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Chef Talk: Thomas Keller

His first real love was Champagne, but this star-studded chef has room in his heart for much more

Laurie Woolever
Posted: March 8, 2007

Thomas Keller, 51, is the chef and owner of two of the most highly regarded restaurants in the United States: the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York. Each currently holds three Michelin stars, making him the only American chef to have two three-star restaurants to his name. Keller is also chef and owner of Ad Hoc, Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery, also in Yountville; Bouchon in Las Vegas; and Bouchon Bakery in New York. Keller first learned to cook alongside his mother, in the Palm Beach restaurant that she managed, and later was a stagiere in France, at Taillevent, Guy Savoy and Le Pré Catelan. He cooked in New York in the 1980s, eventually opening his own restaurant, Rakel, before departing for the West Coast to become the executive chef at Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles. Keller purchased the French Laundry in 1994, to realize his vision of a French country restaurant in the Napa Valley. He is the author of two books, The French Laundry Cookbook and The Bouchon Cookbook, both published by Artisan, and has created his own line of tableware, in collaboration with Raynaud of Limoges, France. Wine Spectator Online recently spoke with Keller about his plans for a country inn, his preferred wine varietal and the difficulty of choosing favorites.

Wine Spectator: When did you become interested in wine?
Thomas Keller: When I became interested in food. In all the restaurants, there was always a wine component, going back to the early '70s, when that wine component may have been, "your choice of red or white" [laughing]. My first real love was Champagne. Pouilly-Fuissé and Château Fuissé were the wines I enjoyed at a young age … then my interests broadened. When I had my first restaurant in Florida, in the late '70s, and Southern Wine and Spirits was just beginning, a gentleman named Jim Sullivan was my sales rep, and he was pretty good at getting me interested in other varieties—Pinot Noirs, Cabernets, Bordeaux, Rhône wines—and really established the concepts of vintages and makers and varietals for me.

WS: Is there a uniting principle between the wine programs at the French Laundry and Per Se? And what are some of the differences between them?
TK: We're trying to establish the notion of a world wine list, representing all the great wines from the different regions and countries around the world. Of course, we're not selling as many of the California wines on the East Coast as we do on the West Coast because, being in the Napa Valley, people make the trip there for California wines.

WS: What about the wine programs at Bouchon in Yountville and Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas?
TK: The lists are much smaller, and it's primarily American and French. We offer wines there that are accessible and go well with the style of food, which is bistro food … it's good food and good wine, it's easy, and you're supposed to enjoy it.

WS: Tell me about the Modicum Napa Valley Cabernet that you've created.
TK: Well that was [former French Laundry general manager] Laura [Cunningham]. Laura established the label from a design point of view, and a blending point of view. The first one, our 2000 vintage, was blended by her and [former French Laundry sommelier] Bobby Stuckey, and the subsequent vintages—'01, '02, '03 and '04, which we just blended—were done by Laura and Paul Roberts. The grapes come from an organic vineyard above Auberge du Soleil. It's on our list at French Laundry and Bouchon. We have approval to sell it in California, and we're seeking approval to sell it in New York and Las Vegas. But it's a very small production, averaging around 250 cases a year. It's tiny.

WS: Is there a "dream wine" that you'd love to have for your restaurants or your personal collection?
TK: That's like when people ask, "What's your favorite food?" Why limit yourself to one? We're doing a Penfolds lunch today at French Laundry, and Grange has always been one of my all-time favorite wines. But then I went down to see Paul Draper, and Monte Bello is one of my all-time favorite wines. I love Paul Jaboulet, and La Chapelle is one of my favorite wines of all times. And that's just America and France! [Laughing.] The list goes on and on. I would hate to try and limit myself to one wine. It's like thinking about what's the last wine you'd drink before you die. It's too hard a choice, and I hope I don't know how I am going to die and what that last wine is [laughing].

WS: Do you collect wine for personal consumption, and what's in your cellar?
TK: I do. There's a full range, from all the major wine-producing countries. There's a lot of Paul Draper's Zinfandel, because Zinfandel is my favorite varietal. You'll find some of the Rhône Valley, a good amount of Bordeaux and Burgundies. Alsace is another one of my favorite regions, so you'll find some of those in there. Barolo is another one of my favorites, and some Australians.

WS: What is it about Zinfandel that makes it your favorite varietal?
TK: I love young Zinfandels. Maybe it's that American brashness or sensibility in me. It's really forward in fruit, it's big and thick and rich and juicy. I really like that about the Zins, and certainly about Paul [Draper]'s wines, which probably have the most finesse out of those kind of Zinfandels, but are still very powerful wines.

WS: What advice would you give to a diner who's intimidated by a large list like the ones at French Laundry and Per Se?
TK: That's a real dilemma for us. It's great to see that in our country, we've become more knowledgeable—yet the result is more choices, which can be confusing and overwhelming. I think the best way to go is with the sommeliers. As we've been seeing a resurgent interest in cooking and great American chefs, now we're seeing a resurgent interest in wine, and great American sommeliers. What I would like to see happen at our restaurants is no menu, no wine list. [The staff] would talk to our guests, find out what they want, and talk with the chef. It's about talking to the guest and finding out what flavor profiles they like, and choosing some options for them, both from a varietal point of view as well as from a cost point of view. Wine lists are intimidating, they're so big and take so much time to review that you're actually forcing your guest to be rude to the rest of his party … When you go to someone's house who knows wine and has a decent cellar and knows how to cook, you're going there to have that experience. You're not going to choose the wine from his cellar; he's going to choose it for you, because that's what he wants you to drink. It's a really wonderful experience to have someone do that for you.

WS: Do you have plans to open any more restaurants?
TK: Well, there's the hamburger restaurant that I've always wanted to do … and there's the inn at the French Laundry. We own the property right across the street [from the restaurant], which is approximately 3 acres of land, and … we're getting very close to our final permitting stages, so hopefully within six months we'll be into design and development, and in construction within the next 12 months. And hopefully, two and a half years from today, we should be opening. I call it an inn for lack of a better description, but it's really an extension of the restaurant. It will have 20 guest rooms.

WS: As a professional, what would you like to see more or less of in dining rooms or on menus?
TK: The kind of rudeness that some of our guests portray when a restaurant is full and they demand a table—I'd really like that to go away. I'd really like a little more understanding from our guests when we're trying to establish an experience, and we're basing that on what we know we can do the best, which relates to what number of customers we can serve. Some people really get abusive to our staff about wanting a reservation. If there's a Broadway play you want to see, but you call up for tickets and they're sold out, I don't think you scream and yell and say, "You need to put another seat in there for me! Do you know who I am?" As much as we don't want to say "no" to anybody, sometimes, your [reservation book is] complete.

WS: Has the pressure of more demand than supply intensified for you in the wake of your second three Michelin stars?
TK: It has, but we were saying "no" to 20 people before, and now we're saying "no" to 30 people. We're not taking advantage of it by trying to do more covers. We're trying to do fewer covers, and do them better.

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