Chef Thomas Keller at a crossroads

Thomas Keller with his staff in the kitchen at The French Laundry.
Thomas Keller with his staff in the kitchen at The French Laundry. PHOTO: NYTIMES

At an age when other successful chefs are plotting exit strategies, The French Laundry's Thomas Keller, 61, has yet to chart his course

NEW YORK • In the tight confines of a New York taxi, Thomas Keller leaned against his interviewer's shoulder. It was an intimate move for a chef whose hallmarks are precision, decorum and control.

He wanted to talk about children and the Easter egg hunt his team hosts every year at Addendum, a garden and take-out spot just down the street from The French Laundry, his flagship restaurant in Yountville, California.

Watching other people's children gleefully scramble for eggs was both wonderful and sad this year.

He and Ms Laura Cunningham, the woman he calls his life partner, were never able to share that kind of pleasure with a child of their own.

She has been with him for 23 years. As the architect of his restaurants' precise, casually elegant style of service and, later, at the helm of the company's brand, she has done more to build the Keller empire than anyone besides him. Together, they have spent their lives feeding and employing hundreds of thousands of people.

Keller thinks, at least for him, a change may be in order. "At some point, you want to say, 'I gave, I gave, I gave - now, it's time for us,'" he said.

He is 61, an age when other successful chefs of his generation have started to plot exit strategies and consider legacies.

Keller, so meticulous that one imagines he would like to plan the exact moment and nature of his own death, has yet to figure out his course.

"I go back and forth on the level of intensity I want to continue to dedicate to my profession because I've done it for the past 44 years and that's a long time," he said.

"When is taking care of everybody else less important than taking care of yourself?"

Like all Keller decisions, what comes next will be carefully considered and likely will not come soon. He is in what he calls the seductive stage of his newest venture, a 200-seat restaurant, tentatively called the Tak Room, in the huge Hudson Yards development on the West Side of Manhattan. Opening in autumn next year, it will be his first new restaurant in almost 10 years.

The menu will reflect a time when the fanciest food in America was called continental cuisine.

Imagine, he said, the great restaurants of the Mad Men era, with someone like cabaret singer Bobby Short at the piano. Keller is helping select six premier chefs and restaurateurs to join him in the complex.

The rest of his portfolio includes several Bouchon bakeries and restaurants around the country and a plethora of side hustles. He has designed plates and pots and makes olive-oil-infused chocolate with Tuscan oil producer Armando Manni.

He oversees food on the Seabourn Cruise Line. He sells knives, garden seeds and silver clothespins at a store in Yountville called Finesse and a gluten-free flour mix called Cup4Cup at grocery stores. Much of it has been executed under the watchful eye of Ms Cunningham, who declined to be interviewed, saying she preferred to keep the focus on Keller.

The couple have spent part of the last year buffing Per Se, the Michelin- starred showpiece in the Time Warner Center that took a hit in January last year when it was demoted to two stars from four by The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells.

"The long-held perception of Per Se as one of the country's greatest restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appears out of date," Wells wrote.

Shortly afterwards, Keller posted a letter of apology to customers on his website. He remains protective of his employees and travelled to each of his restaurants to speak with them. Although he is quick to highlight aspects of the criticism that he thinks were wrong, he used the review as a pivot point.

"He saw it as a wake-up call, certainly - a defining moment," said Russ Parsons, retired food editor of The Los Angeles Times, who does some work for Keller.

The chef's central focus these days are the final touches on what he envisions as the physical representation of the Keller legacy: a nearly US$11-million (S$15.4-million) renovation of the kitchen and property at The French Laundry, which he bought in 1994 and transformed from a beloved local inn into one of the greatest restaurants in the world.

Although the grounds are still under construction, the kitchen has been in full swing for several weeks. It looks perfect, but Keller continues to tinker. On a recent night, even a thread hanging from the toque of a chef on the fish station caught his attention, so he walked down the line and yanked it off.

All the changes have affected him more than he had anticipated.

"You spend 21/2 years getting to a place, you're almost there and then, you begin feeling the emotional effect of nostalgia," he said. "In some ways, it makes me happy, and in other ways, it makes me desperately sad. I look at it and I go, 'Wow, this is extraordinary.' But sometimes, I look at it and go, 'Why did I do this? Did I really set an example for future generations of chefs and what they can achieve?'"

The importance of a generational passing of the baton consumes him. There is no obvious successor and The French Laundry has yet to establish an identity independent of his. "The French Laundry is Thomas Keller," he said. "My job is to change that."

Raising a generation of chefs to cook as he does has become a vital part of his work. He sits on the board of the Culinary Institute of America and helped start a foundation called Ment'or to further the professional culinary standards he learnt at the hands of the French masters.

That effort began as a way to help the United States perform better at the Bocuse d'Or, the biennial international cooking competition held in Lyon, France, that is wrapped in so many obscure rules and requires such intense training that it brings to mind Olympic-level dressage competition.

The contest was named after Paul Bocuse, 91, who is widely considered the father of modern French cuisine and who has great affection for the United States. He has been a mentor and father figure to Keller.

The day before the competition in January, Bocuse was sick. Keller visited him and wrapped a red, white and blue scarf around his neck as the old chef rested in bed. Keller promised to return a few days later with the first-place trophy, a golden effigy of Bocuse.

In an office at Per Se two weeks ago, Keller pulled up a photograph of the two of them after the team's victory, the scarf still around Bocuse's neck.

"You get to a certain age and you realise your mortality and those who paved the way are gone," Keller said. "There is a great sadness to that."

That great sadness can creep in, too, when he surveys the new French Laundry kitchen at the peak of a busy dinner service.

If he could, he would still be cooking there every night. It is where life is simple and he is the happiest. But he knows he has a different job now.

"I have to prepare myself to let go, which is a very, very difficult thing for me," he said. "It breaks my heart."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline 'Chef at a crossroads'. Print Edition | Subscribe