thomas kellerIt would seem Chef Thomas Keller would have reason to be satisfied.
His flagship restaurant, The French Laundry, has been called the best in the world (twice), he’s created an empire but maintained his impermeable brand and he’s the only American chef to have been simultaneously awarded three Michelin Stars at two different restaurants.

But even the mighty are not without their critics, however unwarranted. Anybody who has ever worked side by side with Keller, knows the depth of his dedication to his craft.

In a recent feature in Vanity Fair, famed food journalist Corby Kummer assaulted Keller and chefs like him, calling his lengthy tasting menu and its required time commitment “tyrannical.” The illustration featured Keller as a dictator, menacingly holding a whisk and wooden spoon.

But still, Keller marches on, dazzling diners from New York to Napa and recently launching a gluten-free flour, Cup 4 Cup, with Lena Kwak, the French Laundry’s Research and Development Chef. (Yes, The French Laundry has an R&D Chef.)
Keller sat down with HuffPost SF on a recent afternoon to talk about the Vanity Fair critique, his endless pursuit of perfection and what’s next for America’s most famous restaurant.

Chef, you bought the French Laundry in 1994 when Yountville was a ghost town. How has it been to watch the area change over the years? I think that’s pretty much common knowledge; you can find that on the website. Did you do any research on me whatsoever? I’d rather just talk about what you really want to know.

Alright, alright. In a recent Vanity Fair piece, Corby Kummer condemned the several-hour tasting menu experience at French Laundry, calling it “a form of torture.” How do you respond to this critique? It’s fine. I can’t control what people write and Corby has to make a living. I’m not sure what the point of the article was.

Corby sent me two emails before that piece came out and when was he here last? 1997? His argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but as [San Francisco Chronicle Executive Food and Wine Editor] Michael Bauer pointed out, you make the choice when you make the reservation.

The tasting menu exists to make things easier for the guest. Coming to a restaurant like the French Laundry and having too many choices truly creates anxiety. Here you are coming into a famous restaurant and the last thing you want to do is make a mistake.

At the end of the day, I disagree with Corby’s critique. From my point of view, if you come into my restaurant and you want a bowl of Corn Flakes, my job is to give you a bowl of Corn Flakes. I have no ego attached to what we do.

Does criticism like this make you rethink what you’re doing? As chefs, we are our own worst critics, and we criticize ourselves to death. We don’t often champion our successes so sometimes we have to take a step back, have a glass of champagne and say, “look at what we’ve done.”

For the Rest of the Story, click here.

Reprinted first in the Huffington Post