Even though Hubert Keller was one of the first rock star chefs before the word “foodie” was even in our vernacular, with his legendary Fleur de Lys in San Francisco that closed in 2014, he would always talk to guests and made sure they had a few hours in life that they wouldn’t forget. And years later patrons, many who scraped and saved for their visit to Fleur de Lys, still recall their special VIP experience. Keller took his skills to PBS with “Hubert Keller: Secrets of a Chef,” which launched after his restaurant was the location of the first episode of “Top Chef” and he was later featured on more episodes of that franchise. He tells KLCS about the Las Vegas version of his show, his decision to close his remaining two restaurants in Las Vegas, why he loves that city, the new version of the show he was taping in early 2020 and some of his Julia Child memories when she visited Fleur de Lys.
Hubert, I loved “Secrets of a Chef” where you taught French inspired dishes. Your latest show is a Las Vegas version, how did that come about?
A few years ago, we did a trip to Alsace. That was the first time we left the studio and went back to my home village and we shot Christmas because that little part of France, in particular my hometown, is very known for Christmas, so we did a show on that. It sounded like it was a success, PBS loved it. We had lots of good response to the point where thought, “We eventually should include some traveling.” So the idea was some of my favorite cities and their secrets, their secret restaurants. So we went to Rio because I used to live in Brazil in ‘79 to ’81. We went there and we filmed at Rio de Janeiro, there were some people I still know from then. There’s always a personal relationship; so we did Rio and that was a success, then we said, “Ok, we’re going to start with the cities, why not start with Vegas?” That’s where I have a restaurant and I live here now in Vegas. So we did that and the next show was supposed to be San Francisco because of course I had Fleur de Lys there for 28 years. So we shot the first one with Claude Le Tohic and it was just one episode and then the pandemic came, so San Francisco never was made. But Vegas was really cool. Another reason why, with Marjorie Poore the producer, we picked Vegas because I felt a few years ago, what was missing in Vegas is neighborhood restaurants. That what makes it the final circle of an amazing restaurant city. And years ago they were trying and then with the economy everything went down the drain and some lost restaurants. Then, a few years ago when things were getting better again, finally some of the young chefs who work for us and worked in the casinos found investors and branched out and created all those restaurants off the strip. And the idea of the show was featuring a couple of the main restaurants; if you’re coming to Vegas and you see the shows, “Where should I go, where should I eat?” And that was the idea – to bring exposure to the freestanding restaurants as well. And the one we picked in the main casino like Julian Serrano, Michael Mina and Jean-Georges (Vongerichten), those were picked because they’re great restaurants, but again there was a connection. Like Julian Serrano, I know him, which is Picasso (at Bellagio) and (Julian) Serrano (at Aria), we know each other from San Francisco. When I started in San Francisco, he worked in my kitchen and Jean-Georges, we apprenticed together in France. And Michael Mina I’ve known him since he was a chef at Aqua.
You mentioned starting a new season, so I assume there won’t be a new season of “Secrets of a Chef.” When I told a friend I would be talking to you, he said, “I love Burger Bar, I go there every time I go to Vegas, but it just closed!”
So how was 2020 for you?
2020 was an interesting year. If you had asked me at the beginning of 2020, I had a different opinion and different point of view than when we hit the middle of 2020 and towards the end. What happened really, in my case, was right now there is no more Burger Bar, there is no more Fleur. In one hand, lucky enough probably, both my leases ended up in December of 2020. After 16 years that just was a coincidence that happened. Then in the beginning of pandemic, we didn’t know where we’re going to go, how it’s going to go. Obviously I stayed home. Then when we started renegotiating a new contract, they wanted me to do at least another five years and interestingly enough, since I was forced to stay home, I would have been scared probably not to do anything or just to stop everything, but since I had no choice, after like four or five months with my wife, I said, “You know what? It’s actually not bad at all.” I was getting used to it and was not concerned or scared anymore, I was lucky enough to have kind of a trial period (laughs). I did the trial period and actually it felt really good, so I never renewed the contract. So it was a good thing. For us, with my wife, when we stopped in San Francisco, Fleur De Lys, which we were running together, but when I was overseeing the other one, she was completely in that one (San Francisco). When we decided on selling everything because the time was right, same thing – the concern was with my wife and suddenly staying home. How was that going to go? Is she going to miss it after one year or so? Interestingly enough, that went over very well as well. I was not “Thank God it’s over.” Not at all, but I think at my age now, 67, I felt like we have no kids, we have nobody here for us, so we said it’s actually not bad at all. So that’s why we decided not to do it.
You mentioned Fleur de Lys in San Francisco; so, it wasn’t hard to leave San Francisco after having been know there for so long?
No, it was our restaurant, we had one partner, Maurice Rouas, who unfortunately passed away a few years before. So it was not like 20 partners. The place was doing really well and, lucky enough, we also owned the building and that was the one that required the most attention, the most work and the most headaches as well. And we knew that one day we would have to pull the plug, we’re not going to work till [we’re] 80 years old. So, we talked about it with my wife, at least two years prior. We said, “One day, one day.” And things were really going well. That’s why it was kind of a surprise and shock to everyone when we decided. But then, there were a few other factors in it, where real estate was doing extremely well and liquor licenses were selling for a crazy amount of money and we thought if we run that restaurant for another five or six years, we’re still going to be making some money, but for some reason if things change when it comes to real state, because everything goes in cycles up and down, so over the years we learned that. We thought, “Things are so hard right now that maybe we’re not going to be able to sell it in five years from now, when we’re going to be ready to sell it.” The decision came on 28 years in business, I turned 60 in June, and 28 years in business, so we said “June 28, that’s when we’re going to close.” That’s how we picked the date. We said we were going to put it for sale and we didn’t even have to go through a broker, we already had an offer.
That’s how crazy it was. And what we were really selling of the place, because Fleur de Lys was a small little building between two bigger buildings left and right (laughs), and we were selling what we call the air space. We were literally selling the space and it’s a friend of ours, interestingly enough, who bought it and they’re going to [build] up. So it was good.
What made you originally want to cook on TV with “Secrets of a Chef”?
Early-on, Marjorie Poore, we knew each other, she was working for PBS, she started with Jacques Pepin. Her background is really into cooking shows and being a producer of cooking shows. She also had a program with some schools across the country. So when we met, she asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing some smaller segments. So I did that. That was the end of it and everything went well. And then when “Top Chef” came, the first show, the first episode, the first thing ever was actually shot in Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. That show, nobody knew where that was going to go. And it picked up. And lucky enough, I was invited as a judge on the different shows. When they came up with “Top Chef Masters,” the first round, I went on there competing. And what happened, for some reason I made it to the final, I did not win. There were three of us; Rick Bayless won the challenge, but I won by far, the Viewer’s Choice. And I think to Marjorie that was the trigger when she approached me again: “Seeing how the audience has reacted to you, your personality, why don’t we do a cooking show?” (laughs) That’s how it started and Cuisinart was extremely generous since the first show. Cuisinart is the main sponsor. We did one and then we did two, three and four. We did over 100 shows we filmed. It was exciting. It was mostly because of the reaction and nobody could’ve known until I went on there (“Top Chef”) and the audience reacted positively, so that was cool.
What was your path to being a chef; did you always like food?
Yes, I grew up in a pastry shop, I have one brother and my parents had a pastry shop in a small town in Alsace. My brother became a pastry chef and of course I wanted to become a pastry chef as well (laughs). I went to school at that time with Marc Haeberlin from the Haeberlin family, L’Auberge de L’ill, and that was at that time, the only 3-star Michelin in the entire east part of France. When Marc heard that I wanted to become a pastry chef and look for a place, with his dad, he worked it out. He said, “Maybe he can work at L’Auberge.” And, of course, I had to go there on my day off and work and get accepted. They accepted only one apprentice per year. So I started there in pastry, obviously, and probably the chef saw that I was peeking a lot [to see] what’s happening in the kitchen and asked if I wanted to be transferred in the kitchen. And that’s when I really started cooking. Early-on, I was 16, so it’s not that early; at that time you entered an apprenticeship at 14. So at 16 maybe I was a late starter (laughs).
Do you have a favorite dish to make?
When it comes to working with ingredients, I would say on the seafood side you can be way more creative when it comes to shellfish and seafood and the combinations. So that was always my favorite area because you had way more possibilities. In a restaurant, when you say, particularly a few years ago, when you say “beef,” it has to be filet mignon, otherwise people say, “I might as well stay at home.” When it comes to lamb, it was a rack of lamb. So you’re limited to a couple of fancy cuts of different animals. When it comes to seafood, people were more open to experiencing way more, so that part was the exciting part. On the other hand, I do love to have an amazing rib eye, right? (laughs) If I have to cook for myself, I love a good piece of beef, I have to say.
What’s the most frequent question you get? And what’s your answer?
Sometimes, I did it for so long and I did it over and over and over again, where people ask me when you say “goodbye” to them at the restaurant, I’m standing in the front and thanking them for being with us, I think I’m generally nice, and they say, “Aren’t you getting tired of it?” “You do that over and over and over, from the cooking to managing to running a restaurant and at the end greeting a guest and saying ‘goodbye’ to them?” I got that question often. “You’re being just really nice, but aren’t you getting tired of it?” I never get tired of it. I tried to explain, if they have another five minutes I can explain it to them, because I feel like that is encouragement for the next day. I think when somebody is really honest and you get a handshake, or if somebody looks in your eyes and you can tell you just touched them for a few hours, just changed something in them for a few hours; they’re going to carry, probably, the experience for quite some time and that is encouragement for the next day on saying “Let’s do it again.” Sometimes you have a young couple, when they came in you can tell, like for example in San Francisco years ago, you can tell they were intimidated, they were kind of shy, you know they saved money to be here tonight. And it’s really true and when my wife was in the front, right away that was the attention. She would come in the back and say, “We have a young couple, I just sat them at 32.” Then we really took care of them. By reaching out to them just a little bit, just doing something, or send them something, “That’s from the chef, he just came up with a new dish yesterday, he wanted you to sample it.” Something like that. On the way out, they will never forget it. I was not walking around during the service, only in the evening at the end, I would say “goodbye” to them and sometimes you meet people again where they give you a note on Instagram saying, “Years ago that’s what you said to us.”
The other night we went to a small restaurant called Jamon Jamon that just opened up a couple of months ago off the strip. It was a chef that worked for Julian Serrano and I went there with my wife. We went there to show them support. When we [got] there, on the left I could see my cookbook was there and I thought, “Oh they probably want me to sign the book.” We started talking and he showed the book and, “Oh man, they actually use that book because it’s all beat up!” (laughs) “When I was dating my wife, we came that night for dinner at Fleur de Lys and you signed the book.” And it was years ago, but that was an example and it touched me. They had the book prepared there, they wanted to show it to me. I thought it was cute when they told me that when they were dating, he took her to Fleur and I came out and signed the book for them. That’s just one example. Since we were there 28 years, we had clients who used to come with their kids when they were like seven and nine years old, and, I remember one doctor came from Hawaii with his little girls and they would always come in the kitchen. They went back to Hawaii and they would make me little drawings and send me the drawings. So, years went by and you could tell, those customers who took their kids they knew how to behave because Fleur was not really the place for kids. And then came the time when the little girl called my wife to make a reservation and she said, “I’m coming with my boyfriend.” So, you could see like 15, 18 years later and of course we were on top of it completely, as a VIP. She walked into the dining room and she knew everybody. She walked in the dining room like she was in her house and he was very intimidated, you could tell he was not at ease at all. But again, those experiences are priceless and that really keeps you going.
What do you do when you’re not filming the show these days?
(laughs) It sounds probably boring, but it’s not. First of all, with my wife, we have been safe, sheltered. We’ve only been going out for the last two months, back to restaurants a little bit and who knows what’s going to happen now. So, we stayed home and we just kept ourselves busy. I built some planters, we started growing stuff we never did. But it’s not boring at all. That’s the biggest surprise after the first year that we just keep ourselves busy; and it’s actually great. Of course, I cook every day and my wife preps some items, but she mostly sets the table. We’re always into food anyways, always. And we always will be. I make my own stock in the kitchen; so, it’s simple things.
Do you have plans, since you don’t have your restaurants anymore? It sounds like you’re retired.
Or, are you waiting to do another season of “Secrets of a Chef?”
Yeah, when things start coming back, we probably will do another season, or more than that, of “Secrets of a Chef.” That part, I really, really enjoyed it and it doesn’t come with headaches and liabilities as with owning a restaurant, but one thing for sure, I know I will not open another restaurant, unfortunately, or fortunately, I should say.
It sounds like you plan to stay in Las Vegas.
Yes. We kept the house in San Francisco, so I went there a couple of times, just to make sure everything is fine, but we’re really planning on staying in Vegas. That was another thing, since we had to stay home and as much as we say we love San Francisco, it’s a beautiful city, you cannot even compare these two cities. But it turned out that we’re feeling actually really good here. That was another surprise. Sometimes when I talk to people and [they ask], “Where do you live now?” I said, “We decided on living in Vegas.” And I get, like 80 percent of the time, “Oh, I got it, it’s because of the taxes.” I said, “Honestly, the age we both are, my wife and myself, we want to live where we feel good, not where we pay a little bit less taxes.” And if you do less income now, we’re going to pay less taxes anyway. But it’s really not because of the taxes, it’s because we just like it here. The weather is always nice and we have a huge backyard. We are lucky where we live, you would not believe we are in Vegas, because we live right in the mountains, there’s nothing around. We just love it, so it’s interesting.
So far, everyone has had a Julia Child story or that she influenced them in some way; do you have a Julia Child story?
Oh yes, I have many of them (laughs) because we did a few things together. But probably two of my favorite stories – when we had the big earthquake in San Francisco, Julia Child had a reservation at Fleur de Lys six, seven days before. So we were all excited to have Julia at the restaurant. When the earthquake hit, we were closed three days, we reopened and basically all the reservations were gone because everybody left the city, except the locals stayed. And Julia Child confirms. She did not leave the city. I remember it was a Friday night when we reopened and we got busy with local calls because, I think, people after a week were getting tired and scared and being inside, said it’s Friday night, “Let’s go out.” And we had a fairly busy dining room and here comes Julia Child and she sits there and of course the entire dining room knew who she was. And it was only the locals. So, I think everybody was excited to see her there, she did not leave the city. The interesting part was during that evening we had an aftershock. We were busy, we were going and suddenly we get an aftershock and everybody stops for almost a minute of silence. And then everything kicks back in. It was a pretty interesting moment and she told us a story after when we talked, I think she stayed at the Clift, she said, “It’s amazing, I walked in the lobby, I was the only person in there (laughs) everybody left.” Another very short story, we had another night where Julia Child had a reservation, she was in the dining room. That same night we had Dianne Feinstein and we had Sharon Stone at another table. It was interesting enough that Sharon Stone asked us if it be appropriate that she would go to [Julia’s] table and greet her and say “Hello” and Dianne Feinstein kind of the same thing. And it was interesting that those two ladies really were looking up to Julia Child, so they both got up and said “Hello” to her, just showing respect and of course they knew who she was. I was picturing a politician and a movie star and Julia Child there, I thought it was really kind of sweet and cute and respect for who she was.
Do ever just pinch yourself you got to do this for a living and follow in her footsteps of educating people about cooking on TV?
Yes absolutely. I really mean it, I always loved what I was doing, but I never expected it, I remember the first cooking class I was asked to do. I came to San Francisco in ‘82 and in ’83, or ’84, there was a cooking store in the Peninsula and the lady asked me [if I could cook for a group] and I don’t even know why I said “Yes” but I couldn’t even sleep after that because I was so nervous, cooking for 12 people. But I never taught a class and in those days I was still working on my English too. And a few years after, in 1988 when Food and Wine magazine did, for the first time, the “10 Best New Chefs in America,” which is still on today, every year, but we were part of the first round in ‘88 and of course in Aspen, but it was still a small event. And they asked me to teach a class so I felt a little bit more comfortable, of course, by that time. I still remember when I called and I said, “So how is my class doing? Did it sell?” because I was concerned (laughs) because people go there on vacation and maybe they don’t want to go to a cooking class. They said, “Your class did really well, it sold out. We have 300 students.” I said, “Three hundred students! How can I get the attention of 300 people?” And things changed and I started enjoying it, but never expected that I would be eventually also inspiring people. I think the most unbelievable thing to me is when, like, I forgot which season of “Secrets of a Chef,” but there was an event here in Vegas and they put up these signs and they threw a party for me and for the show. I guess they say each time, I think they call it an “impression,” each time where the show hits a household, and on the sign it said that the show hit 340 million. And I thought to myself “340 million?” PBS is huge. I didn’t even know it could be so big, how you would reach a household and how many times in a year; that was mind-boggling. What I noticed, what was interesting is, when you are on “Top Chef” and you do an episode on there, the next day you hear lots of comments of what just happened. It’s spontaneous. PBS is like a giant. It’s not because on one show I cook a seafood platter or paella that two days after I get social media reaction. It’s not that way. It’s much slower, but then when the ball starts rolling, it’s so big, it doesn’t stop. And that was a very interesting experience.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine at?
We don’t come to L.A. very often. We just went there because we had to, for two days, actually two weeks ago, so we didn’t really go out much at all, plus there were still concerns. So we wanted to go eat at Jean-Georges at the Waldorf Astoria because Steve Benjamin is a really good friend. We wanted to have dinner at Jean-Georges, but they were only opened for the weekend, so we had dinner on the rooftop. We just had an amazing time. But time was way too short and still concerned about going out too much.
Keep up with Huber Keller on his social media; follow him on Twitter (@ChefHKeller), on Instagram (@chefhkeller) or visit his website at: hubertkeller.com