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.
A little more than a year earlier, the senior Keller had been on his way home after a day that, as best anyone can remember, included a visit to a casino, a golf lesson and dinner with a friend when his Mercedes slammed into another car. He broke his neck and became a quadriplegic.
No one expected him to live more than a couple of months at the most, said his doctor, Brian Schmidt, a trauma surgeon.
But Ed Keller's son was determined. With help from his longtime companion, Laura Cunningham, they eventually got him home. Daily food deliveries from Thomas Keller's chefs, 24-hour nursing care and a war-tested tenacity kept him alive for just over a year.
That year -- one of mind-boggling medical challenges, family squabbles and equal measures of gratitude and mourning -- punctuated a period of change for Thomas Keller. The chef, who has built his professional life on a devotion to precision, analysis and control that borders on the obsessive, came to understand in new ways that life is messy, friends and colleagues say.
"This was one of the first times during his successful professional life that there was no guarantee how things were going to go on any given day," Cunningham said.
"You just had to take each day for what it was."
Thomas Keller said he began to think more deeply about the importance of family and about his place beyond the stove. It has been, in many ways, the softening of a chef.
"You start thinking, 'What am I going to leave? What's my legacy going to be?'" he said during an interview on a recent Sunday morning in the Armani-designed Wall Street building where he and Cunningham share an apartment when they are in New York.