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The Perfectionist Gets Burned

At 5,000 square feet, the kitchen at Per Se may be the biggest and best appointed in the city.  

Except that it wasn’t. In the intervening years, his reputation grew to the point that New York, the culinary center of the universe, now seems to feel somehow blessed to have been able to lure him back. He is now more than just arguably the hottest chef on the planet. The entrepreneur has learned a few things, too. Keller, who has also licensed his name to a line of silverware from Christofle and porcelain from Raynaud, has established himself as the proprietor of a restaurant that does $7.5 million in revenue a year.

The secret of Keller’s culinary success— reverently referred to by acolytes as the “French Laundry Philosophy”—is actually quite simple. “A kitchen is about control, at any level, whether you’re a sous-chef or a chef de commis,” Keller says firmly. What is cooking, after all? At the most basic level, you’re laboring to master the fundamental elements: fire, iron, flesh. Rise up the ranks, open your own place, and the variables may grow exponentially—staff, purveyors, critics—but the fundamental equation hasn’t really changed. Like great film directors, certainly, all great chefs are epic control freaks. And to stand out among them? You probably have to be a tiny bit, well, off. “It’s a craziness. It is, that obsession to detail,” Keller admits. “I hate it sometimes. There are times you want to turn a blind eye to all the little things that could go wrong. But I’ve always been like that.”

Indeed, Keller, who was born in California, experienced his share of turmoil as a child. His father, Edward, a Marine drill instructor, divorced his mother, Elizabeth, in 1961, when Thomas was 6. She was left to raise five boys on the modest wages of a restaurant manager. At home, he always kept his room immaculate. He dutifully did his own chores around the house, and often his four older brothers’ chores, too. Sometimes he’d even invent new ones. “I remember one time when I was a kid, my mother had this elaborate plastic tree. I wanted to make her all proud of me, so I took it all apart and cleaned each leaf individually.” He laughs.

“When I first went out to the French Laundry, I was amazed at the level of mania that Thomas brought to everything,” recalls writer Michael Ruhlman, who collaborated with Keller on The French Laundry Cookbook. In a Keller kitchen, bones for the veal stock are cut into precise one-inch cubes, creating more surface area from which to extract gelatin, and thus flavor. Of course, butchers demand a handsome bounty before they submit to such a grueling task. “So a pot of veal stock that costs someone else $40 costs us $400,” explains sous-chef Corey Lee.

“Just the other day, Thomas was so proud to show me how they use painter’s tape in the kitchen,” Ruhlman says, visiting the Per Se kitchen one afternoon. Instead of tearing the tape from the roll to, say, label the plastic deli cups that hold the ingredients at each mise en place, every strip of tape at Per Se is cut with scissors, every edge perfectly straight. Immaculate. “Because it’s all one thing to Thomas. You can’t be lax in one area and perfect in another.

“It’s not about the sweeping vision,” Ruhlman adds. “It’s about the minute vision. There are no big decisions. A great restaurant is the result of a thousand little decisions. A place like this is just composed of details. It’s a pointillist picture. So every night after service, you’ll see Thomas down on his knees, scrubbing out the cupboards.”

“The only way to know every inch of your kitchen is to clean every inch of it,” Keller explains with a shrug. “If you don’t get intimately involved in your kitchen, you can’t embrace it, you can’t call it your own.”

So what happens when fate takes your meticulous little pointillist picture and turns it into a gigantic, splattered Pollock?

“The front page?” Keller asks, shaking his head. “Isn’t there some big international news somewhere that’s more important?”

Apparently not. On Monday, February 23, the New York Times had it there on A1, right below the fold: CHEF’S LOFTY DREAM IS SET BACK BY FIRE AT COLUMBUS CIRCLE.

The “fire,” which in the headlines may have conjured Towering Inferno images, actually seemed minor enough. It broke out just behind the Garland stove, inside the wall dividing the main kitchen from the private dining kitchen. Fire hoses drenched the $85,000 Bonnet stove, but it survived. The cheaper Garland, however, was ruined and had to be replaced. In addition, firefighters had hacked gaping holes in the plaster. The front of the house was undamaged, although Keller repainted the dining room, designed by Adam Tihany, and put the carpet and upholstery through repeated steam-cleanings. “It took a while to get the smoke odor out of there,” he explains.

Insurance would pick up the cost. “I don’t want to put the burden on my partners, but in the scope of a building that cost $1.5 billion, I don’t think any of our lifestyles are going to change.”

In order to lure Keller to set up shop in the Time Warner Center, he was given the power to choose his neighbors. “They were smart enough to say, ‘Thomas, you should have a say in who else comes into the building, because you don’t want a Cheesecake Factory next door,’ ” Keller recounts. He used the opportunity to help rope in some of his closest friends, who happened to be some of the finest chefs in the country—Gray Kunz, Masa Takayama, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter—and turn the third and fourth floors into an unlikely haute cuisine clubhouse.