Hubert Keller is often spoken of as the consummate French chef, a master of tradition and classical cuisine. But the energetic Alsatian is also one of the most innovative restaurateurs of his generation, always ready to make a change or take a risk in order to stand out and keep moving in this most competitive of industries.
Raised in a family of pastry chefs and educated in Strasbourg, Chef Keller first left France to open La Cuisine du Soleil in Brazil under culinary legend Roger Vergé. He landed in San Francisco in 1982 to team up with Vergé again at Sutter 500, and four years later, he took over as owner and executive chef at Fleur de Lys, a game-changing modern French dining room. It was there where he put the finishing touches on his approachable style, wide-open creativity, and pure dedication to hospitality.
Chef Keller closed Fleur de Lys on June 28, 2014, and became a full-time resident of Las Vegas where he operates the updated Fleur fine-dining restaurant and the highly successful Burger Bar, both at the expansive Mandalay Bay resort. FSR caught up with the star of Top Chef Masters and Secrets of a Chef to reflect on his personal restaurant history.
What was it like to close Fleur de Lys in San Francisco after almost three decades, and how did you decide when to shut it down?
It was actually very interesting. It was not sad at first because it was the decision my wife and I made, and we knew sooner or later the restaurant would have to close. When you say you’re going to close, the rumors start to run and it’s not good for business and not fair to employees. Some of our employees had been with us for so long and they’d been so loyal. At one point I had two line cooks and their sons working with us at the same time, two father-and-son sets. That’s how long we’d been around. But my 60th birthday was in June, and we had 28 years of business so we picked the 28th.
What were you feeling when the restaurant was actually closing?
As it got closer it began to feel weird, kind of like when you leave your country for the first time and go to work somewhere else. Of course it’s exciting, but it’s so tough to make that first cut, like you’re breaking something. Only if you do it do you know what it’s like to go through it. It became very emotional, I must say. We announced a month before, and of course told our managers and employees first, and it was on the news the next day. We knew there would be a reaction.
Did the reaction surprise you?
Yes. If I had it to do over, I would probably put together a reality show because there was so much stuff we could have filmed, things even we didn’t know we were going to go through. The next day, the restaurant sold out for the whole month in four hours on OpenTable. People wanted to come and walk in but there was no space. And then the word got out that we had five bar stools that we would serve dinner to and they could not be reserved. People were standing along the restaurant outside, like we were giving something away, waiting for someone to get up from one of these five stools. It was off the hook.
There must have been so many people who wanted to come back for one last dinner at Fleur.
Oh yes. One day my wife said she got a call that Hillary Clinton wanted to come and say goodbye, and I thought, this is a joke, right? We’ll take this reservation and it will be a group of people saying Hillary couldn’t make it. People were trying all kinds of crazy stuff to get a table. But on that afternoon [of the reservation], the Secret Service shows up and suddenly, it’s actually real! I had a relationship with the Clintons from being the first guest chef to cook for them at the White House, and she happened to be in town for a book signing and decided to have dinner. It was sort of the icing on the cake. But think if somebody would have filmed that! It was a very exciting time with everybody coming in for that last meal. I never sold as much caviar and Champagne. I didn’t expect that part, that people would spend more and want to celebrate.
That’s a long life for any restaurant in any city, but Fleur de Lys was truly an institution in San Francisco. Looking back, what are your thoughts on how it developed?
In San Francisco, you have Alice Waters and a couple others who are institutions, but not that many for that long. It’s easier to analyze after 28 years than when you’re actually in it, but being in business that long is not a coincidence. Without trying to compliment myself, it’s about the way you run the restaurant. Many people run it like they’re squeezing juice from a lime, and hopefully there’s always juice coming out. Then one day, no more juice. For us, my wife and I, one of us was always there. We were always trying to rejuvenate, to do something new. And we always tried to make the people feel like they weren’t just there, that they never felt like furniture, especially if they’d been coming for so many years. After that long, you would expect that if you came in on a Friday or Saturday night, it would be an old room with old people. But we had a young clientele, and that was very comforting. Of course, TV does a lot in terms of exposure and reaching a different audience, and between Top Chef and my own show, Secrets of a Chef, I think that’s what helped bring that young clientele in. But just because you’re on TV doesn’t mean you’re going to make it. When they come, the way they’re treated, what experience they have. … You want to make sure they go home talking about it.
The hardest thing is consistency. We know it. Restaurateurs know it and talk about it, but it’s easy to talk about. On a daily basis, for every person at every table, to do it over and over and over again, that’s the toughest thing. We are very satisfied that we did what we did for so long. When it came time to close the restaurant, we felt sorry, but we also felt like—we did it.
How did you manage to keep French cuisine fresh in an era when a more contemporary, California-style approach was dominant?
We really came in at the worst time. San Francisco was the last place we should have landed in some ways, because California cuisine had just started in the late ’70s and ’80s, and we were coming in with the French flag—literally, the Fleur de Lys—when French cuisine was the target. There were many French restaurants that disappeared those first three or four years. When I came in after running the restaurant for Roger Vergé and knew my next step was to own the restaurant, everyone said we should change the name. But we believed in it, that it was an institution, and in the long run there’s no way people can turn their backs on something that’s right. So we decided to take it to another level.
What kind of changes did you make?
The first thing was the menus. I believe the French vocabulary is more attuned to poetry than English. You can write a better menu in French because the language helps. But all these restaurant menus were written in French, and no one could read it. It was fancy, it was cool, but there was a poor translation. So we changed that and did the menu only in English. The second thing was, we brought female servers into the dining room. Today, that sounds strange, but the fact is in those days there were no female servers in upscale restaurants. There were chefs on record saying, “In my restaurant, there will be no female servers.” Today, there would be lawsuits. But we broke that whole image, brought them on the floor and had female bartenders, too, and we were the first to do that. And then a little later, I was among the first French chefs to be involved when Americans started doing bigger events and fundraisers, which have turned into the big food festivals today.
Your innovations also include your restaurants in Las Vegas, Fleur and Burger Bar, which are both 10 years old now. Burger Bar has been duplicated up and down the Las Vegas Strip in almost every hotel casino. What inspired you to create that more casual venue?
The influence was Daniel Boulud, who did the first burger, a French chef doing it at an upscale restaurant in New York. It was one burger, the most expensive burger, and it was like a brush fire. At that time, no American chef would put his name on a burger. In our industry, if you’re not good, they say you should just go and flip burgers. So it wasn’t cool to put your name on a burger.
It is true that Burger Bar started that mania in Las Vegas, but in the first few months of it being open, I was concerned because I was afraid of the press. Whatever we had done so far, everything was positive. We had a really good run all those years and a lot of recognition, and they could have said, “Why would you do burgers?” It could have worked against me. But it didn’t. In the beginning, the industry people came to Burger Bar, and then they came back. Then the press came in and they loved it.
I knew we had a good product, but I needed a hook to make it successful, and one was the Rossini Burger. Daniel had all that publicity as the most expensive burger in America. It was a hit, so we took it to another level. I thought, even if we don’t sell it, word will get around. Early on I came back to Las Vegas and took a taxi to Mandalay Bay and asked the driver if there was any place I could get a decent burger. He said, “Yeah, there’s this place at Mandalay Bay and I don’t know the name of it but they have the most expensive burger.” I thought, that’s it!
[Editor’s note: The Rossini Burger was it: Selling for $60 at Burger Bar, it featured Australian Wagyu beef, seared foie gras, and shaved black truffle on an onion bun with a black Perigord truffle sauce. It’s also been served at Fleur as the Fleur Burger 5000, with a price tag of $5,000 paired with a bottle of ’95 Chateau Petrus.]
How did you approach this casual, classic American food from a fine-dining perspective?
We are French and we went into it not knowing everything about it, and that helped us. Our thing was, and still is, about having the best quality. We wanted to make the best burger we can, so we decided to build a butcher room into the restaurant. At that time, no one would take up space to do that when you could put three more tables there instead, but I just wanted to be the best and I didn’t know it would make that much difference. It does. The burgers are all hand-shaped. There’s no patty-making machine. When we built Burger Bar in San Francisco, we actually did a window so you could see the butcher room and see it happening, making hundreds of burgers by hand.
Opening the first one in Las Vegas was a learning process, but it was beneficial to approach a burger the way we approached fine dining. And in those days, it was French, Italian, buffets, and a steakhouse that was in every casino, and now every casino needs a burger place.
How would you describe the transition of your Las Vegas Fleur de Lys restaurant into the updated Fleur of today?
When we made that change a few years ago, Las Vegas was already well on its way to becoming a leading restaurant city, and the great upscale places like Picasso, and [Alex] Stratta’s place and [Daniel] Boulud’s place were the bones of this new, real restaurant city. But at that time we were seeing some of them closing or changing, and some people and the media were afraid they were losing something. The same thing was happening in every other city; restaurants were becoming more casual. If a restaurant doesn’t change with each generation, that’s when you’re losing.
But the new Fleur isn’t really a casual restaurant; it’s still closer to fine dining only with a new, different menu with a lot of globally inspired, smaller plates, right?
I think so, yeah. It’s a bit more loose but still very refined. Going to a restaurant is still about being entertained. In the old days, that’s why you’d flambé something in the dining room, and maybe [a guest would] tip the maitre’d to make sure the flame on the dish goes higher, right? So if we do an oyster dish with dry ice, and it comes out with smoke running all over the table, but when you eat the oyster it’s still really good and tasty, why not continue with that fun presentation? It’s all about entertainment, and recognizing what your new clientele wants and needs to have a good time.
How has doing business in Las Vegas changed in the decade you’ve been there?
I first came to Vegas at the end of the wave when everyone was saying you have to have a restaurant in Vegas, and if you got a deal in those days, it was only by invitation. It was only if they wanted you to be here, then they’d bring you in and build you a restaurant. Today that doesn’t exist. You have to bring your own investors. And back then, it was almost as if it was guaranteed you’d be full because there were always so many people and a much smaller number of restaurants. In the last five years, so many restaurants have opened, and so many great chefs and designers and front-of-the-house people and mixologists have arrived. It is now a real restaurant city, but you have to compete, you can’t just put your foot down and be a success. At first, there is so much promotion, but it doesn’t last if you don’t perform. It was the same case in San Francisco for many years, an amazing restaurant city but always highly competitive.