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Thomas Keller
Thomas Keller
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Thomas Keller Interview

Culinary Hall of Fame

September 13, 2015
Yountville, California

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  Thomas Keller

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

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.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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

Thomas Keller: This was one of those -- truly -- moments in a person's life I think that is -- I was blessed. 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.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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 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 u,s 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?

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 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.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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