French chef has his sights set on becoming a burger king

Temporary restaurant will close when In-N-Out-inspired eatery debuts in Calif.


There were plenty of surprises in Thomas Keller's announcement that he would be opening a new restaurant in Yountville, Calif., serving traditional American food. The man behind the French Laundry and Manhattan's Per Se, as well as the jewel-box bistros called Bouchon, serving fried chicken? The guy who has been called the best French chef in America dishing up beef stroganoff?

And what really got the food world buzzing was the temporary nature of the place - plenty of new restaurants close within six months of opening day, but how many owners plan their closing in advance? What in the world is Keller up to?

Well, it turns out he has an even bigger surprise in store. The new restaurant is merely something to occupy the space until he's ready to unveil his real purpose in buying the building - opening a burger barn.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," he says. "It'll be my version of In-N-Out. I'm an American; I grew up eating hamburgers just like everybody else. As I grew older, I didn't stop eating hamburgers, I just started searching for a better hamburger."

A fascination for burgers seems to come and go for high-end chefs. Daniel Boulud kicked off a virtual arms race when he unveiled his foie gras-spiked $50 burger at DB Bistro in New York City in 2001.

Things quieted down for a while, but once again, chefs are into burgers.

The Kobe beef burger seems to be almost everywhere, including at somewhat unexpected places such as Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach in Dana Point, Calif., where it's served with truffle cheese, pickled onions and watercress. One will also be on the menu at Cut, Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse that opened this week at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Tim Goodell has opened a hamburger-and-hot-dog bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt called 25 Degrees. (That is supposedly the temperature difference between a medium-rare and well-done burger.)

But Thomas Keller? Blame it on In-N-Out, he says.

"I respect In-N-Out so much; they focus on just one thing and do the best they can at it," Keller says. "They haven't diversified to try to please everybody. You want hamburgers? That's what we do. You don't like hamburgers? Go someplace else."

There probably won't be milkshakes at this burger joint, but there will be bottles of wine - in fact, Keller says that's the planned name: Burgers and Bottles.

The concept came out of lunches with his friend David Lieberman - the Southern California artists' representative, not the Food Network chef. Lieberman would bring a bottle of wine, and they'd make an In-N-Out run. "That was in 1991," Keller says. "It's been in the back of my head since then."

The temporary venue, which is to open next month, will be called Ad Hoc in honor of its fleeting existence. There'll be a set menu, probably with a choice of a couple of main courses, all of it traditional fare such as beef stroganoff and fried chicken, along with a salad to start and cheese and dessert, for about $45 a person.

Keller is not giving up the high-end market, of course. Based on the French tradition of attaching country inns to great restaurants (almost required to get three stars these days), he is hoping to build a 20-room luxury inn on a 3-acre site across the street from the French Laundry.

The project has been planned for years, but has been slow coming together, with all the necessary permits and approvals. If the project is approved, he expects the inn to open in two years. Designed by architect Antoine Predock, it will fulfill Keller's long-held dream of controlling every aspect of a French Laundry customer's experience, from the moment they arrive in Yountville.

Soon, presumably, that will include preparing the burger you pack for your flight home.

Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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