Why Thomas Keller's Michelin Stars Make Him Unique

If there's one takeaway you'll get after tracing Thomas Keller's career from dishwasher to chef-owner of multiple Michelin-star restaurants, it's perseverance. The head of a culinary empire that includes New York's famed Per Se and Napa Valley's esteemed The French Laundry, Keller came to success the old-fashioned way: He earned it, starting as a dishwasher in a Palm Beach, Florida restaurant at age 14 (via Academy of Achievement). At home amid the organized chaos of a busy restaurant kitchen, Keller made it his mission to become a professional chef.

At age 19, in 1974, Keller traded his dishtowel for a chef's apron when he signed on as a cook in the kitchen of the Palm Beach Yacht Club. With two year's experience under his belt, he headed north to Rhode Island, to work first as chef de partie at the Clarke Cooke House in Newport, then at the Dunes Club in Narragansett, where an encounter with French chef Roland Henin ignited his lifelong love affair with French cooking.

Ready to strike out on his own in 1979 (per Thomas Keller), Keller headed back to Florida where he rolled the dice, along with two partners, to open Cobbley Nob. The gamble didn't pay off; their chosen location near a West Palm Beach sports arena was the wrong place for an upscale restaurant, but Keller didn't miss a beat. He continued his culinary journey and education, working in the Catskills where he learned to source local foods, and in New York City at Raoul's — all the while, enquiring at French restaurants for a position where he could hone his mastery of French cooking. It took three years, but he ultimately landed a series of unpaid internships in Paris.

Patience, and perseverance, are a virtue

When Keller returned to the United States, he was ready to take on the world, but the world still had a few bumps in store for him, including an economic downturn and business disagreements, according to the Academy of Achievement. His dream finally began to take root in 1992 when he met the owners of a small restaurant, The French Laundry, in the heart of Napa wine country. Timing was right — the couple was looking for a buyer — but money was an obstacle. Once again, Keller's perseverance pulled him through; he rounded up investors, made a deal, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Keller found his niche at The French Laundry. His reputation as a connoisseur of French cooking spread nationally and internationally. Awards and accolades began rolling in, but the piece de resistance came in 2007 when Michelin inspectors caught wind of The French Laundry, ultimately awarding the restaurant Michelin's highest rating — three stars. The recognition came hot on the heels of Michelin's 2006 three-star rating for Keller's New York restaurant, Per Se. And both properties have retained their three-star ratings year after year, making Keller the only American-born chef to have two three-starred Michelin restaurants (via Thomas Keller). 

In 2022, per the Miami Herald, Keller's Florida restaurant The Surf Club received a Michelin star (previously, the state was not included in the guide), bringing his total to an impressive seven stars.