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From French Laundry to French Legion of Honor

March 8, 2011 |  4:20 pm

When French Laundry chef-owner Thomas Keller was working his way up the kitchen hierarchy, he never stopped to wonder whether he’d ever make the French Legion of Honor. “I didn’t even know what it was,” he says, laughing at the thought. “I probably would have thought it was like the French Foreign Legion.”

Then along came his friend chef Daniel Boulud, who nominated him for the distinction, and now on March 29, Keller will be made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, only the third American food person to win the honor. Legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, a commodore of the Legion of Honor, will pin the rosette on his lapel at Per Se, Keller’s Manhattan restaurant.

“Daniel brought it up to me about a year ago and then it started getting serious about six months ago,” Keller says. Letters of support came from other honorees -– wine writer Robert Parker, Boulud, Jacques Pépin, André Soltner and Bocuse.

“It’s pretty spectacular,” Keller says. “I’m super-honored, but also very grateful to have friends like that that think that much of me.”

The only Americans from the cooking world to be previously honored are Julia Child and Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters.

“I’m proud to be the first man,” Keller says, laughing.

-- Russ Parsons

Photo:  Thomas Keller hands out salmon cornets. Credit: Eric Risberg / Associated Press.