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The Perfectionist Gets Burned

How Thomas Keller survived the fire that almost took down Per Se, Manhattan’s, um, hottest new restaurant.


Thomas Keller's smile conceals the worry within.  

“I very much consider myself a worrier,” Thomas Keller says, seated in the sleek, contemporary dining room of his new culinary temple, Per Se, but he looks something other than worried. That, however, is Thomas Keller. He maintains everything with Longines-like precision—most of all appearances.

“It’s just that I internalize it,” Keller explains coolly. “So people keep telling me, ‘Thomas, you look so great today.’ I just think, I wish you could see inside me. It’s just this churning. I look out the window, at where they’re digging up the ground on Columbus Circle . . . ” He looks out his massive windows at a maze of furrows at the corner of Central Park, where workmen are installing new water mains. “It’s like that,” Keller adds. “My insides keep getting dug up.”

Keller didn’t have to be here at all. He had it all back in California. Twenty-five hundred miles from the chaos of a city that had been a bit unkind to him the last time around, Keller had designed the perfect chef’s life in the sun-drenched vineyards of America’s Bordeaux, the Napa Valley, where this chef with no formal training built an intimate, seventeen-table Yountville restaurant, the French Laundry, into a four-star juggernaut. He was nearly 48. He was sun-tanned. There was no reason to leave.

Except that he did. It wasn’t exactly midlife crisis, because there wasn’t any “crisis” involved. “I have that Jekyll-and-Hyde thing inside me,” Keller acknowledges. “Being a chef and an entrepreneur. That’s the biggest challenge. As a chef, you’re the person who’s in control. You know what the outcome is going to be. As the entrepreneur, you’re a gambler.”

And then, the gambler was dealt terrible cards. It was Saturday, February 21, about 4:40 p.m. Per Se, eagerly anticipated for two years, had been open just five days. Keller was presiding over a staff meal when a sous-chef burst in from the rear of the vast kitchen complaining of an acrid, bitter smell. “At first we thought it was the fireplace. We quickly discovered it wasn’t, and it was getting worse,” Keller explains. “I asked everyone to leave, and people just shrugged and said, ‘Whatever, Chef.’ So I had to raise my voice: ‘You have to leave. Get out!’ I was afraid. We had 78 people in here. In New York, with all of the stuff that goes on today, who knows?”

The “blaze” wasn’t much of a blaze at all—evidence seemed to point to an electrical spark. The commotion died down within fifteen minutes. But the damage was felt. The dailies hadn’t even had a chance to file their reviews. It all seemed faintly Brigadoon-like. Was Thomas Keller ever here at all?

A two-week delay became a six-week delay, then ten. And worse—since Keller had closed the French Laundry for renovations during the time he was preparing to launch Per Se, two huge projects were running up against the same deadline. So there we were, talking right before the last dress rehearsal Friday night. Sunday, he goes back to California to reopen the French Laundry. “I need to stop,” Keller says, sighing. “These last two years have been very difficult. High pressure, high anxiety. Sitting here today, I could tell you I don’t want to do anything else after this. Just say, ‘This is it.’ ”

Of course, that’s the chef within speaking. The entrepreneur has a rebuttal. “There must be something that blacks out in your mind,” he muses. “Just like with women who go through all the pain of having a child. Then for some reason they must forget all that, because a year later, they’re ready to have another one.”

When Keller left New York for California in the early nineties, he was a promising journeyman chef whose Manhattan solo debut, Rakel, is now remembered as, essentially, too “eighties” for its own good. It’s not that Rakel was a flop. Food cognoscenti still fondly recall the chef’s theatrical, avant-garde creations in the kitchen there. It was the business plan that proved a problem. Keller gained a reputation as one who spent—on food, on labor—with all the abandon of his Wall Street patrons. The market crashed a year after Rakel opened, and they all went down together. “Did I come back to New York with something to prove? Yeah, you can play that angle. I went away from New York, I was a ‘failure,’ ” Keller says, enunciating the final word with contempt. “You know, Rakel failed. There were lots of problems. Timing. Location. I was young. We learned. End of story.”

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