bistro features traditional French fare à la carte — glistening seafood platters, perfect roast chicken, croque madame sandwiches, and addictive fries. 

Ryan Seacrest poses with Thomas Keller and Laura Cunningham, Keller’s business partner and fiancée, behind the scenes of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. (Photo: Instagram/thomaskeller_com)

At Ad Hoc, Keller’s casual comfort-food restaurant in Yountville, the four-course $52 prix fixe menu changes daily. The most recent offering featured a salad of lettuces, pickled carrots, radishes, beets, sunflower seeds, and eggs mimosa (a variation on deviled eggs); hanger steak with twice-baked loaded potatoes, asparagus, and charred spring onions; a local cheese plate with citrus-honey marmalade; and a vanilla ice cream sundae with chocolate, butterscotch, and strawberry sauces.

If you’re still hungry, behind Ad Hoc is an outdoor fried chicken/BBQ shack of sorts called Addendum. You can order a boxed lunch to go or eat at one of the picnic tables underneath the redwood trees.

Chef Keller and photographer Annie Leibovitz in The French Laundry garden. (Photo: Kathryn MacLeod)

For all of his accomplishments, outposts, and awesome eats, Chef, as he is called, is very much focused on what’s next. “Everything that’s written about you is written about what you did yesterday. Or six months ago,” he said, sitting outside his office on a balmy, picturesque Yountville afternoon. Right now, what’s top of mind is the future of The French Laundry. In fact, his landmark restaurant closed on Dec. 24, 2014, for a major two-part overhaul of the kitchen. (You can watch the demolition of the original kitchen structure here on Instagram.)

With the first phase complete, the restaurant will reopen tomorrow. During the downtime, some of the staff went to work in Spain, France, and Japan; others joined their colleagues at Per Se. Some took vacation. “Usually, we close the restaurant 32 days a year and we all take off,” Keller said. “Last year because we knew we were going to close — zero vacation.” Himself included.

For the remaining staffers, Keller launched a pop-up restaurant called Ad Lib on the grounds of Napa Valley’s Silverado Resort & Spa. “We didn’t want to lose 100 people,” he said. Like all things Keller touches these days, Ad Lib is a hit and will remain open longer than planned, at least through mid-October. The menu is filled with country club classics kicked up Keller style: Caesar salad prepared tableside, lamb chops with minted apple jelly, beef short-rib Wellington for two, a seven-layer coconut cake.

Chef Thomas Keller works alongside French Laundry Chef de Cuisine David Breeden. (Photo: Deborah Jones)

The French Laundry culinary team, now back together, will operate out of a temporary kitchen inside a shipping container sitting outside the restaurant. The space won’t feel entirely unfamiliar, as the equipment inside was salvaged from the original kitchen. Even though Chef isn’t terribly nostalgic, it turns out he and the team had some separation anxiety. “The old equipment became part of us,” he said as he walked across the construction site, his black Clogmaster shoes crunching on the gravel. “We didn’t get rid of anything. It all fit in here.” 

Chef always has a full plate, so is there anything else on the horizon? Another project, a new restaurant? Maybe, maybe not, he answered. “You have to be kind of picky. Opening another restaurant is not always a good thing. My colleagues, like Daniel Boulud, and I talk sometimes about this ideal life we want one day, where we just can go back to having that one restaurant. As young cooks, we aspire to have our own restaurant and as older accomplished cooks, we aspire to have our own restaurant.”

Does he ever see that day coming? “If you realize the next thing may not be opening a restaurant, then what’s the next thing?” he pondered out loud. “Maybe the next thing is being happy where you are.”

More on America’s top chefs:

The best advice Thomas Keller ever got

How Chef Daniel Boulud cooks at home

The one food Eric Ripert won’t eat

What restaurant is on your bucket list? Let us know below!