With The Surf Club restaurant, the Michelin Star king brings world-class dining to his home state.
Fact: Thomas Keller got his start as a dishwasher at the Palm Beach Yacht Club—before the French Laundry and Per Se mega fame. Before becoming one of the world’s most distinguished chefs, he was scrubbing pots on Flagler Drive. It is this humble beginning that Keller has cited as one of the keys to his success. Now he is back home, lured by perhaps the most glamorous venue in the state. “I’d never planned to return to Florida but when the opportunity arose at The Surf Club, everything about it felt right,” he says. “My first visit to the property with Nadim Ashi was like a trip in a time capsule. It took me back to that bygone era. It’s such a vivid, evocative period, and The Surf Club captures it. I knew it was a project I wanted to be a part of.”
Welcome home. How has the culinary scene in Florida changed since you left?
THOMAS KELELR: On the one hand, the dining scene feels very much of the moment. It’s eclectic and creative. On the other, there’s a wonderful respect for culinary tradition. Which gets back to what drew me to The Surf Club: the way it tips its toque to the past.
Did you seek to echo that bygone-era appeal in the menu offerings?
TK: Absolutely. The location is steeped in history, and we’ll be honoring that in the menu, the service and the decor, without feeling musty or outdated. We’ll be doing Continental cuisine with modern interpretations, iconic dishes like lobster thermidor, Avocado Louis and Caesar salad prepared tableside. The idea is to give guests an experience that evokes the easy-going elegance of the ’50s and ’60s. From the moment they arrive, we want people to feel that good times and grand parties are alive and well.
Can a dish be described as glamorous? What is the most glamorous dish on your menu?
TK: A dish can be described however you’d like. That’s certainly how I think of our beef short rib Wellington. It’s for two people, meant for sharing, and it’s prepared tableside with flourish and finesse. The dish itself is delicious. We braise the short ribs for 48 hours, then envelop the short rib in a mousse of black trumpet mushrooms and spinach. It is then wrapped in a thin layer of brioche and baked until golden brown and beautiful. So there’s that. But you also have what I think of as a transportive and theatrical experience when the gueridon is wheeled over to your table and the captain slices your portion, finishing it with a classic Périgourdine sauce. It doesn’t get much more glamorous than that. I’m hungry.
Most luxurious ingredient in your kitchen?
TK: Our line of caviar, which is directly sourced by my partner, Shaoching Bishop. It’s called Regiis Ova, which means 'royal egg' in Latin. When you taste it, you’ll see why. It’s sublime.
“The lemon tart is plenty elegant,” says Keller. “It’s set on a bed of raspberries and topped with a tower of meringue.”
Thoughts on iPhones at the dinner table?
TK: I know a lot of people who frown on cellphones at the table, and I understand the feeling that they can be disruptive. But when they’re used with discretion, they’re can serve the wonderful purpose of preserving memories. We take it as a compliment that guests want to capture their dining experience with photos.
Everyone from Sinatra to Churchill dined at the original Surf Club restaurant. Who would you love to host?
TK: What’s been especially meaningful to our team is hosting guests who dined at the original Surf Club or have memories of the restaurant as it was. This is a new era, of course, but so much of it is inspired by a deep connection to the past.
As a baseball fan, what are your thoughts on our November cover star and baseball legend Derek Jeter bringing his talents to Miami?
TK: It’s great for the city. He’s one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. I played a lot of baseball as a kid and I’m still a big fan. I’m looking forward to taking in a Marlins game. I’ll be sure to leave my Giants cap at home.
Photography by: THOMAS KELLER PHOTO BY WILLIAM HEREFORD; LEMON TART PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SURF CLUB RESTAURANT