It seems as if Hubert Keller has always been part of the local dining landscape, but the Alsatian-born chef says he was “one of the last ones jumping on the wagon when everyone was saying you have to have a restaurant in Las Vegas.” It was more than 10 years ago when Keller, already becoming a culinary institution in San Francisco, opened Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay.
Today the effervescent, pony-tailed chef (and sometime DJ) is a full-time Las Vegas resident. In June, Keller closed Fleur de Lys in San Francisco after 28 years as chef and owner, and four earlier years there as chef under the legendary Roger Vergé. The Bay Area’s loss is surely Las Vegas’ gain.
It must have been difficult to close the restaurant that sort of started it all for you. It sounds a little strange, but it was not a sad decision for my wife and I to close Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, because we knew sooner or later that restaurant would have to close, and we had been running everything and knew the time would come when we would have to take a little break.
But as it got closer it became very emotional. If I had it to do over, I probably would put together a little reality show, because there was so much stuff we didn’t know we were going to go through. Once the word got out, the next day the restaurant sold out for the whole [last] month in four hours. And then, I guess through social media, the word got out that we had five barstools where we’d serve dinner and you cannot reserve them, and people were standing along outside like we were giving something away, waiting for someone to get up from these barstools. It was off the hook.
What’s the hardest thing about running a great restaurant for that long? Consistency. We know that’s the thing and restaurateurs talk about it, but it’s easy to talk about it. On a daily basis, for every person at every table, to do it over and over and over again, that’s the toughest thing. My wife and I were very satisfied that we did it for so long. When the time came to close we felt sorry, but also we felt like, We did it.
Now that you’re full-time in Vegas, will there be changes at your restaurants here? There will always be change; it’s the only way to survive. When we changed Fleur de Lys here to Fleur, some people were like, “Oh my God, why would you change? This room was beautiful, with the thousands of roses on the wall and the huge curtains and everything.” But it’s not good enough if we’re not doing the business we should do. It was dear to me, but we were like the secret in the property.
Burger Bar is such a success, and it really was the first “upscale” burger restaurant on the Strip, where there are so many today. How do you feel about that place now? I feel good about it, because when you do something and it’s copied that means you did something right. But in the beginning it was something of an accident. The influence was Daniel Boulud, who did the first burger, a French chef at an upscale restaurant in New York, the most expensive burger. That was like a brush fire. But back then no American chef wanted to put his name on a burger. In our industry, if you’re not good, they say, “Just go and flip burgers.” It wasn’t cool.
When it opened I thought I shouldn’t have done it, because I was afraid of the press. I had a really good run and recognition, and this could work against what I’ve done in the past. But the industry came in first, because we were friends, and then they kept coming back; then the press came and they loved it. And for us it was beneficial to approach a burger the way we had always approached fine dining. I look at it like the French view steak frites—you’re never gonna take that away from any French person. There are bad ones and good ones, and if you give them a good one, they’ll always return. The burger is the same thing. You grew up with it and that’s why it lasts.