French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, an exacting chef at a crossroads
In the tight confines of a New York cab, Thomas Keller leaned against his interviewer’s shoulder. It was an intimate move for a chef whose hallmarks are precision, decorum and control.
Keller wanted to talk about children and the Easter egg hunt his team hosts every year at Addendum, a garden and takeout spot just down the street from the French Laundry, his flagship restaurant in Yountville.
Watching other people’s children gleefully scramble for eggs was both wonderful and sad this year. He and Laura Cunningham, the woman he calls his life partner, were never able to share that kind of pleasure with a child of their own.
Cunningham has been with him for 23 years. As the architect of his restaurants’ precise, casually elegant style of service and later at the helm of the company’s brand, she has done more to build the Keller empire than anyone besides Keller. Together, they have spent their lives feeding and employing hundreds of thousands of people.
Keller thinks, at least for him, a change may be in order. “At some point you want to say, ‘I gave, I gave, I gave — now it’s time for us,'” he said.
Keller is 61, an age when other successful chefs of his generation have started to plot exit strategies and consider legacies.
“Everyone is kind of charting their own course on this,” said Emily Luchetti, a pastry chef and author who is about to turn 60. “When we all started out, there were no real mentors to look at and say, ‘That’s how I want to do it when I’m in my 60s or 70s.’ The only thing we had were old European chefs who could no longer cook anymore because their knees were giving out.”
Keller, so meticulous that one imagines he would like to plan the exact moment and nature of his own death, has yet to figure out his course.
“I go back and forth on the level of intensity I want to continue to dedicate to my profession, because I’ve done it now for the past 44 years, and that’s a long time,” he said. “When is taking care of everybody else less important than taking care of yourself?”
Like all Keller decisions, what comes next will be carefully considered and very likely won’t come soon. He is in what he calls the seductive stage of his newest venture, a 200-seat restaurant, tentatively called the TAK Room, in the huge Hudson Yards development on the West Side of Manhattan. Opening in fall 2018, it will be his first new restaurant in almost 10 years.
The menu will reflect a time when the fanciest food in America was called continental cuisine. Imagine, he said, the great restaurants of the “Mad Men” era, with someone like Bobby Short at the piano. Keller is helping select six premier chefs and restaurateurs to join him in the complex.
The rest of his portfolio includes several Bouchon bakeries and restaurants around the country, and a plethora of side hustles. He has designed plates and pots, and makes olive-oil-infused chocolate with Tuscan oil producer Armando Manni.
He oversees food on the Seabourn Cruise Line. He sells knives, garden seeds and silver clothespins at a store in Yountville called Finesse and a gluten-free flour mix called Cup4Cup at grocery stores. (Much of it has been executed under the watchful eye of Cunningham, who declined to be interviewed, saying she preferred to keep the focus on Keller.)