Over the weekend, Joshua David Stein tracked down Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry, at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival, dragged him into the back of a Lexus to escape the adoring crowds and grilled him, ever so gently.
Joshua David Stein: Tell me about what's going on in the Kellerian empire?
Thomas Keller: We just opened in Beverly Hills of course we opened that in November, so it's just now almost five months old in a week, which is not very old for a restaurant.
How is it going?
It's going really well. It seems like when you open a restaurant it's always highly anticipated and people are watching you so we have to make sure we get everything right from the get go. It's not like when I opened the French Laundry where I had months of being anonymous and no one really cared. It's become a little more under the microscope. It takes a little longer to open a restaurant because you want to make sure everything is correct, you know — the training, the facility, everything has to be that much more scrutinized than if you are just starting out. But it has been well-received. I love LA. I was born in Southern California and I lived down there for three years and it's great to be back in Beverly Hills. I never thought I'd have a restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Yeah it's like Keller 90210.
It's pretty funny but it's turned out to be a really good spot.
Do you yearn for the spontaneity afforded to you when you were relatively unknown?
When I opened Ad Hoc, because in my mind it was only a temporary restaurant there was no reason for anyone to take it too seriously from a critical point of view too seriously I wasn't expecting [San Francisco Chronicle's] Michael Bauer to come in or anyone to look at it or write about it because I made it pretty clear that it was only going to be open six or seven months and we wanted to do a hamburger restaurant which I've been wanting to do for sixteen years. Which might never happen.
A Thomas Keller Hamburger Joint?
My first experience at In-N-Out Burger inspired me to do a hamburger restaurant. I've had it in the back of my mind for sixteen years but I haven't gotten around to it. It's kind of a secret fantasy. It would be a hamburger restaurant based on wine so the genesis of it needed to be Napa Valley. I could have opened one in Las Vegas or New York years ago, but I always wanted to save it to have the original be in Napa Valley.
There is this Thomas Keller Industrial Complex then there's the Thomas Keller I'm sitting across from now, how big is the gulf between the two?
Everyone has their personal life and everyone has their professional life. And because my professional life is so public, I have to detach myself from it to keep my own sanity.
Will there ever be a Bouchon Abu Dhabi or Per Se Dubai?
I was in Abu Dhabi a couple years ago with Daniel just looking around. What occurred to me is that they have no infrastructure for supporting restaurants. They all want restaurants but there's no culinary schools, there's no sourcing, I said “Christ you guys put a frigging ski slope in a mall. Get fifty acres of land and make a farm! If you can do that for some ridiculous reason, you can make a sustainable farm. If you can make golf courses, you can create a beautiful farm.” Therein lies part of the infrastructure they should be creating and establishing if they want restaurants. They need to have schools, they need to have farms. With the wealth that they have, they can do it.
Are there any further Ad Hocs or Per Ses in the works?
Not right now but there are different reasons for different things. We opened Bouchon in Yountville, it's because we needed a place to eat late. We opened Bouchon Bakery because we wanted to produce and control our own bread. Ad Hoc was an accident. Per Se was really about an expansion in a pure definition of it. The other restaurants had a purpose that related to the French Laundry or to our personal needs but Per Se and Las Vegas were about extending the brand. Ad Hoc is a great idea and it's turned into a great restaurant. But at the end of the day, it's really about the people. If you don't have the individuals to do it, you can't. I, personally, can't do it. I can say yes. But I can't do it.
Is there a Thomas Keller pipeline?
Our biggest successes have been from hiring within. The analogy I always use is a sports franchise. The New York Yankees are great not because it's an accident.
They have a farm system.
Exactly. They have Derek Jeter today and they know when he retires, the other guy is going to be there.
So who is your next Derek Jeter?
Well, Jonathan Benno and Corey Lee, two extraordinary chefs who came up through our system, Now Eli Kaimeh in New York and Timothy Hollingsworth at the French Laundry.
You're heavily involved with the American team of the Bocuse d'Or. What are our chances at Lyon?
You want to have the thoughts that our chances are always great. We fielded a team. So now they're training. We're working with the team. We've got their structure set up. We the board define and give them overarching goals for their food. We know what the food will be.. Right now the team's responsibility is to conceptualize what their dishes are going to be. They're not even cooking yet.