Chef's Surprise

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It is mid-January, and Thomas Keller, one of the country's most celebrated chefs, has just arrived from Napa Valley, Calif., to the coldest weather in New York City in 10 years. Over the weekend the pipes froze and burst in the new high-rise Time Warner Center building where his restaurant, Per Se, is located, so there is no water. The floor in his kitchen is being re-laid for the third time to get it level. The fire alarm keeps going off with flashing lights and a deafening siren, and platoons of electricians, plasterers and carpenters are working frantically to get the place ready for the building's opening in three weeks.

None of this bedlam fazes Keller, 48, who is used to the organized chaos of a busy kitchen. Instead he has zeroed in on a minor detail, the tiny labels on the Garnier Thiebaut linen that has just arrived from France. "Especially made for the French Laundry" they read, referring to Keller's four-star restaurant in Napa instead of Per Se, for which the linen was ordered. That few if any diners will notice the label on their napkin is immaterial; Keller knows it is wrong. And it irritates him.

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Keller is regarded, even among America's top chefs, as a perfectionist. He is the first chef to win back-to-back best-chef awards from the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the restaurant industry. Since 1994 he has devoted himself single-mindedly to cooking in the 17-table French Laundry in the town of Yountville (pop. 2,916). The Napa Valley restaurant is regularly rated as one of the best in the nation — and one of the hardest at which to snare a reservation. Keller grosses about $7.5 million annually there, and his 1999 French Laundry cookbook is in its 16th printing and has sold 243,000 copies. He expanded his business carefully in 1998 by opening Bouchon, a bistro-style restaurant that is a three-minute walk down the street from the Laundry. Last year he added a bakery on the same street.

But this year the chef who likes to monitor every plate that goes out into his dining rooms — and every plate that comes back unfinished — is taking the celebrity-chef diversification plunge. Micromanaging is no longer an option. On Jan. 26 he opened a second Bouchon, in the Venetian in Las Vegas. Per Se is scheduled to open in New York on Feb. 16. Keller has another cookbook due out in the fall, based on dishes served at the original Bouchon. He is also marketing a line of Limoges porcelain by Raynaud that he helped design and a collection of silver hollow ware — egg cups, wine buckets — by Christofle, both destined for high-end retail stores. For dessert, he is simultaneously starting a $1.8 million renovation of the French Laundry and planning an inn on land opposite the restaurant. "This is quite a year for me," says Keller, shaking his head wistfully. "Everything has just telescoped together."

Celebrity chefs have become an industry in the past decade — but with very patchy records. Despite all the TV and franchising, some, like Rocco DiSpirito, have suffered from quality-control issues or damaged their reputation.

But Keller, like most entrepreneurs, needed to take the risk. He knew he couldn't continue at the French Laundry indefinitely. "The kitchen is such an athletic place. At some point you have to stop being, say, a running back and become a coach," he says. Despite having had two operations, Keller still experiences pain in his knees while standing at the stove.

After a decade of living and working in almost monastic seclusion in Yountville, he has had to devise a business model that allows him to oversee several restaurants spread out over 3,000 miles, while maintaining the exacting standards for which he is famous. That means more than doubling his business's sales in one year — without diluting the brand or the diner's experience.

Keller has found a typically idiosyncratic solution to the management problem. He has set up an eclectic six-member advisory council to mentor him on the expansion of his business: two bankers, an attorney, a restaurant consultant, an accountant and a psychologist. (Chefs are a little crazy, as anyone in the restaurant business will tell you.) He has increased staff training to reassure himself that the pursuit of perfection will be maintained even when he is not in the kitchen. And, as insurance, he is installing a live video link between the kitchens of the French Laundry and Per Se so he can eyeball the day's squid preparation or vegetable selection on a large plasma screen.

The change has not been easy for Keller, a legendary control freak. Team member Kristen Armstrong, a psychologist and executive coach, worked on Keller's behavior. Says he: "I am a chef. I am used to controlling. I didn't like delegating. But over the past two years she has helped me a lot with that." But even with Armstrong's coaching, Keller still yearns to stay hands on.

"Thomas wants to touch everything. He trusts his instincts, and he trusts his eye," says Adam Block, Keller's restaurant agent and a council member. "He wants to be there when a decision has to be taken." In Keller's arena there is no margin for error. He charges $135 a person for his tasting menu at the French Laundry, not including wine, and if quality slips even a fraction, his customers won't return. "Our industry is so fragile," says Keller. "The media builds you up, and then it tears you down."

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