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Thomas Keller

An Homage to a Grand Chef

Some chefs are tempermental; not Thomas Keller. Every time we see him, he is courteous and charming, and welcomes us with a smile and a firm grip. This is exactly how he is: he knows what he wants and always pays lots of attention to the people around him, whoever they are.

California-born Keller's life in the kitchen started early as his mother moved to Florida and managed a restaurant in Palm Beach. Thomas was put to work washing dishes after school, while his brother Joseph peeled carrots. It is easy to see that Thomas developed an intense passion for cooking, and that he moved up the ladder fast. He learned the basics of French technique in restaurants in Rhode Island and upstate New York. With his love for Gallic cooking ignited, he crossed the ocean to France in 1983 where he worked at Guy Savoy, Taillevent and other establishments. Back in New York in 1986, he opened Rakel, his first restaurant of his own, serving, bien sûr, refined French cuisine. When the stock market crash caused upheaval on Wall Street, he returned to California where he became executive chef at Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where his spirit still remains; ask the staff about Keller, you will see how proud they are to work at a restaurant where the master once officiated.

Thomas Keller: grace and a sense of humor

Keller is a man on a quest with the desire to do a better job every day. So there was only one way for him to do so: open his own restaurant (again). In 1994 starts the story of one of the best restaurants in the country and the world: The French Laundry, in the heart of the Napa Valley. In 1998, he had the good idea to open Bouchon, a French bistro, down the street in Yountville. If you couldn't afford The French Laundry, you could now eat Keller's food, casual but still from the hand of the chef whose haute cuisine restaurant requires weeks of waiting for a reservation. Five years later marks the birth of Bouchon Bakery across from the bistro. Pass by it any time, day or night, and you will always see a line in front of it.

Keller created a three-acre garden just across the street from The French Laundry

In subsequent years, Yountville also became the home of ad hoc which serves American casual fare; branches of Bouchon opened in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, which also boasts a Bar Bouchon; and outposts of Bouchon Bakery opened in those two cities, with two more in New York.

Even though it is slightly easier to get a table at Per Se, which opened in Manhattan's Time Warner Center in 2004, Keller's very high standards are as evident there as at The French Laundry. The acclaimed restaurant is more proof that Keller has transformed the landscape of American dining in just one generation, and that he has led the philosophical movement of America's culinary enlightenment.

The chef is so attentive to details, he has set up a video system with a huge screen in each of the kitchens, showing live images of all the other kitchens. If you visit Bouchon Beverly Hills, ask for a tour of the kitchen. Chances are that you have never seen a restaurant kitchen this marvelous and well-equipped.

To ensure top quality produce, he created a three-acre garden just across the street from The French Laundry. He has developed very close relations with farmers, fishermen and food purveyors, as he knows very well that they are the primary sources who can help him achieve the top rankings that he has earned. Keller is the only chef at to have two restaurants in the U.S. with the highest rating we can give: 19 out of 20. (There are only two other restaurants in America to earn our ultimate accolade.)

Keller is not vying to be on the latest television cooking shows, but he has published a number of quality cookbooks. The latest, published in 2012, is Bouchon Bakery. It was preceded by Ad Hoc at HomeUnder PressureBouchon, and The French Laundry Cookbook. He has consulted for the movies "Spanglish" and "Ratatouille", where he even appears in a cameo.

Some of Thomas Keller's books - one million copies in print!

With all of these ventures, Keller knows he cannot do everything alone. He relies on his very trained, experienced and skilled team members, from executive chefs to chefs de cuisine, sous-chefs, line cooks, pastry chefs, bakers, general managers, wait staff, sommeliers and more.

Keller's team and Keller with fiancée Laura Cunningham

Ultimately, it's Keller's uncompromising integrity — towards his beloved French technique, his high standards, and a patient nurturing of the people he works with — which sets him apart. He desires not to become a celebrity chef, but to be a mentor dedicated to creating a community and moving his profession forward. It is the example he sets — and the quality of life, and art, we find reflected in his food and restaurants — that is pushing yet another generation of culinarians to a new evolution of dining in America.

Keller is the president of the Bocuse d'Or USA Formation. The Foundation is devoted to inspiring culinary excellence in young professionals and preserving the traditions and quality of classic cuisine in America.
In 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy bestowed on him the title of Chevalier in the French Order of La Légion d'Honneur, the highest order in France, in recognition for his lifelong commitment to the traditions of French cuisine and his role in elevating cooking in America.

VEGETARIAN FOODWith GAYOT's lists of the Best Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurants, you can discover where to find the best meatless meals.