Thomas Keller, the celebrated chef behind the three-Michelin starred The French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York, didn’t need to think long and hard when San Francisco 49ers co-chairman John York asked him to be on the committee to bring the Super Bowl to the Bay Area with the caveat that, if successful, the culinary king would get to cook the dinner for the NFL owners on the Thursday before the big game. “It’s a no-brainer,” the kitchen whiz says as he sits in his office in Yountville, where his fiefdom also includes Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and Addendum. The 49ers fan talks about his upcoming task, offers us a sneak peek at the menu and shares where he likes to dine—when he’s not at one of his haute restaurants, of course.
What does it mean to you to be a part of this historic Super Bowl 50?
To be involved in any kind of event that has that kind of reach, that kind of popularity, it makes you feel proud of being chosen and to contribute to something that’s so recognizable—not just in our country but also around the world. You have this wonderful competition between two teams [that] have achieved greatness for that year. To be a part of it is fantastic. Hopefully it will be a really, really good game.
Is this the first Super Bowl you’ve been involved in?
We were involved in last year’s Super Bowl in New York. My mentor, Roland Henin, who was the corporate chef for Delaware North [a food service and hospitality company] but is now [an advisor], asked me if Per Se would do something in the VIP box area.
What’s on the menu for the owners’ dinner?
We went round and round on that. We looked at chicken. We looked at lamb. We ended up with the American classic, beef, because it’s American football. We work with a farm in Idaho called Snake River, and they produce for us a true rib eye. Typically rib eyes come with two muscles on them—the eye of the rib as well as the deckle. We use the deckle at The French Laundry, which gives them an abundance of true rib eye. We’re going to use that same rib eye for this menu. It’s a very special, beautiful piece of meat.
What’s the first course and dessert?
We’re doing an Avocado Louie, which is a throwback to New Orleans and the fifties—so very Americana and something you would see in steakhouses around the country in that time period. For dessert, they’re all going to migrate to a different part of [San Francisco] City Hall. It will be a buffet with lots of different kinds of cookies, macarons, éclairs, little tarts, little chocolates and things like that they’ll be able to nibble on as they wind down their evening with their friends, their colleagues—and maybe their rivals. You get all the owners in one place at one time, I imagine that there’s certain rivals there. I’m sure they’re good-hearted rivals—but they’re still rivals.
You’ve cooked for everybody; do you ever get nervous?
You always get nervous when you’re cooking for anybody because what you’re trying to do is please that person. If you’re arrogant enough to think that no matter what you do you’re going to please the person, then you have become too big for your britches.
Where do you like to eat in the Bay Area?
I like to eat here at Bouchon and Ad Hoc. I don’t get out that often since I spend most of my time at work. When I’m home, which is here, I’ll eat in our two restaurants, but I also like to visit Ciccio up the street. In San Francisco, there’s Monsieur Benjamin, Corey Lee’s bistro, which I love a lot, as well as Michael and Lindsay Tusk‘s Cotogna or Quince. I enjoy the pizzas at Delfina. I like the cuisine at State Bird a lot. We were just at Flour + Water, which is a really wonderful restaurant. There are many wonderful restaurants in San Francisco; unfortunately, I don’t get down there as often as I should.
What’s your secret for staying in shape?
Working out, running, cardio, weights—things like that. I try to watch my diet, make sure I don’t eat too late, make sure I’m not drinking too much, make sure I’m eating the right things at the right time of the day. It’s hard [for a chef] but also it’s relatively easy because our dinner is at 4:30. If you stick to that as your last meal and have just a snack around 8:30 or 9:00, you’re in pretty good shape. The thing I struggle with is when I’m off for a week. I’m eating out at 7:30, 8:00 at night. You’re in a restaurant until 10:00 or 10:30, and you’re having a bottle of wine and good food.
What prompted you to become a pioneer in the gluten-free movement?
It was all born out of The French Laundry and the cornet, which is such a signature experience there and Per Se. People who were celiac or gluten intolerant couldn’t enjoy that. I wanted to make sure everybody could eat it. We set out to make a cornet that tastes, smells and feels like the cornet. It could be different. A year and a half later we realized that we had a formulation that we could do and develop an all-purpose flour for the consumer.
What is the latest with Cup4Cup, your gluten-free flour company?
We’re just continuing the process of making sure that we are teaching the consumer a lot of the qualities of what Cup4Cup is and a lot of advantages of using Cup4Cup. It is a product that you can interchange with your recipes. It’s our flour, your recipes. Make your grandmother’s drop biscuits, but just replace her amount of flour with our amount of flour. It’s not going to be identical to your grandmother’s, but it’s still your grandmother’s recipe. That in itself is an emotional connection to your grandmother, and that has a lot of value to it as well. It’s important for us to remember that Cup4Cup offers an alternative that is as close to what you’re going to have from a recipe using regular flour as you can get. Sometimes it works better. We started using Cup4Cup for our fried chicken because it stays crispier longer.
Do you ever sit in your garden across from The French Laundry?
No, although I do enjoy watching others enjoying it. It’s pretty nice to see this group of regular Yountvillians who come down in the morning for coffee, newspaper, chit chat, gossip, whatever. I feel a great sense of pride that we were able to offer that to our friends and family.
When are the renovations at The French Laundry going to be completed?
That’s a good question; we don’t really know. It’s just one of those things that is a moving target. We continue to progress every day. Fortunately for us, when we built a temporary kitchen [using shipping containers], it afforded us the opportunity not to have to stay on schedule. We want to stay on budget, but we don’t have to stay on schedule because we have an operating restaurant.
What’s next for you, restaurant-wise?
Nothing. The French Laundry is the most important thing right now, so that’s what we’re doing.