The Thomas Keller Hagiography

If the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival is the culinary equivalent of Coachella, then Thomas Keller is its Radiohead. And this year the chef served as something of a headliner, complete with a gauzy tribute video that played at the festival, and, at nearly 17 minutes long, serves as something of a fawning mini-biopic. Fellow chefs Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio (who talks about being a line cook at Rakel, Keller’s first restaurant in downtown NYC in the’80s), Corey Lee, and Eric Ripert all pay tribute to the king.

Like all bildungsromans worth their salty tears this one starts with a hardscrabble string of failures.

We learn that Thomas Keller considered becoming a marine biologist and an architect, and that, like Jesus, he was a carpenter, before finding his way to the kitchen in the late ’70s and, ultimately, opening Rakel in Manhattan.

After Rakel crashed and burned he needed a change of scenery. “To leave New York was really heartbreaking,” he says. Young man Keller went west to run the kitchens at the downtown LA hotel Checkers (this 1991 LA Times piece on his move by Ruth Reichl posits that the chef “sculpts food that wants to be taken seriously.”) After 18 months, that gig ended, says Keller, “abruptly,” causing him to reconsider being a chef. He remembers sitting in LA thinking, “maybe this isn’t for me.”

Then good old St. Thomas had his reckoning.

Keller came to Yountville, found the French Laundry (complete with gardens) and, yes, himself. The rest, as they say is history. Though Eric Rippert does lay waste to the fantasy of the big city chef wandering into the wilderness. “I mean, It’s Napa. It’s not nowhere,” he says.

Collicio confides that he was going to invest in the French Laundry. “I’m still kicking myself for not doing that,” he says.

Bouchon Beverly Hills chef Rory Hermann recounts the story of his job interview for his original position at Per Se. He met Keller at Bethpage Black, a notoriously difficult golf course in Long Island. When he then says, “We’re forced to caddy for Chef Keller at least once a month,” you think at first he may be joking. He’s not.

Keller laments that the notion of “garden-to-plate” has become “cliché” (or worse, contrived) because he says, “In reality, chefs, over generations have always had strong relationships with where their food comes from.”

In the end, Keller asks (perhaps slightly disingenuously for a guy who opens bakeries like they are Hard Rock Cafés), “Why can’t we just stay where we are, and focus on filleting the salmon every day?”