Thomas Keller, an Exacting Chef at a Crossroads

Shortly afterward, Mr. Keller posted a letter of apology to customers on his website. He remains protective of his employees, and traveled to each of his restaurants to speak with them. Although he is quick to highlight aspects of the criticism that he thinks were wrong, he used the review as a pivot point.

“He saw it as a wake-up call, certainly — a defining moment,” said Russ Parsons, the retired food editor of The Los Angeles Times, who does some work for Mr. Keller.

The chef’s central focus these days are the final touches on what he envisions as the physical representation of the Keller legacy: a nearly $11 million renovation of the kitchen and property at the French Laundry, which he bought in 1994 and transformed from a beloved local inn into one of the greatest restaurants in the world.

With its playful take on classic dishes, casual but refined service and luxe, pristine ingredients — many from its garden across the street — the restaurant cemented his reputation and proved, finally, that American chefs had stepped from the shadow of their European elders.

For the remodeling, Mr. Keller turned for inspiration to the Louvre’s mix of old and new architecture. Snohetta, the design firm behind the expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the reconfiguration of Times Square as a largely pedestrian zone, created a soaring kitchen ceiling that evokes a white tablecloth floating down to a tabletop. Looming large on one wall is a clock and his favorite motivational mantra: “Sense of Urgency.”

There are solar panels and deep geothermal wells and a 16,000-bottle wine cellar. The counters are a few inches taller than before, so cooks don’t have to bend down as much. Mr. Keller has even made extra space to accommodate people who want to see the kitchen and take a picture,…

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