Thomas Keller, a celebrity chef at a crossroads

Chef Thomas Keller, with other staff, plates food in the renovated kitchen at French Laundry in Yountville, California.
Chef Thomas Keller, with other staff, plates food in the renovated kitchen at French Laundry in Yountville, California.PHOTO: NYTIMES

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

Keller wanted to talk about children and the Easter egg hunt his team hosts every year at Addendum, a garden and takeout 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 Laura Cunningham, the woman he calls his life partner, were never able to share that kind of pleasure with a child of their own.

Cunningham 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 Keller. Together, they have spent their lives feeding and employing hundreds of thousands of people.

 Chef Thomas Keller in the renovated kitchen of his restaurant French Laundry PHOTO: NYTIMES

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.

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

"Everyone is kind of charting their own course on this," said Emily Luchetti, a pastry chef and author who is about to turn 60. "When we all started out, there were no real mentors to look at and say, 'That's how I want to do it when I'm in my 60s or 70s.' The only thing we had were old European chefs who could no longer cook anymore because their knees were giving out." 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 now 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 very 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 fall 2018, 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 Bobby Short at the piano. Keller is helping select six premier chefs and restaurateurs to join him in the complex.

Thomas Keller by the Hudson Yards construction site, the location of his newest venture, a 200-seat restaurant tentatively called the TAK Room PHOTO: NYTIMES

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 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 2016 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 afterward, 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.

With its playful take on classic dishes, casual but refined service and luxe, pristine ingredients - many from its garden across the street - the restaurant cemented his reputation and proved, finally, that American chefs had stepped from the shadow of their European elders.

Bitter cocoa laminated brioche on custom ceramic dishes in the renovated kitchen at French Laundry in Yountville, California.


For the remodeling, Keller turned for inspiration to the Louvre's mix of old and new architecture. Snohetta, the design firm behind the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the reconfiguration of Times Square as a largely pedestrian zone, created a soaring kitchen ceiling that evokes a white tablecloth floating down to a tabletop. Looming large on one wall is a clock and his favourite motivational mantra: "Sense of Urgency." There are solar panels and deep geothermal wells and a 16,000-bottle wine cellar. The counters are a few inches taller than before, so cooks do not have to bend down as much. Keller has even made extra space to accommodate people who want to see the kitchen and take a picture, which 80 per cent of the guests do.

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 2 ½ 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."

All of this comes at a time when the experience at Per Se or the French Laundry - nine or more courses of artfully rendered French-influenced food spread over three or four hours at a cost that starts at more than US$300 (S$420) a person - is being challenged as anachronistic.

"Per Se, Daniel, Le Bernardin - those aren't the places that people talk to me about wanting to go to," said Peter Meehan, who has just ended a partnership with chef David Chang as editor of Lucky Peach, a cookbook and magazine publisher whose last issue will come out in the fall. "There's always going to be a place for expense-account dining like that, but it's not central to the conversation about food or cooking or being a chef." Even Keller's most devoted friends say it may be time to change.

"Charging so much money for that long of a meal is kind of ludicrous in this day and age; it needs to evolve," said chef Jonathan Waxman, a longtime friend who showed Keller the French Laundry when it came up for sale in the 1990s. "I think he gets that intrinsically. But when you're in the middle of the Panama Canal, you can't turn the boat around right away."

In an era when authenticity, cultural appropriation, and gender and racial imbalance in the kitchen are on the minds of many cooks and diners, Keller's style of dining and the largely white, male crew of young chefs he mentors are inviting targets.

Preeti Mistry, 40, a classically trained chef with a modified Mohawk who cooks elevated Indian street food at her Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, California, and her new spot, Navi Kitchen in nearby Emeryville, was in culinary school when she discovered Keller's French Laundry Cookbook. It had become an instant professional and spiritual guide for cooks of her generation.

In 2004, she visited the French Laundry. At the time, she thought it was the most amazing meal she had ever eaten. She even got to shake hands with Keller. "I left feeling like I just met Drake or something," she recalled.

But now? She views fine dining as disingenuous, built from a system steeped in oppression and hierarchy in which women, gays and other minorities - whether customers or cooks - are not treated the same.

"It's essentially haute couture, and we know haute couture appropriates from minorities and urban communities," she said. Chefs as powerful as Keller, she said, have a responsibility to address those issues. "You need to go on your woke journey." Keller smiled when presented with that lens on his profession.

"I pushed against convention when I was young," he said. "Then you realise there is no reason to push against things. There is no value in it." Hard work and dedication to craft, he said, will right all wrongs.

"I came from a broken family," said Keller, whose father was a Marine drill sergeant, and who continues to support veterans' causes. "My mother worked at night to support us, and I moved out of the house at 15 and supported myself. No matter what your circumstance, you need to find your own way out. In order to get ahead, you have to work hard. It's pretty simple."

Raising a generation of chefs to cook as he does has become a vital part of Keller's 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 learned 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 been both mentor and a 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 own mortality, and realise 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."