Hubert and Chantal Keller
Jim Poris / July 2002
Food Arts presents the July/August 2002 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Hubert and Chantal Keller, who have steadfastly carried the banner of French haute cuisine through the riptides of San Francisco's restaurant culture. After Hubert became Maurice Rouas' partner and the chef at Fleur de Lys in 1986, the Kellers redirected the tottering restaurant to a pinnacle high above the eddies of Cal-French, Cal-Ital, Cal-Asian, and just plain Cal that gobbled such old-school French contemporaries as L'Etoile, Le Trianon, La Bourgogne, and Chez Michel. Now recovered and redecorated under Chantal's fashion-savy eye after severe smoke damage from a burning rubber kitchen mat forced its closure last September, the signature tented dining room reopened for its 32nd year this summer.
Hubert attributes Fleur de Lys' long-running rejuvenation to the strict delineation of duties. "Chantal runs the office and the public relations, and has carte blanche on decorating," he explains. "I run the kitchen, the fun part; and Maurice does the front of the house. In other words, we're a ménage à trois."
Also, the Kellers weren't above removing the smug snootiness that made Americans shrink at the words "French restaurant." When they stepped in, they rewrote the menu in English. They took the waiters out of tuxedos and hired Americans—even women—to work the floor. They banned attitude, the French sin, replacing it with a sunny Provençal disposition Hubert picked up from years of working for Roger Vergé. And he lightened the classical underpinnings of the food, offering just enough novelty on the menu—like rabbit, when it was a shudder-inducing item—to lend intrigue and adventure to an evening out.
Noting the surge of Gallic activity in The City—with such Jean-come-latelys as Philippe Jeanty, Laurent Manrique, Laurent Gras, and Sylvain Portay, and the steady-handed Roland Passot and Gerald Hirigoyen—Hubert says: "We never wanted to be anything but a French restaurant. Sooner or later, we knew French would come back again."
Through the family and training, Hubert is steeped in restaurants in a way few Americans of his generation could ever be. The son of a pâtissier who grew up in rooms above the family pastry shop in Ribeauville, in Alsace, Keller attended hotel school in Strasbourg for three years, apprenticed another four at the Michelin three-star Auberge de L'Ill, and then, after several stints here and there, wound up as saucier under Roger Vergé at Moulin de Mougins, as chef de partie under Jacques Maximin at Le Chantecler, and as chef de cuisine at Hôtel Le Prieuré in Saumur, for which he earned its first Michelin star. He then spent six more years working on Vergé projects—two in Brazil and then four at Sutter 500 in San Francisco.
"Yes, Fleur de Lys is expensive, and French, and upscale," says Hubert, "but people feel at ease when they come here. No one whispers in our restaurant. Our dining room is alive with smiling and laughter."