Chef Thomas Keller on Creating Destination Restaurants

For chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, the sense of place in a restaurant is defined by the quality of the establishment. And for Keller, service — not food — is most important in creating a quality restaurant.

Keller spoke with Skift Table on stage at Skift Global Forum this year alongside Kenneth Himmel, the CEO and president of Related Urban, the real estate development company behind the massive Hudson Yards project in the works in New York City. (Once completed, Hudson Yards will be one of the largest private real estate developments in the United States.) Keller and Himmel have worked together since the early 2000s, when Kimmel was building out the Time Warner Center.

“You begin all of these projects by wanting to find best-in-class operators,” Himmel explained. For him, that meant calling up Keller, who then agreed to work with him. Himmel said that the layout of the Time Warner Center was panned while in development because the restaurants were all on upper levels of the space, and wouldn’t attract the footprint they needed. Needless to say, Keller’s Per Se survived just fine, and Himmel noted that all of the restaurants in the space have recorded upticks in volume continuously every single year.

Now, the pair is looking ahead to Hudson Yards, which will be opening up its dining program in mid-March 2019. “There will be a broad range of check averages,” Keller said, calling it a “canteen for those who live and work in Hudson Yards,” but it will also have fine dining options for those visiting the space specifically for the restaurants.

“When you walk into an urban restaurant, your experience begins when you walk in the door,” Keller said, contrasting the experience to The French Laundry in Yountville, where there’s actual acres of land that the restaurant sits on. At Hudson Yards, Keller is building out TAK Room, a ’50s-era restaurant built on the Americana of that time frame.

Kimmel isn’t worried whatsoever about building out yet another mall-like space in New York City; in fact, he claims that people call him the “anti-mall” guy. “I’ve never given up on [brick-and-mortar], not for a moment,” Himmel said. “There’s not anything I would do differently. I think we’re on the perfect path to success.”

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

[Updated with full transcript]

Full Transcript of Discussion With Keller and Himmel

Skift: On Monday, we hosted our first annual Skift Restaurants Forum which was a full day dedicated to the business of restaurants hosted by Skift Table. So why are we on this stage today talking restaurants again?

It’s because restaurants are clearly a huge, huge part of travel. According to Skift Research, in the Affluent Rraveler survey, 67% of travelers would rather spend money on activities like dining than hotels. This number is up from last years number of 59%. So much of this has to do with creating a sense of place often anchored by restaurants.

I can think of no better people to discuss a sense of place anchored by restaurants than these two gentleman who have joined us today. Chef Thomas Keller currently has not one but two Michelin three starred restaurants, Per Se and the French Laundry in addition to a very impressive portfolio of restaurants in New York, California, Las Vegas, and now Miami.

Ken Himmel is President and CEO of Related Urban, whose developments include Time Warner Center where we are sitting. And the forthcoming Hudson Yards which is the largest private real estate development in U.S. history. Thank you both for joining us today.

Keller: Thank you.

Himmel: Happy to be here.

Skift: Chef, I’m going to start with you. You perhaps didn’t start out to create a destination restaurant with the French Laundry, but that is absolutely what happened. Yountville, California is now a true culinary destination. You have four businesses there. Many other chefs have businesses there. It’s magical. Can you talk about its evolution? And why do you think it worked?

Keller: Well, good morning everybody. It’s great to be here. Thank you for having us. The French Laundry is now in its 41st year. So I bought the restaurant when it was 17 years old. And I believe it was already a destination restaurant in the sense of the word. Destination is something we need to explore further in terms of defining what a destination restaurant is.

I understand what the term is being used as today as a restaurant that you’re going to experience what’s going to leave a lasting memory. And I think that’s what we talk about when we want to try to give our guess this moment in time when they leave and they really have a memory that they’re going to be able to embrace for a long time. And I think that’s what a true destination restaurant does.

When I bought the French Laundry it was already there, 17 years old and it was already a destination restaurant. So what I wanted to do was just continue to evolve the restaurant, evolve it with the times that we’re in. Evolve it from my point of view. Really maintain also the history of the restaurant which was very important to me.

We were able to do that over the past 25 years. We’re just entering our 25th year with the restaurant. And we’re going to continue to make sure that it delivers to all of our guests a moment in time that they embrace as a wonderful memory.

Skift: Great. We’re a few floors above the restaurants at Time Warner Center. I’ll date myself a little bit and tell you I was a senior in college around the corner at Fordham 15 years ago when the Time Warner Center opened. And then later I worked at Hearst just down the street. So I spent a lot of time here. Mostly at the bar at Landmark and also at a place called Chlo which was a wine bar that is no longer there.

15 years ago, the concept of a bunch of restaurants in a glass tower in New York was unproven I would say. It has worked extremely well. Exceeded expectations. And even as a college student I was immediately drawn to this new development. You’ve two of the most recent additions, Bluebird which is a concept from London is now open. And Momofuku Noodle Bar, a crowd favorite, will be opening soon.

Over the past 15 years of evolution, Ken, what do you think made this work?

Himmel: Well, you begin all of these projects by wanting to find best in class operators. So that’s why we started… I started the journey here at Time Warner Center with Thomas. Matter of fact, I can tell you we were competing against two other names — one of whom is in Washington today, a big developer here in New York. And we were competing with another Las Vegas name.

It took us three trips. I had my partner fly out with me, Steve Ross. And we finally convinced Thomas that we were going to build a project. It was special enough that it was really worthy of his thinking about coming back to New York. So as we picked the operators and Thomas and I curated the group that was coming into this building at the time, we picked the operator, we make sure we’re working with the right designers, so we programmed the building around these restaurants. Because you can’t do this afterwards. You have to do this right up front.

Those of you who have traveled in Asia know so well that restaurants on upper levels is the norm. Restaurants in New York City off the ground level is not the norm. So everyone warned us that this wasn’t going to work, that New Yorkers would not go through a shopping center to get to a luxury destination restaurant.

I think we proved everybody wrong because again we picked the right operators. We executed the restaurants the right way. And we built on the reputations and today if you looked at the numbers from our restaurants going on here today with Thomas and Michael Lomonaco and Masa, our volumes have gone up almost every single year continuously.

So we’re still seeing growth in the business today as a result of tourism and visitors coming to New York. We’ve just opened a Bluebird out of London and David Chang is working with us. By the way, both of those operators are joining us at Hudson Yards as is Thomas. So we are continuing that trend as we go to Hudson Yards.

Skift: And I think I read something like 90% of guests come up the escalators?

Himmel: Yeah. It’s amazing. Most people really don’t gravitate to go onto the elevators. The space that we created, the great room and the experience of going up this gets actually goes onto steroids when you get to Hudson Yards because it’s almost twice as big in terms of the project. But people enjoy the experience of going on through the retailing and the public space.

Skift: That’s great. So I do want to talk about the dining program at Hudson Yards. To be honest, it sounds like a dream project: high profile, well designed, gorgeous, top of the line technology. Thomas, can you talk about your involvement there beyond the restaurant concept. Well, you are opening a restaurant concept, Tech Room, correct? And can you also talk about your involvement with the dining program overall at Hudson Yards?

Keller: Yeah, of course. Ken, Steve, and I became partners in early 2000. Actually we started to talk about the project here in Time Warner Center and we became partners. We developed the Time Warner Center restaurant collection. And at that time after we opened in 2004, 2006 we started having a conversation about Hudson Yards. What would that be?

We wanted to have a group of dynamic restaurants, accessible, with a broad range of check averages that would not only be able to be used as a canteen for those individuals who live and work in Hudson Yards, but also places where people would want to come to visit, whether they’re tourists or other people within the city.

We started out in the same way that we started off here at the shops at Columbus Circle, I should say. And curating what we felt were going to be the operators, the chefs, that were going to bring a large scope of opportunity to really touch all the individuals that were going to be a part of Hudson Yards, whether they’re visitors, whether they work there, whether they live there in a number of different ways given the opportunity to dine at Hudson Yards any day of the week that they want.

Himmel: I think that we have some images too that you can put up, right?

Skift: We do have some images of Hudson Yards. I would love to. Can you tell us what we’re looking at here?

Himmel: I mean if anybody’s in the travel, hospitality, restaurant business, this is a project you’re not only going to be attracted to as a magnet. But it’s a project I think you’re really going to use over and over again. We expect 30 million people to come through what is now going to be our great room on seven levels. I brought Neiman Marcus to levels five, six, and seven at the top of the project with almost 250,000 square feet.

We organized all of our restaurants as Thomas and I curated the operators and chefs on levels four, five, and six. So this is a project if you think of the building you’re in today, literally above grade has about 200,000 square feet of leaseable area, usable area for restaurants and retail. This same project at Hudson Yards above grade has 750,000 square feet. So it’s three times the size of Time Warner Center.

We have 25 food and beverage venues that will be opening here mid March in 2019 and they run all the way from the gambit of the top of the project, the flagships with Thomas and Tack Room to with Milos, with outdoor beautiful terrace space, incredibly designed restaurants, two levels.

Neiman’s fifth level is the luxury floor for them with Chanel and Louis Vuitton anchoring that. And then the restaurants spread throughout levels four and five and cover the whole gamet from David Chang, to Bouchon with Thomas, to D&D restaurants to Michael Lomonaco who I think is here this morning who’s doing a restaurant called Hudson Yards Grill which is a knock off if you will on Hillstone but with a chef-driven concept.

So we’ve provided tremendous breadth and a great deal of variety in everything we’re doing here.

Skift: And you’ve already committed publicly that Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant will be the first that you dine at at Hudson Yards?

Himmel: Be the first, yes. Yes I have said that. I’ll be with Thomas first, right? Absolutely. Very fitting.

Skift: That’s what I read.

Keller: We hope to be ready first.

Skift: Yeah.

Himmel: Right.

Skift: So chef I want to talk to you about how you think about creating a sense of place in all of your restaurants because they’re very different. You have the French Laundry, the gardens across the street. The sun is setting behind the vineyards. It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. You’re in it. You just arrive on Washington Street. You are there.

Very, very different than a 25 billion dollar project on the Hudson River. So how do you approach creating that same very special, very unique feeling in all of the different restaurants that you have, specifically your newest projects?

Keller: Sure, let’s talk about the French Laundry. Some of you may have been there. It is an idyllic environment with the garden and the restaurant. When we were designing Per Se we knew we were going to be on the fourth floor which I kind of like. I embrace the idea of guests walking into the building before they walk into the restaurant because on those days when it’s either super hot or super cold or rainy, you have an opportunity to kind of freshen yourself before you go into a restaurant.

All of you have experienced walking into a New York City restaurant off the street, walking right into the restaurant sometimes you’re a little disheveled. So it gives people an opportunity to kind of get themselves back together. And let’s face it, when you walk into an urban restaurant, your experience begins once you walk through the door. It’s not on the outside.

The French Laundry is different. We have an outdoor experience. But here at the shops at Columbus Circle or at Hudson Yards, your experience will begin of the restaurant once you walk through the door. We wanted to define the restaurants whether it was Per Se, as a classic timeless restaurant in many ways using the same type of materials that we used at the French Laundry.

And when we designed Tack Room in Hudson Yards we wanted to have a throwback to a period of time in American history when we were the most progressive, the most glamorous, the most sought-after society in the world where celebration was a big part of who we were and what we were doing during that period of time. And that period of time was time through the ’50s and the ’60s and maybe in the early ’70s when continental cuisine was the benchmark for fine dining in the United States.

Skift: You mentioned the sense of history that French Laundry has and how you were able to build on that. When you’re starting from zero, how do you evoke the history that you want to evoke from one of your projects?

Keller: Well, Hudson Yards I think was relatively easy. There is a lot of history on these kinds of restaurants. The styles of seating, the banquettes, the floral arrangements, the interaction between the service staff and the guests and how that would transform the experience for the guests.

Seveloping a restaurant which was not just about the guest but about the experience, the interaction between themselves, between other diners in the restaurant, and of course with the team of servers that we’re going to have that are going to bring forth that kind of entertaining service style that we remember from that period of time in American history.

Skift: Do you have anything to add, Ken, there?

Himmel: It’s interesting, you know if you could pull the image back up. I don’t know if you can on Hudson Yards. So everyone today is talking especially in the media about the demise of retailing in terms of physical retailing, bricks and mortar. And I’ve been a believer in the future of bricks and mortar. I’ve never given up on for a moment.

Think about this project. We started ten years ago. Five years ago we were in earnest doing the programming with Thomas, and doing all of the retail programming and designing it all, trying to anticipate what this was going to be like opening this project five years hence. There’s not anything I would do differently here today. Because I think we’re on a perfect path to success which is you can begin to get a sense of what’s going on here. I mean the finishes, the design of the space, the drama that’s in the space.

If you moved every single corner of the project, you’re going to see incredible stairways and escalators and elevators that take you up. And then the programming that takes place on every level in the project is quite different.

And it’s shopping and eating at many different levels from very top end with the top two to all the way down to the more fast casual. We also have an observation deck. Three and a half million people a year will be going to the top and you get to that by going out on the fourth and fifth level of the project.

So as I look at what we’ve done with Thomas and everyone else. As you walk into each of these restaurants, it’s a bit of a fantasy trip and it’s an experience that is unequaled I think. And anything else you’re going to see here in New York, so every single element of the project has been thought through in terms of design and creativity.

Skift: It sounds like you have a mix of places that are meant to attract both residents and tourists. Can you talk about how you think through that?

Himmel: Let me tell you, Jose Andres is another one of the great players we brought in here. So four years ago I went to Jose down in Washington, D.C. and I said, “I want the opportunity to develop a food hall,” which is a very popular term today. “But I want to do it with real authenticity and I want to do it under the guidance and hand of one really creative force in food.” And I said “Let’s pick the cuisine that you’re really most comfortable with,” which is Spanish, Mediterranean food.

The way I describe it, it’s sort of Eataly on steroids but with a Spanish orientation. Very authentic. I mean wait until you see this all opening up in mid March. So that’s a 40,000 foot execution on 30th Street. 30th and Tenth. And that tells you right there there’s like five cafes and food bars. There’s 25 different stations. So it’s got great variety and great pricing. It goes all morning, noon, and night.

And then as you move up in the project, we deliver the rest of the story as you move up all the way to the top.

Skift: And 30th and Tenth. I’m thinking of the winter. I’m thinking of the cold. I’m thinking will people really come to the West side?

Himmel: Thomas hit on an interesting point. In terms of people coming to these projects, what a lot of people don’t understand is I’ve lived in New York now for 22 years. I grew up in Boston. So it’s cold here in the winter. And it’s very hot in the summer. And we get a lot of rain. And we get a lot of humidity. There are many, many, many days when you just want to be in a climate controlled environment if somebody were delivering the programming and the experience to want to keep you there.

That’s what we did. That’s what this is all about, a program where you don’t have to guess what your next options are. We probably entertain in this city probably four to five nights a week with people in connection with our business. And to pick the restaurant you want to go to, it can easily take me one hour to go from Columbus Circle to lower Manhattan. And if you pick four restaurants, they could be 30 minutes apart each in terms of where you want to go. So we put a collection together and we’ve curated it where one stop, 25 options.

Skift: How long could I stay there comfortably without needing to leave? I said how long could I stay there comfortably without having to leave?

Himmel: Two weeks.

Skift: All right. See you soon.

Himmel: By the way, across the street from us is an Equinox hotel. And again, if you’re talking travel, tourism, health, wellness, food and beverage, Chris Norton who used to be the CEO of Four Seasons hotel [Editor’s Note: Norton was COO of Four Seasons] is now the CEO of our hotel company. So we’re creating the first of many Equinox hotels with the largest health club right across the street. So you’ve got the combination of food and beverage, health and wellness, and hospitality connected with this as well.

Skift: I have one more question before we go to the audience, but to sort of bring it back to big picture. How have restaurants emerged or I guess re-emerged as the way that we define a destination? We’re at a travel conference and I’m sure that everyone in this audience is looking for a place to define their sense of place, food is massive in this. So big picture, how have restaurants just changed the way that we define a destination?

Keller: That’s a good question. I’m not sure it’s new. When you think about the Michelin guide which started in 1900, their whole point was to establish a guide for people to travel. Primarily by car at the time because they wanted people to ride on their tires and wear them out so they could buy more tires. But they had chosen restaurants around France which they felt were destination worthy. And they gave them accolades based on the time it should, or the effort you should make to get there. Three stars, two stars, and one star.

So this is something that’s been going on for quite some time in terms of how do we define a place by restaurants. And the quality of the restaurant is really going to define the place.

Skift: Would you agree?

Himmel: If you think about how people… I just got back from a two-week trip. One week in Italy. I was in Venice. And another week in Southern France. And I was with a group of people and all everyone talked about for the two weeks before we left, all anyone wanted to know was what were the restaurants I picked to go to. That’s all they wanted to talk about.

If you think about how people select a luxury residential location, or how they go to even a rental location, if you talk to the brokerage community in New York or anywhere else in the world today, what are the questions people ask? What are the restaurants in close proximity to where I’m about to live?

That’s the first question people are asking. Look at the cruise ship business today. Look at the impact Thomas has had on Seabourn. Look at the list of restaurants everyone is trying to promote if you will on a trip on a cruise ship because you’re captive for a long period of time. It’s the story of restaurants and chefs and creative food. And it’s not new. It’s been around forever.

Keller: How many of you have gone to a place which you really looked forward to going to because it’s beautiful, there’s great hospitality, there’s the great lodging, but you have a terrible food experience? You just never go back. So the food is really almost the most important. Service is always the most important, but food always comes in number two or number three behind that.

Skift: Great. I’d love to take an audience question or two. I’ll start here. What is the big trend in dining in New York and how does this relate to the tourism and travel trends?

Himmel: I think that we’re sort of defining it. I mean what’s really interesting today about the restaurant business and everything that surrounds it is the interest that people have in authenticity and integrity of product. People don’t want to be fooled. They don’t want cosmetics. They want the real thing. And it’s covering regions all over the world. I mean it’s covering all kinds of different cuisines. And people are really interested. They’re inquisitive about all of it. And of course that’s New York. This is the melting pot in the best sense of everything.

Skift: Okay. How do you respond to the critique that the Hudson Yards project contributes to the mallification of New York?

Himmel: Well, I’m affectionately known in my industry as the anti-mall guy. And I’ve spent my entire life talking about why I don’t ever want to build a mall. So people would say, “Okay, you build vertical retailing.” But every project we do is mixed use. So it works because it’s not just retail and it’s not just vertical.

It’s because it’s got hotels and it’s got office space and it’s got residential product. And we combine it all with incredible public space. The best architects in the world, best finishes in the world, and the best programming.

I would argue that people would say to be all the time, “What is it that makes you think this vertical concept is going to work?” Well, if you go to Bloomingdale’s or you go to Sachs, you go to Bergdorf’s or you go to Barney’s, I think you go up. I don’t think everything’s on the first floor.

And today, if you look how the department store world is trying to be successful, they are programming as if they are a shopping center. So they’re putting food at the top levels. And they’re putting more interesting shops and shops as you go up. So we do that in a very omnivous full way, the way no one else could do it because we’ve got access to all these tenants all over the world.

It’s all about curating and how you put it together.

Keller: Yeah, and look at here, where we are. I mean we’re at Jazz Lincoln Center. This is extraordinary amenity for this building.

Skift: Great. What concerns if any does related have regarding affordable housing in a time of growing class disparity?

Himmel: Well, we committed when we got control of this project and won this project 10 years ago, we committed to a very significant affordable housing program. My partner, Steven Ross is the developer and the owner of the largest concentration of affordable housing of any developer in the country. So our company’s been devoted to affordable housing since this company was created 42 years ago. No one does it as much and no one does it as well as we do it. So it’s integrated throughout everything in this project.

Skift: Great. I think we’ll stop there. Thank you both very much for joining us.

Keller: Thank you.

Himmel: Thank you.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Up Next


Chipotle Rewards Execs With More Company Stock for Hitting Digital Goals

5 years ago

Chipotle is going to great lengths to communicate that the company's performance on all of its digital initiatives will be a defining factor in the future success of the business.

More from Skift Table