Even with world-renowned restaurants under his belt, including San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys, not to mention high-profile TV appearances, Chef Hubert Keller remains hands-on, humble and down-to-earth. And when the French-born maestro is not overseeing his kitchens in San Francisco, Las Vegas and St. Louis (SLeeK Steakhouse and Ultra Lounge and Burger Bar at Lumiere Place), or standing in front the camera, he takes time to give back, supporting organizations like Make-A-Wish Foundation, the recipient of a $20,000 gift from his appearance on Top Chef Masters. Keller also recently hosted a four-course dinner at SLeeK for the Missouri Army Reserve’s 354th Military Police Company, whose members were recently deployed to Iraq (two of the soldiers are employees at SLeeK and Burger Bar St. Louis).
LN: Do you like being a ‘celebrity chef?’
HK: Anyone can become a ‘celebrity chef.’ But success for me depends on how you get there. In my 28 years in San Francisco, I’ve seen many chefs come in with all this publicity. Then they’re gone, and nobody even remembers their name. The other route is through hard work running successful restaurants, and having a genuine love for the profession. So being considered a ‘celebrity chef’ can be good, but it can be bad. If you’re only building your career on being one, then I’m not sure how long it will last.
LN: Your award-winning PBS series, Hubert Keller: Secrets of a Chef, is gearing up for its third season. What is your goal for each show?
HK: Even before I had the show, people would tell me they love cooking shows, but they don’t really learn from them. I want to share the recipes and tricks for making them, so much of my work involves picking the right steps and techniques that will help viewers. Our hope every time is that the show will shine, with elements of surprise, excitement and color.
LN: What’s it like to compete in front of millions for Top Chef Masters?
HK: You don’t take anything for granted. It’s still good to feel the butterflies in your stomach and lose sleep at night, it keeps you motivated and ready for anything. If you’re over-confident, you’re not sharp enough when a moment comes that you have to make the right decision in a split second.
LN: Does the show mirror what it’s really like in the restaurant business?
HK: San Francisco is a highly competitive restaurant city. The Las Vegas scene is younger, but it’s growing and you have all these good restaurants with great design. Once the competition really sets in, that’s when the weaker ones drop out.
LN: What about the scene in St. Louis?
HK: We’ve only been here for one and a half years, so we’re still learning. When I came with Burger Bar and SLeeK, my concern was how I would be received. The last thing I wanted was for people to think that I was bringing Las Vegas to St. Louis, that’s not the case. The Burger Bar idea was easier for people to accept, but SLeeK opened a new door. Every good chef finds a way to express his or her personality through a restaurant, through its cuisine, flavor and decor. As with all my restaurants, I’d like to think that SLeeK reflects my passion. I think we have been well received.
LN: How will you top all the success you’ve had with restaurants, TV shows and cookbooks?
HK: We’re all blessed and lucky that our restaurants are rolling. It’s a reflection of the time and effort we put into them. When you’re most exposed, that’s the time to work even harder. So we’re working on other projects, including a Burger Bar in San Francisco.
LN: You’ve always said that your wife, Chantal, deserves equal credit for your professional success.
HK: My wife and I make decisions together. We follow our feelings instead of listening to too many people and asking too many questions. Even after 30 years, we still love the same things, and love to eat!
LN: Is the restaurant industry taking a hit during these tough times?
HK: In tough times, it’s hard to go out and spend the money. The biggest mistake is to barricade yourself at home, there’s no sparkle in your life. If during a rough week, you had one great experience, then you always think of that experience, that sparkle. You don’t have to order the most expensive bottle of wine or the priciest cut of meat to enjoy the evening.