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Thomas Keller, The French Laundry, and Community

Debra Redalia

 

Thomas Keller in The French Laundry Kitchen Garden.

Back in 1995, a restaurant opened in Yountville, California called The French Laundry. Yountville is a very small town in the Napa Valley, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco when there is no traffic. It’s on the now famous Highway 29 that is miles of vineyards that make some of the most highly regarded wines in the world. Visitors come from all over the world to this region for the wine and the food.

At the time The French Laundry opened, I lived in Marin County, California, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. I was very interested in food, so of course, I heard about it. I immediately wanted to go eat there. But I couldn’t get a table. They were booked a year in advance.

The closest I could get to The French Laundry was to get the massive coffee table cookbook, which Larry gave me one year for my birthday.

Years went by and I didn’t think about it any more.

And then it was my birthday last week. The week before Larry and I were talking about how to celebrate, because it was my 65th birthday. But on that day, everything was closed. We couldn’t book a hotel room because they were all closed. And even if we could get a room, there would be no place to eat because the restaurants were all closed. And there would be nothing to do because the shops and museums and everything was closed because of covid-19.

The very next day, a friend told me she was going away the following week because the hotels were opening in various nearby places and they all had great rates. So we looked online. We didn’t want to go to a particular place. We just knew we didn’t want to drive a long distance but wanted to stay someplace nice, just so we could be alone for my birthday and not surrounded by family, as we are at home.

What came up in our search was a charming bed and breakfast in Yountville. Because they were just opening and they couldn’t allow us to use the pool. and they couldn’t serve breakfast, and a whole list of other covid-19 restrictions, the room rate was discounted 50%. We booked it.

So we drove to Yountville. Since we had been living in Florida for fifteen years, it had probably been twenty years since I had been there. Without intending to, it turned out we went straight to The French Laundry. Literally. Our B&B was about a block away.

The French Laundry Kitchen Garden

I had actually completely forgotten that The French Laundry was in Yountville.

The first thing I noticed as we drove into this very quiet little town was a huge, beautiful vegetable garden. It was very orderly, with big squares of planting areas separate by wide paths of grass, so there is no interruption of life, just one continuous growth separated out into pathways and growing beds (an organic gardening method I learned years ago). It was meticulously tended. A large greenhouse was in one corner. Next to it there was a chicken coop with the most beautiful chickens I’ve ever seen. There were bee hives too. Along the edge near the sidewalk were planted all different type of white flowers with long stems, making a lovely hedge.

Once we got settled in our room, the first thing I wanted to do was go see the garden. There was a sign “The French Laundry Kitchen Garden.” It said we were welcome to enjoy the garden, just don’t pick the food and no picnicking.

The French Laundry Kitchen Garden? Where was the restaurant? After asking the gardeners, we found out the restaurant was right across the street. The sign was mostly hidden by flowers. You wouldn’t see it driving down the street. But there it was. The restaurant and it’s garden.

It’s not a restaurant with a little garden in the backyard. It’s a garden with a little restaurant across the street.

Thomas Keller and the Food at The French Laundry

Now I am turning to my very heavy copy of The French Laundry Cookbook . It turns out there are now many cookbooks by Thomas Keller, but this was the first.

This book was intended to give you the experience of eating at The French Laundry, if you could possibly prepare the dishes.

But I want to tell you what this restaurant is about and how Thomas Keller approaches food at The French Laundry.

…to make people happy. That is what cooking is all about. But to give pleasure you have to take pleasure yourself. For me, it’s the satisfaction foccooking every day: tourneing a carrot, or cutting salmon, or portioning foil gras—the mechanical jobs I do daily, year after year. This is the great challenge: to maintain passion for the everyday routine and the endless repeated act, to derive deep satisfaction from the mundane…You may look at your artichokes and think “Look at all those artichokes I’ve got to cut and clean.” But turning them, pulling off the leaves, trimming their stems, scooping out the chokes, puling your knife around its edge—that is cooking.

 

Another source of pleasure in cooking is respect for the foods. To undercook a lobster and serve it to a customer, and have him send it back…is a waste of the lobster and all those involved in it’s life…Respect for the food is a respect for life.

 

“Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts. The recipes in this book are about wanting to take the time to do something that I think is priceless. Our hunger for the twnty0minute gourmet meal, for one-pot ease and preached, precut ingredients has severed our lifeline to the satisfaction of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention.”

Fellow chef Michael Rulman wrote, “Thomas’s great gift is his example of how to be observant of the world and how food behaves and how we must react as cooks to the food.” I love this. I’ve come to learn that true cooking is not about bending the food to fit an industrial machine or to make a recipe, but rather cooking is the experience of understand food as a gift of life, getting to know it, and presenting it in ways that allow us to delight in the it’s flavors and textures and aromas. And this is something at which Thomas Keller excels in wild and wonderful and creative ways.

In the cookbook, Thomas Keller writes of what he calls “the law of diminishing returns.” This is a phenomenon of taste where, “The first bite is fabulous. The second bite is great. But by the third bite—with many more to come—the flavors begin to deaden, and the diner loses interest.” I’ve experienced this. It’s not the fault of the food. It’s the way our taste buds are designed. What he wanted was for diners to have the diner experience only that initial surprise and delight, so instead of serving one main dish with an appetizer and dessert, he designed The French Laundry menu to be a series of very small servings, each one only a few bites. And he creates those few bites by making the flavors of the foods more intense or using unexpected techniques. Like serving salmon tartar on a cornet, like it was ice cream on a cone (I remember how shocked everyone was when he first did this). He intensifies flavors by putting foods through strainers over and over, or by drying them into powders and then adding the powders back into dishes.

Beyond the flavor there is also the visual presentation. Each plate is just a work of art.

And so when you eat the food, at once you are experiencing the food and the flavor and art.

I am imagining this, having never actually been there. As I said before, reservations were nonexistent, but also it’s $$$$ and there is no choice. You eat what is being served. There are a lot of foods I don’t eat, so paying a lot of money and waiting for months to eat foods I don’t eat, no matter how well prepared, wasn’t something I wanted to pursue.

However, I have learned that now The French Laundry has a “Tasting of Vegetables” that I can’t wait to experience. Many of the menu items give both the variety of the vegetable and its source. He also lists all his food providers on his website so you know where all the food you are eating comes from.

Eating at The French Laundry is a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a once-in-a-lifetime price. They are closed for covid-19 at the moment so I can’t get a price, but the most recent price I could find online was $310 per person. So at this point, to have dinner there seems unrealistic. But you know, I wanted to have dinner in the main dining room at Chez Panisse and one day someone invited me to do so. So there you go. Dinner at The French Laundry could happen too. Any time now would be fine.

Bouchon and Ad Hoc

Fortunately for me, dinner at The French Laundry is not the only way to experience a Thomas Keller creation. Right in Yountville there are:

  • Bouchon Bistro offers French bistro fare
  • Bouchon Bakery was first conceived as a way to provide these restaurants with one-of-a-kind breads but soon became a business in it’s own right.
  • Ad Hoc + Addendum exist as a place for locals and families to get American comfort food
  • La Calenda is a Mexican restaurant.

All these other restaurants have normal prices for the type of restaurant they are.

The Croissant at Bouchon

We had read online that all the Thomas Keller restaurants were closed for covid-19, but as we drove by Bouchon, we saw a line out the door so we parked the car and got in line.

Oooh la la! There were loaves of bread, croissants, macaroons, all kinds of cookies, ready-made sandwiches, and more.

Determined to have a Thomas Keller food experience, and since it was breakfast time, I bought a plain croissant), a traditional French ham-and-cheese sandwich on a baguette, and a brownie.

Though there were half a dozen flavors of croissant to choose from, I was glad I chose the plain one. I just wanted to experience what a real croissant tasted like. It was amazing. The level of quality was…stellar. It was flakey. It was buttery. It was sweet. It was just heaven. It was just what I expected from Thomas Keller.

The baguette was equally wonderful, with a crust that was crunchy but not so hard that you have to squish the whole sandwich to bite it (as many are). It was just the perfect baguette with the perfect amount of the perfect ham and the perfect cheese, with enough mayonnaise to moisten but be hardly perceptible, and the perfect amount of the perfect mustard that perked up the sandwich without overwhelming the other flavors.

And the brownie..two bites, but those two bites completely satisfied me in every way.

Now that I’ve experienced this, I know we’ll be back to eat in the other restaurants. It’s not that far for us to drive. And one day, maybe the opportunity will open itself for The French Laundry. After all, I finally go this close…

The Equation of Cooking

Since I’ve been home I’ve been watching the Thomas Keller masterclasses on Masterclass.com.

One of the first things he says (and he says it over and over) is cooking is an equation of the quality of ingredients and the skill of the cook.

And I agree with that. You can have bad ingredients and the best chef cannot make them taste good. On the other hand, the best ingredients cannot be exhalted in the hand of a poor cook.

Thomas Keller is always looking for quality quality quality ingredients and then he brings his exquisite skill and his amazing creativity to them. And that’s what you get when you eat hid food: quality, skill, and creativity.

And one more thing. As I continue to watch his masterclasses I see that another hallmark of his cooking is refinement. I’ve been watching him cook vegetables and each one is cooked with refinement. Like he peels the skin off the lower end of the asparagus, and ties them in bundles to protect them from banging around in the pot in the bubbling water. It’s not necessary to do this, but he is all about extraordinary refined presentation that is way above and beyond. Yet, I get the impression when he makes asparagus at home for himself, he handles it just as he would if he were making it for a guest.

While I know I will never beat Thomas Keller in a cooking contest, I know that I can elevate my own cooking experience by choosing the highest quality ingredients I can find and afford, continuing to learn and practice cooking skills, using my own creativity to make the food I create beautiful and tasty, and even trying my hand and preparing the food in a more refined manner. It’s not just for show. I think his asparagus is probably the best cooking method as well (although I love my roasted asparagus!)

Though Thomas Keller uses ingredients beyond my choice of wholefoods, I was truly inspired by his approach to food and learned some things I can bring to my own wholefood preferences.

Community

I just want to conclude with a comment about community.

Thomas Keller does not consider himself to be a single person. He clearly considers himself to be part of community in every direction.

I first noticed this when the first thing I noticed in Yountville was The French Laundry Kitchen Garden. But I didn’t notice it because there was a big sign. No, there was no sign at all. It was just that the garden was so big and beautiful and well-tended. It wasn’t until I walked to the garden and saw the small sign that said “The French Laundry Kitchen Garden” did I know that’s what it was.

When I saw that the sign also welcomed anyone to come in an walk around, my heart opened. There were no chain-link fences or locked gates. Then entire garden was open and accessible. It was there with love and trust. Sharing this beautiful spot with the community and visitors as if it belonged to all of us.

And then he has established a whole community of food providers. He knows them. He visited them. He knows that when he buys lobsters from Maine he is supporting the whole community being there in Maine.

He has a whole community of restaurants that are there feeding the community in which he lives. While most people who live there may never eat at The French Laundry, they do eat at Bouchon and Ad Hoc and La Calenda. And in doing so they eat the food familiar to them, at prices they can afford, but at a higher quality than most restaurants.

And in seeing food as part of life, Thomas Keller sees himself as part of the community of Life.

“…when I eat…I’m very simple – give me a beautiful roasted chicken and a salad and I’m happy.’ — Thomas Keller

A good interview with Thomas Keller.