Douglas Keane put his cooking career temporarily on a back burner when he and partner Nick Peyton closed one of Sonoma County's most celebrated restaurants, the Michelin two-starred Cyrus of Healdsburg, last October.
But the hard-working, down-to-earth chef with roots in Detroit hasn't exactly been resting on his laurels.
Last month, Keane proved his culinary prowess by winning Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" Season 5, beating out 12 other top chefs to take home $120,000 for his charity, Green Dog Rescue of Windsor.
"For four years, I said 'no' to the show because I didn't want to look like a jackass," he said.
"Even though Cyrus was closed, there was still the question of, 'What is this two-star chef going to do?'"
It turns out Keane was able to accomplish a lot, once he let go of his fear. That happened around Episode 6, when the chefs were asked to make a healthy dish for kids out of their least favorite ingredients.
"I kind of let go when I did the eggplant Jell-O, and I was rewarded," he said.
"They put me in the top three."
Earlier this month, Keane celebrated another milestone. He opened a casual fried-chicken restaurant, DK Wings, as one of nine Marketplace eateries in the new Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park.
"The only real chain here is Starbucks," Keane said. "It's all niche stuff, and it's across the board. And I like that."
We caught up with the 42-year-old chef — and picked through his recipe file for some tasty Thanksgiving side dishes — just before his new restaurant opened.
Q: How would you describe your food philosophy?
A: Working in Japan has influenced me so much. Every kitchen I worked at was calm and mellow, and they just did one or two things perfectly.
To me, it's about doing one or two things really, really well. That goes back to the tasting and vegetarian menu at Cyrus, and it's the same philosophy here. I could have done 50 types of chicken, but I'm doing just one kind of chicken. ... It's really about crispy, juicy chicken every time.
Q: How did your food philosophy help you win "Top Chef Masters"?
A: On the show, I didn't run around. I didn't panic, because I don't create better food when I panic, and I usually make mistakes that way.
Everybody else ran to the walk-in. I specifically didn't do that. ... By the time I went back to the walk-in, sometimes there would only be one thing left. OK, there's shrimp, so I'm doing shrimp."
Q: In the first episode, you were the only contestant to refuse to jump out of an airplane, but afterward, you went on your first skydive. How did the show affect you psychologically?
A: It helped me get over my fear and my ego. It helped me to let go and realize I don't have to have perfect control. ... And that's when I started thinking about, "Why can't I jump out of the plane? Could I let go of that?"
Q: What did it feel like to let go?
A: It was like when I went in for brain surgery (for a brain tumor in 2003). ... You get through it, and you are better off for it. If it doesn't kill you, you're going to get by. The worst thing with the show would be you get kicked off. I might look like a jerk, and so what?