Pittsburgh Botanic Garden gala honors chef Thomas Keller

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Pre-eminent American chef Thomas Keller returns to his father's hometown this week to support the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, 60 acres of which will open Aug. 1 in North Fayette and Collier.

Keller, 57, will be the honoree at “From Garden to Table: A Gala Tribute to Thomas Keller” on June 12 at the Duquesne Club, Downtown. The $350 tickets for the dinner to benefit the botanic garden are sold out.

Duquesne Club executive chef Keith Coughenour says Keller, who owns top restaurants in the Napa Valley in California and in Las Vegas and New York City, “has rock-star status among chefs.”

Several local chefs will be preparing food for the tribute dinner, including Coughenour; Derek Stevens, executive chef at Eleven; Tim Fetter, executive chef at Eat'n Park Restaurants; and Justin Severino, chef and owner of Cure. April Simpson of Vanilla Pastry Studio and Will Racin, executive pastry chef at the Duquesne Club, will prepare the desserts. Keith Martin of Elysian Fields Farm in Waynesburg, Greene County, is donating the lamb for the event.

The menu will feature plenty of hors d'oeuvres and charcuterie, as well as fois gras, rack of lamb with ramp persillade and sweetbread crepinette, and a horseradish and beet-cured salmon.

Keller, who has “both business and family” ties to Western Pennsylvania, is best known for his three-star Michelin-rated restaurants The French Laundry in the Napa Valley's Yountville and Per Se in New York City. He also owns the Bouchon restaurants and bakeries, which have locations in Yountville, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, plus two more bakery locations in New York City, and Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville. Last year, he opened a retail store, Finesse, in Napa that sells hand-selected kitchen tools, apparel, gifts and accessories favored by Keller and employees at his restaurants.

As a result of his French-oriented culinary efforts, Keller was named a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor in 2011, an occasion that he called “a very proud moment in my life.”

The famed chef, who grew up with his mother in Palm Beach, Fla., spent time visiting Monroeville, where his father, Edward, and stepmother lived. He has two sisters and a brother who still live in the Pittsburgh area and plan to attend the Garden to Table dinner.

“I would not come to Pittsburgh without inviting them,” Keller says.

Additionally, Keller has what he calls “partners” in the region: purveyors like Elysian Farms, which raises lambs; and All-Clad Metal-crafters, manufacturer of high-end cookware in Cecil, Washington County.

“We work together on sourcing, production and quality,” Keller says. “They truly are partnerships.”

Keller says his late mother, Elizabeth, who managed a restaurant in Palm beach, was his strongest influence “Everyone remembers the influence their parents had on them. My mother paid attention to detail. She had a very strong work ethic and prided herself on being efficient, neat and clean.”

That's not to say Keller's mother influenced him to take up French cooking. Keller grew up in the baby boom convenience-food era. However, he reinterprets some of those dishes, like macaroni and cheese, with “a refinement that people appreciate” and from which they draw a new reference.

Keller says he first obtained a sense of the refinement that the French bring to life, especially to food, in July 1977, when he was working in the Dunes Club in Narragansett, R.I.

“I worked for a French chef. He explained to me what cooks do: We nurture people. And that's when I decided to become a chef,” Keller says.

He later apprenticed in France, where he found the French “take things and continue to make them better. It doesn't mean fancy. It just means paying attention and doing everything you can to make it a perfect pork chop, refining your technique.

“It's not about the chef; it's about (the patron),” Keller says. “(Chefs) are coming to work to give (patrons) what they want.”

Friend and business associate Susan Citron of Fox Chapel says Keller is “just a wonderfully warm and kind person.” She says Keller “does feel a certain affection for Pittsburgh,” because of his ties to family and business partners.

Citron, co-founder of A Woman's Palate, engaged four California vintners to provide high-end wines for the event, some at discounts: Chappellet Winery, Rarecat Wines, Inman Family Wine and Failla Wines. Anne-Marie Failla, co-founder of Failla Wines, is originally from the Pittsburgh area.

Greg Nace, president of the botanic garden, says the Garden to Table theme was a natural for the botanic garden.

A 2012 botanic garden fundraiser featured many chefs using the theme, and the botanic garden last year had a fundraiser with the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, as its guest.

“With the heritage of the (botanic garden) property, it really ties to the garden,” Nace says. Two farms help make up the botanic garden property, where staffers are developing an apple orchard and a “pioneer garden,” mostly of herbs, near a 1784 log house on the property.

Keller sees the need to support the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden: “We spend a lot of time rushing around; to observe the natural beauty through the seasons is just extraordinary,” he says.

Sandy Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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