Kitchen Monumental

Article excerpt

Byline: Raina Kelley

How Thomas Keller transformed American cuisine by combining French snobbery with a greenmarket sensibility.

Once upon a time, a young chef, still reeling from a failed restaurant in New York City, found himself in beautiful Yountville, Calif., among the vineyards of Napa Valley. He found a building that had once been a brothel, and then a French steam laundry, but was now a restaurant owned by the local mayor and his wife. Over the next two years this chef, Thomas Keller, raised more than $1 million, and in 1994 his new restaurant, aptly called the French Laundry, opened its doors.

It was the beginning of a restaurateur's dream come true--one that forever transformed the U.S. food scene. By 1997, Ruth Reichl, then food critic of The New York Times, had called the French Laundry the most exciting restaurant in America. The French Laundry Cookbook, published in 1999, is now in its 16th printing. Keller has put together an impressive string of successes, opening a French brasserie, Bouchon, along with the more casual Bouchon Bakery as well as the family-friendly Ad Hoc, all in Yountville. He's since rolled out outposts of Bouchon in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. He plans to open a second Bouchon Bakery in New York next year.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse may have started the locavore movement. Jean-Georges Vongerichten perfected high-end fusion cooking, and Wolfgang Puck created the celebrity chef. But Keller, with his emphasis on flights of tiny courses, his application of rigorous classical French technique to both high and low cuisine, created a new style of fine American dining. A decade later, there is still a two-month wait for a table at the French Laundry. …