Being chef de cuisine at any restaurant is a great responsibility, but earning this title at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is an extraordinary feat. Chef David Breeden assumed this role in early 2013, succeeding Timothy Hollingsworth to become only the fourth chef de cuisine in French Laundry history. Breeden, the right hand man of executive chef Keller, comes across amazingly relaxed and confident. And why wouldn’t he? The Tennessee native has been preparing for this very role since his start in the industry almost 20 years ago. He worked his way up through the ranks at various restaurants before finally landing a stage at The French Laundry in 2005, then moving into the role as the meat butcher, one of the most difficult jobs in the kitchen. After only two years, he was promoted to executive sous chef at Per Se, Keller’s other three-Michelin star restaurant in New York City, where he spent seven valuable years fine-tuning his craft before earning the coveted position as The French Laundry’s chef de cuisine. The 33 year old attributes his success to good old-fashioned hard work, focus and determination.
Haute Living: Tell us about your background in the culinary industry and what brought you to the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group?
Chef David Breeden: Basically, it was a love of food. When I grew up, I really enjoyed eating with the family. We would get together and have Sunday supper with all my uncles, aunts and cousins. I knew I loved food for the communal aspect. I started working in restaurants in Tennessee, where I grew up, when I was 15. I then worked in Charleston, South Carolina. I read an article in Gourmet magazine called “From Hamburgers to Haute Cuisine.”
Haute Living: How did you feel when you were named chef de cuisine at The French Laundry?
Chef David Breeden: I wasn’t necessarily surprised; I think it’s just something you work for. If you’re patient, you do honest work, you’re responsible, put your head down and stay focused—if you really commit yourself to your work—you’re going to get what you want in life.
Haute Living: What advice did Thomas Keller offer for your new role?
Chef David Breeden: I think he stressed the points of patience, and he advised me on how to be a better mentor and how to accentuate skills I already have. He stressed the facts of humility, of being understanding and taking the time to allow people to complete skills in their job. It’s continuous mentorship with him. We have meetings once a week and he’s my mini advisor in everything we do. He’s a busy man, but he always makes time for everyone.
Haute Living: What are some other lessons you’re learning at The French Laundry?
Chef David Breeden: I think it’s about responsibility, of representing the restaurant and upholding the experience of our guests in our restaurants. It’s not really about cooking. We have a great responsibility to maintain the professionalism of our industry. We have to be ladies and gentlemen and we have to be professional: there’s no room for anything else. That’s one of the biggest things that Thomas Keller has handed down to me, because this is such a high-profile position.
Haute Living: Mr. Keller asks his staffers’ goals and career plans, and you’d expressed interest in this role for years. Now that you have it, have you officially “made it?” or do you have further plans down the line?
Chef David Breeden: Chef always inquires what our goals are, not just management, but everyone. He wants to know what his employees want to do, and he helps with that. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here. I am continually challenged every day. But at 33, I don’t think anyone “makes it.” I think when you’re 90 and sit down and look back on what you’ve done, then you’ve made it. Now, I have a great responsibility and a lot to do. My list of accomplishments pales in comparison to the things that I want to accomplish in my career, but I don’t have plans of branching out anytime soon.
Haute Living: Where are some of your other favorite restaurants in the Bay Area aside from the French Laundry?
Chef David Breeden: I spend a lot of time in Yountville, so I frequent Richard Reddington’s Redd and Redd Wood. I like Bouchon, and Ad Hoc is great; I take my family there a lot. But those are within our restaurant group. Other than that, if I go to San Francisco, it’s certainly Benu or Saison. I really enjoy the fine dining experience.