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Thomas Keller

Jim Poris - January/February 2001

Food Arts presents the January/February 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Thomas Keller, the chef/owner of The French Laundry and Bouchon in Yountville, California, who has milled the defining attributed of a successful contemporary chef for his American peers. Keller's intensely refined French-inspired food, delivered during a procession of three-bite dishes that lasts hours in The French Laundry's spare, intimate dining rooms, has garnered heaps of impassioned critical praise and as many awards and citations as a heroic four-star general. To chefs, though—particularly Americans, who exist outside the grounding, grinding pale of European foodservice traditions—Keller's relentless embrace of professional protocols (and burdensome minutiae) has made him an inspiring model.

"Young cooks tell me that I've contributed to their sensibility and focus of what it means to be a chef," says Keller, 45, who started cooking professionally 27 years ago in a South Florida restaurant managed by his mother. "Guests who come into the kitchen always say they're surprised to see me there. But I'm here, trying to create a clean, organized environment that gives us everything we need to do a complete job. And it's still something I struggle with, this ideal cook's world."

Keller bears the bumps and bruises of that struggle. As an itinerant season cook in his early 20s, he shuttled between Florida and coastal New England, finding a mentor in Roland Henin at a resort in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Keller spent three years in the early 1980s at La Rive in New York's Hudson Valley before heading to France for a year of stages in Michelin-starred houses. He returned to New York City, cooking at a number of top restaurants before his five-year run as chef at Rakel, where his star shined and dimmed in the junk bond-fueled restaurant scene of the late 1980s.

"At Rakel, I was easily persuaded to do things that someone said I needed to do to get somewhere rather than what I though I needed to do to make myself a better chef," Keller recalls of his first foray into the fame game. "Celebrity is nothing more than what people make you out to be. I had a moment of flash, then faded. It took me several more years to figure things out."

The acrimonious collapse of Rakel led him to another bitter experience at the Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles. Short of money, with little business experience, and a trail of ill will behind him, Keller found his Camelot, The French Laundry, in 1994 when the restaurant's founders, Don and Sally Schmitt, sold it to him. "it was a two-year struggle with The French Laundry, every day waking up in a cold sweat of worry," Keller says. "Determination, fate, destiny—all those things play into what you are. It's important, though, to stay true to the integrity of what you're doing and not succumb to the seduction of mediocrity.

"There's no greater pressure than what we put upon ourselves to exceed expectations. I'm my toughest critic, and, if I'm happy, then a great percentage of the customers will be happy, too."