As a student on the Hill, Hotelie Doug Keane ’93 had a part-time job cooking at a legendary Collegetown watering hole: the late, great Johnny’s Big Red Grill. Two decades later, one of the dishes he learned there–steamed mussels in white wine–helped make him a reality TV champ.
In the 2013 fifth-season finale of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” Keane was tasked with creating a four-course meal that represented the stages of his culinary career. For “something old,” he offered up a sophisticated take on that Johnny’s standard: mussels soup with white wine, saffron, fennel puree, and sea urchin. Thanks to that and his other dishes–soba-wrapped ocean trout with ginger dashi and groats; duck breast with sake-roasted daikon, tamarind, golden pea sprouts, and dates; and black sesame panna cotta with shattered miso custard and green tea matcha–the California-based chef took home the title, earning not only TV fame but $120,000 for his designated charity.
Among the roughly one million people watching at home was one of Keane’s Cornell mentors, chef instructor Bob White. “I recall thinking at a certain point during the season: he’s gonna win the whole thing,” White says. “I thought, he’s got this; he’s cool as a cucumber. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he was up for the game every single week. He had a plan and he was ready to execute. He didn’t allow anxiety or a lack of confidence to bring him down.”
The “Top Chef Masters“ crown was the latest kudo for Keane, whom White calls one of the Hotel’s school’s most prominent culinary alums–the West Coast’s answer to Drew Nieporent ’77, the New York restaurateur behind such spots as Tribeca Grill and Nobu. “Doug is smart, he’s committed, and he has passion for the craft,” says senior lecturer Giuseppe Pezzotti ’84, MMH ’96, another of Keane’s mentors. “He has really made a name for himself. Due to his knowledge of cuisine, he can move from one concept to another in a very flexible way.”
Until his TV win, Keane was best known as the chef-owner of Cyrus, a French-influenced fine-dining establishment in Healdsburg, California, in the heart of Sonoma wine country. The restaurant, which opened in 2004 and closed in 2012 after a landlord dispute, earned all manner of accolades: two stars from Michelin, four from the San Francisco Chronicle, five from AAA, a James Beard Award, a spot on Gourmet‘s national top-fifty list. “I always loved cooking,” says Keane, who lives with his wife and four dogs on a five-acre hillside property in Healdsburg. “I was addicted to it from the start. I think it was an adrenaline thing at the beginning, the rah-rah-rah of the kitchen. But in the past five or six years, after studying in Japan quite a bit, I’ve realized you don’t need that. With less intensity and less testosterone, you actually produce better food. But my love for it hasn’t changed. It’s still really fun to see someone happy at the end of a meal.”
It’s a glorious fall day, and Keane is chatting over lunch on the patio at another of his restaurants: Healdsburg Bar and Grill, a casual eatery just around the corner from the former site of Cyrus. Eating a BLT and a bowl of gazpacho–his flavorful version is finely pureed and topped with a splash of olive oil–he describes his ambitious plan for Cyrus’s reincarnation: a purpose-built restaurant, located in the middle of a vineyard, that will offer nightly tasting menus for three seatings of just twelve people. As currently envisioned, the guests–paying about $400 each, including wine pairings and a service charge–will shuttle through a quartet of spaces as the meal unfolds in four acts: Champagne and hors d’oeuvres; samplings of raw fish and vegetables served at the chef’s table; the main courses in the dining room, complete with tableside flourishes; and dessert in a “chocolate room” that he pictures as an elegant version of Willy Wonka’s factory. “If someone is going to give you three or four hours of their time, you have to keep them invigorated,” he says. “Nothing jarring, but a fluid motion–taking them on this journey, so they say, ‘I wonder what’s next.’ “
Still in the planning stages, the new Cyrus is likely two years off. Much closer to fruition is another project: Two Birds One Stone, a Napa Valley restaurant that’s set to open this summer. A collaboration with a fellow “Top Chef Masters” competitor, the eatery will feature takeoffs on Japanese yakitori, chicken that’s skewered and grilled over charcoal. “We realized that Northern California is the poultry capital of the country, so we’re expanding it to all types to play with the ‘bird’ theme,” says Keane, whose studies in Japan have included training in Kyoto under seventh- and eighth-generation restaurateurs. “We’ll have amazing produce”–from a gardener who previously supplied the famed French Laundry–“so we’ll also have a ton of vegetables, lots of small plates.”
A native of Dearborn, Michigan, Keane credits his mom–an avid cook and deft seasoner–with informing his palate early on. He has joked that one reason he developed culinary skills in high school was to impress girls–and in fact, he’s currently at work on an unorthodox cookbook that ponders, as he puts it, “the relationship of dating to cooking, from a man’s perspective.” After two years on the Hill, Keane was so sure of his future career that he considered dropping out in favor of culinary school; White and Pezzotti, he recalls, told him, “It would be the worst mistake you could ever make.” He followed their advice and went on to train in such kitchens as the Four Seasons and Lespinasse in New York City. In 2002, while at San Francisco’s modern-French stalwart Jardiniere, he was named a “rising star chef” by the Chronicle. The following year, Esquire called his first eatery, Market, one of the nation’s best new restaurants–noting, among other things, that “the buttermilk-fried chicken has skin so crisp, it begs you to pick it up with your fingers.”
But 2003 also brought a personal crisis: Keane underwent surgery for what proved to be a benign brain tumor. It has had lasting health effects, including weakness on his right side that prevents him from running or jumping, and makes him unsteady on stairs. “When I get tired, I limp quite obviously,” he says, while driving through Healdsburg in his beloved (and massive) Ford 150 pick-up truck. “Physically, my leg should be able to do everything, but my brain can’t quite tell it to. Over time I’ve compensated for it in weird ways, so my hip is bothering me now, and I think it’s because of the way I walk, especially when I’ve been working a lot. It’s been a long process–but I got very lucky, so I have zero complaints.”
For Keane, the experience underscored the importance of work-life balance. Among other things, it helped motivate him–an ardent animal lover–to get certified as a canine trainer and to co-found the Green Dog Rescue Project, the recipient of his “Top Chef Masters” prize money. Headquartered near Healdsburg, the group has adopted out hundreds of animals whom it plucked from euthanasia lists at conventional shelters; before they’re placed, most are housed in a large pack–dozens of dogs playing and socializing–rather than in individual kennels. Green Dog has also pioneered a program to train canines to detect brettanomyces–“brett” for short–a yeast that can ruin wine. “For something like a $1,500 daily fee, these dogs could save winemakers $20,000 or $30,000 a pop,” Keane explains. “Way before any lab or scientist can detect it, they can sniff it out, and if the wine is tainted, the winemakers can either fix it or not bottle it.”
Keane admits that his “Top Chef Masters” win has made him something of a celebrity; especially when the show was running, he’d get recognized on the street or in airports. Long before his victory, he had emerged as a fan favorite–in part for something he didn’t do. In the first episode, when the contestants were challenged to do a parachute jump in exchange for an extra hour of cooking time, the severe acrophobe was the only one who refused. (Or, as Keane puts it: “When they got to me I said, ‘Hell, no.’ “)
As the season wound down, though, he had a change of heart. He decided to take the (literal) plunge with a private jump, in tandem with an instructor. “The ride up in the little plane was the worst part, because it took ten or fifteen minutes,” Keane remembers. “But I just knew: ‘You’re doing this. You’re not backing out.’ “ By then, he notes with a rueful laugh, it was basically too late anyway, thanks to the logistics of being tethered to a professional. “He told me: ‘By the way–if you try to say no, I’m going to think you said go.’ “
Braised Eggplant in Soy and Ginger
1 quart dashi (traditional Japanese stock made of fish and seaweed)