America’s most decorated chef, Thomas Keller has won every prize worth winning in the world of gastronomy. He is the first and only US-born chef to hold three Michelin stars at more than one restaurant (The French Laundry and Per Se), and was the first male chef in his country to be awarded the title of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. From James Beard gongs, to the Culinary Institute of America’s ‘Chef of the Year’ award, he has won them all. But most important of all is his ability to win over diners with his highly refined yet simple French cuisine in his relaxed yet vibrant restaurants.
As a child he developed a taste for kitchen life while helping out in his mother’s restaurant, and spent subsequent summers washing dishes and cooking at the Palm Beach Yacht Club. But it wasn’t until he crossed paths with Roland Henin at The Dunes Club that he discovered classical French cuisine, and the rest, as they say, is history. He travelled to France to learn the ropes at Michelin-starred kitchens such as Taillevent, Le Pre Catalan and Guy Savoy before returning to the States and opening Rakel in New York City. It was only after he bought a little stone farmhouse in Yountville, California, and opened The French Laundry that the world really began to take notice of Thomas Keller.
His food is blessed with classic simplicity. But while Keller retains a deep respect for high-quality ingredients and precise cooking techniques, there’s also a playful side to his work. Take his signature salmon cornets, a dish inspired by a trip to Baskin-Robbins. Cone-shaped tuiles are topped with fresh smoked salmon tartare and crème fraîche to make a fuss-free finger food that tastes as good as any ice cream. His Oyster and Pearls dish, however, is sheer luxury, with its sabayon of pearl tapioca, white sturgeon caviar and beausoleil oysters in a buttery hollandaise sauce. Something as straightforward as a roast chicken becomes iconic in Keller’s hands, and a classic dessert like coffee with doughnuts couldn’t be less fussy, but it’s the execution that makes it truly memorable.
Both The French Laundry and Per Se in New York City set the benchmark for Keller’s work. His Bouchon bistros and bakeries bring his food to a wider audience, but the pursuit of perfection is the thread that links them all together. Keller’s kitchens attract talent, and are renowned for honing the skills of some of the world’s best chefs, from Grant Achatz (Alinea) to René Redzepi (Noma). As president of the USA Bocuse d’Or team, Keller has guided further new generations of chefs to excellence in the world’s toughest cooking competition, and in 2017, the team won the gold medal for the first time.
All of Keller’s protégés take away something of his philosophy that a great meal is an emotional experience enjoyed in beautiful surrounds, and while food itself can never be truly perfect, the ultimate goal is to make people happy. Anyone who has pored over Keller’s books The French Laundry Cookbook or Bouchon Bakery will be familiar with the idea that pleasure can be found not only in eating, but also in preparing, cooking and presenting food.
Thomas Keller’s food has touched millions of people, but his influence extends far beyond his restaurants. His commitment to excellence has set an example for new generations of chefs around the world, who have gone on to create wonderful restaurants and first-rate food. It will be those chefs who teach future generations, who in turn will shape the way we produce, cook and eat food in an increasingly uncertain future. But despite the challenges ahead, those chefs might just be inspired to cook with the same attention to joy and happiness that first emanated from the little stone farmhouse in Yountville, California, in 1994. For Thomas Keller, that might be the greatest prize of all.