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Thomas Keller
Thomas Keller
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Thomas Keller Biography

Culinary Hall of Fame

Thomas Keller Date of birth: October 14, 1955

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  Thomas Keller

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.

Thomas Keller Biography Photo
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. Here 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.

Thomas Keller Biography Photo
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.

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.

Thomas Keller Biography Photo
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.

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 Biography Photo
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.

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.

Thomas Keller Biography Photo
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.

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 cocktailware 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 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.

Thomas Keller Biography Photo
Keller's 2012 cookbook Bouchon Bakery was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly two months. The follwing 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.

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.

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.

This page last revised on Jan 29, 2016 16:30 EDT
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