The Keller Effect

Thomas Keller reflects on his empire after several major landmarks

Thomas Keller

Photo by Sabin Orr

Thomas Keller, perhaps America’s finest chef, was in town earlier this year to host the 10th anniversary of Bouchon, his restaurant in the Venetian. It’s just one of the reasons the chef has been celebrating lately. “It really reinforces for all of us, in our restaurants and our group, that we’re doing the right thing,” he says. “Because people are still coming to our restaurants 10, 15, 20 years later.” His Yountville, California, flagship, The French Laundry, will turn 20 on July 6; sister restaurant Per Se celebrated 10 years in New York in February; and the original Bouchon in Yountville hit the 15-year mark on October 14.

For Keller, the only U.S. chef to helm two three-star Michelin restaurants—French Laundry and Per Se—these are more than just milestones. They are a reminder that his legacy is defined not only by dedication to his craft but also his impact on future generations of cooks.

To maintain his high standards, Keller trains the young chefs and managers who will be leading his restaurants for years down the road. “I’ve always associated restaurants with sports franchises,” he says by way of comparison. “And one of our responsibilities is assuring that we are preparing the next generation of leaders today.”

The French Laundry’s Michael Minnillo, for example, began his career there 18 years ago as a cook, moved to the front of the house at Per Se, and finally returned to the Laundry as general manager. Then there’s Bouchon’s new head chef, Josh Crain. He worked for eight years at the original Bouchon in Yountville, eventually rising to the position of chef de cuisine. He left the organization with his mentor’s blessing to run Michael Mina’s Nobhill and Sea Blue in MGM Grand. After briefly moving to Mina’s American Fish in Aria, he returned to the Keller family last year to serve as Bouchon at the Venetian’s chef de cuisine.

“To see him go to Las Vegas, I had great pride in that,” Keller says of his protégé. “He was going to work for Michael, one of my colleagues, somebody whom I have great respect for and certainly somebody for whom the profession has great respect. So it was really beautiful to see [Crain] make that transition and do so well with Michael. And then to invite him back and have him come back was truly wonderful. Because it really represents these generational aspects.”

Clearly, there’s a sense of family in Keller’s organization, which is something the chef wanted to preserve when he expanded to the East Coast. He installed a live video feed between the kitchens in the French Laundry and Per Se, so the staffs were in constant contact.

“It’s about having two restaurants, two groups of individuals, that share a common goal and vision,” he says. It’s been so successful, a similar system now links together the staffs of the Bouchons in Yountville, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.

Despite his strong team and an almost unparalleled string of success, Keller isn’t looking to expand his empire much further. He’s considering opening another New York City restaurant that would be part of what he calls “an historic project.” Other than that, “there’s nothing really on my radar.”

For now, the anniversaries keep coming, and for Keller, they “symbolize a culture and philosophy that leads to success as it relates to guests who come back, and the memories that we create.”

More From Thomas Keller

On the Vegas food scene:

You see the evolution of Las Vegas in the same way you see the evolution of America, in its ability and desire to embrace a better dining experience—whether it’s fine dining or casual dining. There’s better food, certainly better service, better restaurants.

On brand identity:

For me, opening a restaurant anywhere is not about where you’re opening the restaurant. It’s about the restaurant. It’s not about trying to mold ourselves to a specific community. It‘s Bouchon, and that’s it.

On whether he might bring a Per Se or French Laundry-style fine dining restaurant to Las Vegas:

Not really. I feel blessed to have two great destination restaurants in this country. I don’t want to push my luck.