The Michelin Guide crossed the pond to the USA in 2005, focusing solely on New York restaurants in its first year. The French Laundry’s sister restaurant, Per Se, opened in New York’s Time Warner Center the previous year, was awarded an instant three stars, and when a Michelin Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area was added in 2007, The French Laundry received three stars of its own. Keller’s bistro, Bouchon, also received a star in the Bay Area guide, taking the total to seven stars, the most held by any US chef.
Now a veteran of the US culinary scene, Keller has helped hone the skills of a new generation of Michelin-star chefs. The kitchens of The French Laundry have been staffed by Noma’s René Redzepi, and Grant Achatz, whose Chicago restaurant Alinea has held three Michelin stars since 2010. Achatz even named his son, Keller, after his former mentor. Keller is also heavily involved in selecting and mentoring the USA’s entrants into the prestigious Bocuse d’Or, an international culinary competition which takes place biennially in Lyon, France. Team USA took the victory in 2017 with a team composed of Mathew Peters and Harrison Turone, both formerly of Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se.
Since opening The French Laundry in 1994, Keller has helped transform the small town of Yountville, where it is located, into a gourmet paradise. With a population of around 3,000, and four Michelin stars shared between The French Laundry and Bouchon, Yountville boasts the most Michelin stars per capita of any town in the USA. Foodie pilgrims can also visit various other eateries, all owned by Keller: Bouchon Bakery is a french-style boulangerie adjoining Bouchon and serving artisan breads and desserts; Ad Hoc provides classic American comfort food at it’s very best; La Calendar serves authentic Mexican cuisine made with the best artisanal ingredients.
Keller may also have had a hand in establishing another fine dining hotspot, across the bay in the town of Los Gatos. Fellow chef David Kinch tells how Keller was instrumental in persuading him to buy the premises for his own restaurant, Manresa, in 2002. Manresa makes yet another three-Michelin-star restaurant in the Bay Area, having earned its third star in 2016.
Thomas Keller Michelin-starred restaurants
The French Laundry
Keller’s flagship restaurant started life as a saloon bar in the small California town of Yountville, followed by a brief spell as an actual French Laundry in the 1920s. It first became a restaurant under the proprietorship of Yountville Mayor Don Schmitt and his wife Sally, and was purchased by Keller in 1994.
Keller was an early champion of local, sustainable food, and expanded the restaurant’s modest kitchen garden into a three-acre smallholding from which to source his ingredients. Inside, The French Laundry prides itself on classical elegance, with pressed white table linen and fine china, yet there are also touches of whimsy, such as the iconic salmon ice cream. There are two nine-course tasting menus, one with meat and one without, neither using any ingredient more than once.
Keller’s cookbook, also called The French Laundry, was published in 1999, winning the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Cookbook of the Year award the following year. The recipes were famously challenging, but the book also contained interesting insights into Keller’s culinary philosophy. ‘The way to keep the experience fresh,’ he advises, ‘Is not by adding more flavours, but rather by focusing more on specific flavours.”
The French Laundry has won numerous awards, and was named Best Restaurant in The World by Restaurant Magazine for two years running, in 2003 and 2004. It was awarded three Michelin stars in the very first Michelin guide to the San Francisco Bay Area back in 2007, and has maintained them ever since.
The French Laundry’s New York sister restaurant opened its doors in 2004 to rave reviews from The New Yorker and The New York Times. Keller’s reputation was well established by this point, and reservations for his latest venture were booked months in advance. Like The French Laundry, Per Se offers two nine-course tasting menus and everything is done with the same painstaking attention to detail. Keller famously hired a ballet dancer to teach his waiters how to move noiselessly around the dining room.
Per Se has also been the recipient of the highest accolades. Forbes Travel Guide has been awarding its maximum five stars every year since 2005, and it was declared the best restaurant in New York City by New York Times critic Sam Sifton in 2011. Despite being the younger of the two, Per Se was actually awarded its three Michelin stars some two years before The French Laundry, as the Michelin Guide was only operating in New York at the time.
Bouchon, which opened in 1998, is located just along the street from The French Laundry, and showcases Keller’s love of simple French bistro fare, cooked with care and attention. Like The French Laundry, Bouchon also lends its name to a cookbook with recipes from the restaurant. It was awarded one Michelin star in the 2007 Bay Area guide, and has maintained it ever since.