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Famed chef got to know his father late in life and learned some of life's lessons

Thomas Keller cooked his father's last meal.

He had only recently come to know Ed Keller, a towering former Marine drill sergeant who left his family when Thomas Keller, the youngest of five boys, was just 5 years old.

When they finally reunited decades later, father and son liked each other so much that in 2006 Ed Keller moved from Pennsylvania into a house next door to the French Laundry, the restaurant in Yountville, where his son had made his name as a chef.

He quickly became a fixture around town, a real character who would show up at 8 a.m. every day to tell stories to his son's staff and customers at the nearby Bouchon Bakery. In the afternoons, he would drink wine in the French Laundry garden. Catch him in the right mood and he would even help you get into the reservation book.

For a few great years, Thomas Keller finally knew what it meant to have a dad around.

"Just to sit with your father and have a beer and smoke a cigar, that is really important," Keller said.

On a soft spring evening in 2008, one of the world's great chefs set about making the old man's favorite dinner one last time: barbecued chicken. He used bottled sauce and served the chicken alongside mashed potatoes moistened with warm half-and-half and collard greens braised in butter and bacon fat.

For dessert, Keller topped shortcake with the season's first strawberries tossed in a shot of Grand Marnier because his father liked a little alcohol in his dessert. They ate on the patio. Keller remembers a nice breeze.

The next night, his father died. He was 86.

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