An American all-star chef

Michelin man: Thomas Keller is one of the world's most awarded chefs.
Michelin man: Thomas Keller is one of the world's most awarded chefs. Photo: Toby Canham

Thomas Keller spent his 58th birthday yesterday on a golfing trip in Scotland. ''Four courses in four days,'' he says. ''My present to myself.'' Almost four decades into his career, 18 holes at St Andrews seems a suitable reward for one of the most famous and awarded chefs on the planet.

This is the chef behind two landmark restaurants - on opposite sides of the United States - both with recently reconfirmed three Michelin stars. It's almost 20 years since Keller opened his flagship, The French Laundry, in Yountville, California. Also in the Global Destination Restaurant category is Per Se, Keller's gloriously appointed fine diner on Manhattan's Columbus Circle. There's also the bistro-style Bouchon (in Yountville, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills), the more casual Ad Hoc, a string of Bouchon Bakeries, plus a new food and merchandise store Finesse and a glossy magazine by the same name. (The latest issue of Finesse looks at the concept of design and wheels in such contributors as Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter.)

And then there are the awards: several James Beards, including Outstanding Chef: America in 1997 and Outstanding Restaurateur 10 years later. There are many Michelin stars, the World's 50 Best Restaurants Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the title of Chevalier in the French Legion d'honneur, bestowed on the American in 2011 by one of his biggest heroes, the legendary Paul Bocuse - he of the stiffest, tallest, whitest chef's toque of them all and the blue-white-and-red-ribboned collar on his white chef's jackets.

''The French chefs set examples for us,'' says Keller. ''They were leaders of our profession worldwide. And we need to respect our past and where we came from. ''What's more,'' he adds, ''Paul Bocuse had tattoos way before every young chef today.''

Legacy and tradition are foremost in Keller's mind, combined with a great love for what he describes as ''the history and culture of the French culinary tradition''. His icons, apart from Bocuse, are Alain Chapel, Michel Guerard, the Troisgros brothers and Rolan Henin - the US-based French chef he got his first break with, back in the late 1970s, at the Dunes Club in Rhode Island.

While his cooking is decidedly ''American with a French influence'' - witness his signature oysters and pearls, mac 'n cheese and coffee and doughnuts - Keller is president of the US chapter of the very old-school Bocuse d'Or, a worldwide professional competition culminating every two years in hotly contested finals.

Apart from his views on heritage, like any elder statesman in waiting, Keller has plenty of opinions on everything from trends (''Nobody wants to be part of a trend. Because that implies a beginning, middle and an ending,'') to creativity (''It's bullshit. No one creates. It's not new, it's just different.'')

He's uncomfortable with the ''celebrity chef'' epithet - ''We don't call Brad Pitt a celebrity actor'' - and prefers to be thought of as a leader.

And a leader he remains. Using the analogy of a baseball team to describe his staff (around 1000 of them, so more like a complete World Series), Keller speaks a lot about hiring, training and mentoring. It's clear he feels a duty - towards those who inspired him and towards those he will guide forward to greater things.


Scott Nicoll is junior sous-chef at Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, but previously worked for two and a half years at The French Laundry under Keller. ''In the United States, he's someone that all the chefs look up to,'' he says, confessing to having set his sights early on a job at Yountville.

''It's something I tried to reach for my entire cooking career; it's fantastic working for him,'' says Nicoll. ''As soon as you start there you feel part of the family. Everyone's treated with respect.''

When not on a golfing holiday or criss-crossing the globe, a typical Keller day starts in the office - in Yountville - then moves to the kitchen.

''To mentor, to help with the young team and to inspire. You're there to impact them and to make them aware.''

''His house is in the backyard [of the restaurant],'' Nicoll says. ''And whenever he's in California, chef's office is open with a window into the kitchen. If he saw you work on something during service, he'd come and speak with you and give you insight. Usually you never see chefs at that level. So to have him be there as much as possible is so fantastic.''

Nicoll hopes one day to return to the Keller ''family'' with a job at Per Se in New York. Meanwhile, though, he retains strong memories of lessons learned.

''I learned a lot of things that would surprise you,'' he says. ''Not even to do with cooking. Respect, communication, things like that. To me, he's the be-all and end-all.''

Joanna Savill is the director of Good Food Month presented by Citi.