Thomas Keller runs a food empire that started in Napa Valley but now extends to New York, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Las Vegas. The chef's flagship restaurant in Yountville, the French Laundry, has three Michelin stars, as does his New York restaurant, Per Se.
Mr. Keller recently discussed celebrity chefs, his favorite places to eat and the differences between running restaurants in various parts of the country (hint: there isn't much of a difference). The 54-year-old Napa Valley resident chatted while at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival last week—in between a demonstration on how to perfectly roast a chicken and preparing a nine-course dinner for 100 guests:
WSJ: There is an influx of celebrity chefs opening restaurants in Napa County. Is it becoming a bit like Las Vegas?
Mr. Keller: I don't think Vegas is a bad thing. As long as the chef respects his standards and his reputation, then he is going to do really good food. Vegas had the image at one point that chefs went there to make a lot of money, but I don't think that's really the case.
When you think about Napa Valley, it's the only place in our country where people go to eat and drink. That's all they go there for. It's not New York City, where you've got the cultural aspect of it, where you can go to the MoMA or the Statue of Liberty. Napa's got the greatest wineries. You've got to have great restaurants. Wine and food just go together. So from a chef's point of view, where would you want to be?
In New York, people come to Per Se because it's a closing [of a deal] or they're going there before the theater—there are all these different reasons to go to restaurants. But in Napa Valley, that's it. They're there to eat and drink.
WSJ: So what's the difference between operating a restaurant in Napa and New York City?
Mr. Keller: Outside of local regulations, really nothing. They're unique in the sense of their place, French Laundry being in the country in Napa Valley and Per Se being in the middle of an urban environment. For example, we have the three-acre garden in Napa that we can't have in New York City because that would be a big part of Central Park and I don't think they would like that.
WSJ: How are the diners different?
Mr. Keller: They're not. You're not the only person that it sounds odd to, and I'm not sure why, because when you're dealing at that high-end level, it's the same type of client. It's the person that appreciates the quality.
We don't think about our guests. We think about what we're doing. We do what we believe in, not what our guests want us to do.
WSJ: What do you make of the trend of celebrity chefs?
Mr. Keller: I don't understand the celebrity chef thing. [The media] can give it and take it away, so it's something that's really irrelevant to me.
When I started cooking, it didn't exist. There were certainly no national celebrities in the restaurant industry. There were a few around the world but those were always associated with France where there has always been that deep respect for the culinary world. Our culture didn't have that.
Of course, what Americans do the best is to elevate things to unrealistic platforms without a lot of foundation behind it. We fall into this trap of having to have celebrities.
WSJ: You're a celebrity chef, though.
Mr. Keller: I don't establish myself as a celebrity. You would establish me as a celebrity. I try to keep arm's length at it.
WSJ: How have celebrity chefs affected cuisine?
Mr. Keller: It's certainly made it better. The quality of the produce that we have in our stores is because chefs demanded better products from suppliers. Guests would come into my restaurant, see baby lettuce, go to their marketplace and say, "Where can I get baby lettuce?" All of a sudden the demand is created.
WSJ: What are your favorite places to eat in the Bay Area?
Mr. Keller: Certainly, Chez Panisse has always been a favorite place to eat, for me. In San Francisco, I'd probably have to say Delfina, although I haven't been to Delfina for five years probably. Taqueria [on Mission and 24th Street]. That's a great restaurant.
Write to Ben Worthen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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