The Perfectionist Gets Burned

Thomas Keller's smile conceals the worry within.Photo: Henry Leutwyler

“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.”

Keller’s Summer Recipes
Thomas Keller tweaks American classics, from chips and dip to Creamsicles, for a luxe meal you can make at home.

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

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.

While the attractions were obvious to Keller the entrepreneur, they were also clear to Keller the chef. The soaring space afforded Keller the chance to build a dream—so, little surprise the venture cost more than $12 million to build. The white-tiled kitchen—acknowledged by the staff as the most antiseptic any of them had ever seen—stretches out over 5,000 square feet, nearly three times the size of the French Laundry’s kitchen and almost as big as the dining room itself. In this context, Keller seems like a fine-dining equivalent of Willy Wonka, having designed himself a private culinary fantasyland. Keller commissioned a special sink just to cook lobsters, fed by a hose streaming water at precisely 185 degrees. There is a room just for chocolate, maintained at a perfect 62 degrees.

All this outsize effort stands in stark contrast to the minimalism of the Keller culinary approach, influenced by Japanese kaiseki dining—tiny portions served over the course of very long meals—and grounded in the law of diminishing returns: With a traditional meal, the first bite is likely to be more spectacular than the second, and so on. Not so at Per Se, where a tour through Per Se’s $150 tasting menu can stretch out over four hours and nine petite, if dazzlingly intricate, courses. None of them lasts long enough on the table to grow ordinary. Keller’s trademark “Oysters and Pearls”—pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Iranian osetra caviar—segues into Moulard-duck foie gras au torchon. Each meal becomes a life cycle of its own, a journey with unexpected twists and turns, except that in this life cycle, there is no routine, there is no tedium. Each moment has been shaved down to its climactic essence, and each climax is then fused to another, then another.

Needless to say, the approach complicates the choreography in the kitchen. “Most restaurants, for the VIPs, they’ll send over a drink or a dessert. We do an entirely different menu,” Corey Lee explains. “They’ll get six canapés and ten courses. You’re talking about, potentially, 40 different dishes on one table.”

Keller maintains a crisp, military sense of order in the kitchen. The hierarchies are rigid. Keller is addressed only as “Chef.” During one recent dress rehearsal, Keller has handed the truncheon of authority over to his second-in-command, chef de cuisine Jonathan Benno, who is expediting orders with the fierce urgency of an artillery field commander.

“Fire two halibut!” Benno barks.

“Fire two halibut!” the chefs on the line briskly answer in kind.

“Some nights you go home and think, Why am I doing this?” says Keller. “But I can only beat myself up so much.”

Before long, Keller’s handover of authority will be of a more lasting nature. Over the coming months, Benno will serve as Keller’s eyes and ears for two weeks out of every four as “Chef” divides his time between Per Se and the French Laundry. Benno is one of eighteen staffers imported from Yountville, ensuring a certain level of security for Keller (the real-time video hookup between the kitchens on both coasts should help, too).

“We’re both obsessive—about cleanliness, organization. That’s the biggest similarity. I would say there’s probably a clinical term for it,” Benno says, while whipping up scrambled eggs in a nearly empty Per Se kitchen early one morning. Pensive and vaguely abbotlike in bearing, Benno launched his culinary career, improbably, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu before turning serious about his craft and entering the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation, Benno, now 34, moved to San Francisco and jumped at the chance to join in Keller’s big venture in Napa.

Now here he is. He’s unassuming, largely unknown, and pledged to command the most scrutinized kitchen in America. “I’d be lying,” Benno admits, “if I told you I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach.”

The late-afternoon sunlight comes in low over the treetops of Central Park, beaming through those huge windows and glancing off the polished brass floor near Per Se’s entrance. It’s Friday, April 30, and Keller’s taking a brief respite before launching into tonight’s dinner, one last dress rehearsal before the grand (re)opening tomorrow night. The day after that, it’s back to California, ready or not. “On Monday, we have orientation at French Laundry,” Keller says, a bit wearily. Suddenly, he faces the unimaginable distinction of opening not one but two hugely anticipated restaurants, each on opposite coasts, each within fifteen days of each other. “Some nights you go home and think, Why am I doing this? I was at the French Laundry three years ago, and everything was perfect. Why am I here now? The answer is, that’s the way I am, what I am. But it’s like Fight Club. I can only beat myself up so much. Let’s face it, it’s all my doing.”

And even at the worst moments, Keller says he hasn’t forgotten why he’s doing it. “The first direction I gave Adam Tihany was that I wanted a timeless restaurant, something that in 25 years is going to be just as beautiful as it is today, like The Four Seasons,” Keller says. “You look at the great restaurants around the world, it’s not really about the chef anymore. It’s about building a legacy.”

He brightens at the thought. For a moment, those millions of maddening details seem to recede. “Do we need to be so critical about all of it?” he says chipperly. “Maybe we just need to have fun with it. At the end of the day, it’s just food and wine. It’s entertainment. It’s not brain surgery. At a certain point, you have no control.”

Or so says the entrepreneur. The chef would probably beg to differ.

Keller’s Summer Recipes
Thomas Keller tweaks American classics, from chips and dip to Creamsicles, for a luxe meal you can make at home.

The Perfectionist Gets Burned