Honed at The French Laundry, Napa Valley chef plans to open his own restaurant

A volunteer firefighter who worked for one of the most famous chefs in the world is pursuing his lifelong dream in a small town in the Napa Valley that reminds him of his Iowa roots.

“It has always been a goal of mine to have my own restaurant,” said Elliot Bell.

He found a champion for his dream in the world-famous chef Thomas Keller, who owns The French Laundry, the legendary fine-dining restaurant that serves French and Californian cuisine. Two nine-course tasting menus are offered daily, priced at $350 per person, plus add-ons.

Bell worked for nearly a decade at the 3-star Michelin restaurant in Yountville, climbing the ladder to become executive sous chef.

“I told Thomas about this dream and goal of mine” to one day own a restaurant in St. Helena and have it become part of the community, said Bell, who lives in the town with his wife and two young children. “St. Helena reminds me of the little town I grew up in Iowa, really based around agriculture (and a) great community of farmers and locals.”

Keller introduced Bell to Joel Gott, who has several of his own ventures, including The Station in St. Helena, Joel Gott Wines, and eight Gott’s Roadside eateries in Northern California that he operates with his brother, Duncan.

Gott had purchased a property in St. Helena that once housed Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, which closed in July 2018.

“He’s jung-ho and super talented, and it certainly seemed to make a lot of sense that he was the perfect person for St. Helena and what is needed here,” Gott said.

He agreed to lease the space to Bell for a new casual family neighborhood restaurant that Gott thinks will be a good balance with the bigger restaurants in town, such as The Charter Oak, Cook and Farmstead.

Bell’s new restaurant, Charlie’s, is slated to open in the fall.

“The French Laundry was a great experience for me,” said Bell, who in 2010 moved to California from New York City to work for Keller. Bell ultimately left The French Laundry in June 2021.

“It was a great place to grow because everything on the menu was changing every day and so many great chefs were coming through with great ideas,” he said.

Bell said Keller takes great pride in mentoring the chefs that come through The French Laundry and go on to realize their own dreams.

“Elliot was a young man who embraced the challenges, learned from his mistakes, and became better and better at what he did — to the point where he really wanted to go open his own restaurant,” Keller said. “And, of course, we were very supportive of that.”

Gott is also preparing to back the new enterprise and support Bell.

“Being that I’m a tenant with a lot of our Gott’s restaurants, I think I have a pretty good perspective on what it’s like to be a tenant,” he said. “So, I’m hoping to be a good landlord and somebody to bounce stuff off of.”

Bell emphasized that he’s not asking for financial support.

“I’m funding the restaurant with a small business loan because it’s important for me to be able to finance the restaurant myself,” he said, “and to be able to have that support from the bank and not be indebted to investors.” The amount of the loan has not yet been finalized, he said.

Bell plans on being patient about when Charlie’s, which is named after his son, opens its doors.

“We’re hoping for September,” said Bell, who filed permits with the city in mid-March. “We’re anticipating about four or five months of construction. But we’re also being realistic in the fact that there’s such long wait times on equipment — and pretty much everything — so that timeline could get pushed back.”

Meanwhile, Bell is starting to have conversations with former co-workers and friends about coming to work at Charlie’s.

“I want to make sure that we start construction before I start bringing people on,” Bell said. “I want them to know an accurate timeline so that I’m not stringing anybody along.” Ultimately, Bell plans to hire between 10 and 12 kitchen staffers, and another 30 employees for the dining area.

When Bell debuts his new restaurant, some local patrons may recognize him from another line of work: as a volunteer firefighter.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to be involved in higher service,” Bell said. “I have this passion for cooking and for opening a restaurant, but I never knew how to balance the two. When I moved to St. Helena, they had this great opportunity in the fire department.”

Bell recalled when he was new at the fire department, he would mop the floors and take out the trash after drill, then be back at The French Laundry the following morning to run the 3-star Michelin restaurant.

“It was a really humbling experience for me, and it really taught me how to be a good leader,” he said. “I learned a lot.”

Bell said he still talks frequently with Keller, who continues to help him work through issues and ideas.

“We just love him,” Keller said. “We’re really proud of him and can’t wait until he opens.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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