Thomas Keller did not grow up eating in restaurants like The French Laundry, his world-famous Michelin 3-star restaurant in Yountville. As a boy he ate Dinty Moore stew out of a can. “I’ve liked stew since I was a boy,” he confided, “even when it was Dinty Moore out of a can, which it often was in a household of five kids and a working mother.”
Born at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Keller is the son of a Marine Corps drill instructor. But his father abandoned the family when the children were very young, leaving Betty, his auburn-haired mother, to raise the boys on her own. She headed off to Florida to start their lives anew. There she found work as the manager of the Palm Beach Yacht Club, the starting point for her son’s glittering culinary career. This was where he entered the restaurant business, finding work as a pearl diver—old school lingo for a dishwasher—before gradually moving up to cook.
“I wonder if I love the communal act of eating so much because throughout my childhood with four older brothers and a mom in the restaurant business, I spent a lot of time fending for myself, eating alone—and I recognized how eating together made all the difference,” he recalled. “The best meals are the ones you eat with the people you care about.”
In a bittersweet footnote to his story, later in life Keller reconciled with his father and got to do what he had missed out on as a boy: bonding with him over meals and drinks. Retired and in his eighties, Ed Keller moved to Yountville, where his famous son lived and had three of his restaurants, and the two became close. Ed became a well-known personality in town, greeting staff and customers at the French Laundry and having drinks in the restaurant’s garden across the street. On the last night of Ed Keller’s life his son made him barbecued chicken, his favorite, and shortcake with fresh strawberries enlivened by a shot of Grand Marnier. They sat and talked and had dinner together. He died the next day.
Afterword: One can easily walk from one end of Yountville to the other, stopping at Keller’s restaurants and many other fine eateries, tasting rooms, and shops along the way. On the southern end of Washington Street there is ad hoc, his tribute to the American comfort food of his childhood. On the northern block of Washington, just past a delightful park, is his ode to haute cuisine, The French Laundry, and the garden open to all that provides fresh produce for all his places. Between the two is our favorite, the Bouchon bistro and bakery. If you’re stuck for things to do this Memorial Day weekend, one could do worse than a dining and drinking stroll through Yountville.—Kevin Nelson
This article was adapted from Nelson’s newest book, Foodie Snob, published by Lyons Press and available in bookstores everywhere.