Thomas Keller is ready to party on the beach.
Keller, regarded as the chef who elevated fine dining in America with the landmark restaurants French Laundry in northern California and Per Se in Manhattan, will oversee The Surf Club Restaurant, one of two upcoming restaurants at the former private club in Surfside, which will include a new Four Seasons Hotel. Keller’s restaurant will open in early 2018.
“What we’re hoping to bring to Miami is the kind of restaurant where people can go out and celebrate,” he said.
This won’t be another French Laundry, the three Michelin-star restaurant once named the world’s best. It won’t be what he calls personality-driven, where Keller steps into the kitchen nightly to impose his point of view as a chef.
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Instead, it will be his first concept restaurant, drawing inspiration from the history of the The Surf Club as playground for the elite, the place where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack threw wild parties, where Liz Taylor, Gary Cooper and Tennessee Williams escaped to the water, where Winston Churchill could be seen painting watercolors in a cabana.
It’s Hollywood America at its glitziest — and beachiest.
“It’s going to be a tip of the hat to a time when America was the most optimistic, when the appeal in America, the pride in America, was at its peak,” he said. “The glamor, the celebration, that’s the kind of restaurant this will be.”
The project was more than five years in the making. Keller has been mulling over this idea and testing new recipes without a place to put the restaurant, always believing it belonged in New York, Las Vegas or Miami Beach. He almost agreed several years ago to take over Azul at the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key.
But about 18 months ago he met The Surf Club’s new owner, Nadim Ashi, for dinner in New York, and he became convinced Surfside’s historic beach club was the right project. There on the West Side, Keller is working with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ Related Group to hand-pick a dozen restaurants, including one of his own, that will go into the massive Hudson Yards project.
He listened to Ashi tell The Surf Club’s story and looked over historic photos of America’s elite at play. And when Keller visited the Surf Club’s original building, he said he knew he had found a spot to put his restaurant of classic Americana.
“When I walked in, it reminded me of the moment I walked into the French Laundry,” he said. “It’s iconic. It has history.”
He fell for its history, the way he did with the French Laundry, a beautiful stone building amid fruit trees and vineyards built at the turn of the century in Yountville, north of Napa Valley.
In many ways, The Surf Club is reminiscent of the historic Breakers Hotel in the town of Palm Beach, where Keller grew up working at his mother’s restaurant in the Palm Beach Yacht Club. (His mother and siblings moved to the area when he was 14, and he graduated from Lake Worth High.)
Keller loves that South Floridians always seem to be celebrating something when they go out to dinner. He wants The Surf Club restaurant to be the same way.
“People love to go out and have a good time,” he said. “Go to any restaurant in Miami, and everybody’s having a good time. I love that energy. That sense of excitement of being together in a social setting.”
The Surf Club menu remains secret. He said the dishes will represent America’s “golden age,” naturally with Keller’s focus on the freshest and highest-quality ingredients. He spent more than five years developing the recipes and tested some of them as part of the pop up Ad Lib while he closed the French Laundry for renovations.
“This is something I’ve never done before,” he said.
However, it will not be fine dining on the level of French Laundry or Per Se. He will name an executive chef and oversee it the way he helps mold his handful of Bouchon bakeries.
“I don’t think I’ll ever open another fine dining restaurant in America. Trying to replicate that energy, I’m not going to do that, not at my age,” Keller, 61, said. “The Surf Club will not be about my personality.”