Hawaii’s French (Laundry) Connection: Thomas Keller Trains Island Chefs, Raises Funds for Maui

Two recent French Laundry dinners on Maui provided a tantalizing opportunity for some 160 patrons to indulge while raising funds for the island’s hospitality workers affected by the August fires. They also gave executive chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller the chance to share something else: his knowledge and passion for his profession, already an influence on several top chefs in Hawaii.

“The purpose is not just to prepare dinner but to establish relationships,” Keller said, in an interview at Hotel Wailea a few hours before the first nine-course meal. “We’re giving an opportunity to experience what we do. We’re very transparent — we have no secrets. We want to benefit everyone in the industry.”

Thomas Keller at the Hotel Wailea
Keller instructing the chefs.

Although he brought a team of eight from his Michelin three-starred restaurant in Yountville, the staff at The Restaurant at the Hotel Wailea, led by executive chef Ryan Cruz, were “involved at every level,” Keller said. “It’s really their team that we hope are doing the bulk of the work,” he noted. “We want them to feel engaged. If they’re standing aside, that’s no fun for them. If we can’t embrace ourselves in our workplace, how can we embrace those in our restaurant?”

Jonathan McManus, whose stepfather Bob Freeman created the Michelin-starred Ondine in Sausalito and whose late father John McManus once owned the fire-destroyed Lahaina Fish Co., transformed Hotel Wailea into Hawaii’s first-ever Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant after acquiring it in 2008. McManus said he first benefited from the wisdom of fellow Relais & Chateaux member Keller when they met in California about 10 years ago while playing golf. “He had just finished the renovation of the kitchen at the French Laundry and I asked him what did he learn that he could pass on for our renovation,” McManus recalled. 

He also embraced the chef’s advice on less tangible matters. “We are both passionate about having our younger team think about this as a profession rather than a job,” McManus explained. “Hospitality is truly an art form and that’s how we approach it.”

For Jonathan Mizukami, executive chef of the Kahala Hotel & Resort on Oahu, the decade he spent at The French Laundry from 2004 to 2015 was the realization of a long-held dream that still influences every aspect of his career. “I used to go to Borders on Maui and look at The French Laundry cookbook and I knew I just had to work there,” Mizukami said. “I still have that book, and it’s worn out from looking at recipes and pictures.”

Dish from Hotel Wailea and Thomas Keller

While working on the canape station next to Keller, Mizukami said he learned “everything has to be perfect as much as possible,” a lesson he has applied to Hoku’s at the Kahala. “The amount of attention to detail, the amount of thought, the cleanliness of that kitchen — all of that has stayed with me.”

Erin Howard, executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, worked at Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York in 2017, when he solicited staff input to create his Keller + Manni chocolate. “The key thing I took from this was that no matter who you are and how successful you are, it is still important to get everyone’s feedback to make the best product you can create,” Howard said. “It takes a team to create a memorable experience.”

Local Banana Cream Pie
Erin Howard’s Local Banana Cream Pie

John Taube IV, culinary director of McManus’ Private Label Collection, which includes Kaimana Beach Hotel on Oahu and Hotel Wailea, said he plans to bring Keller’s “positive message” to both staffs, summarizing it: “You’re craftspeople and you’re always learning and doing new things. Work on something as though you owned it and one day you will.”