Reading time: 4 minutes
Best and Beyond: The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller
"If your restaurant is full of people, it's relevant"
After a major refit of his iconic restaurant The French Laundry, Thomas Keller continues to fly the flag for evergreen evolution. In the sixth instalment of our Best and Beyond series, presented by Miele, we meet America’s ultimate culinary mentor.
On a Monday morning, the grassy courtyard of The French Laundry is as serene as a cloister garden. Apart from a woman bearing armloads of fresh flowers to replenish the dining room, there is no trace of the night before: the sabering of a bottle of 2006 Dom Perignon, the salmon cornets presented in polished sterling silver holders, and the 85 diners—the usual full house—making their way to their tables for a leisurely evening of nine delicate courses.
Chef Thomas Keller takes a seat just outside the wall of windows enclosing his new kitchen, the centrepiece of The French Laundry’s $10 million renovation, while inside about a dozen cooks smoothly begin preparations for evening service, when the performance will begin all over again, as it has for 23 years.
“The Louvre was the inspiration,” Keller says, with a gesture that takes in the kitchen—with its billowing white ceiling, meant to mimic an unfurled tablecloth—as well as the other components of the renovation. Keller’s intimate Napa Valley restaurant now encompasses the original 1900 stone building, a new modernist structure sheathed in dark wood and housing a private dining room and a 16,000-bottle wine cellar, and less obvious touches such as soft landscaping and geothermal and solar energy systems.
“The Louvre is historic for its time and place,” Keller continues, “the same way The French Laundry is, but I.M. Pei changed the whole dynamic of the Louvre with the glass pyramid. That juxtaposition of the historic and the contemporary was something I wanted to achieve here, too.”
A sensitive balance
Keller is a master of that sensitive balance between classic and modern, French and American, refined and witty. In an era of pop-up restaurants and rough-edged change, he has been resolute in creating a consistent experience that involves pressed linens, fine china, and touchstone dishes such as the oysters & pearls, and butter-poached lobster.
One dish encapsulates Keller’s approach more than any other. From the day The French Laundry opened, every diner has been greeted with a single, sublime bite: a tiny cone filled with a scoop of cool salmon tartare and a touch of crème fraiche, and finished with a jaunty chive. It’s a completely beguiling morsel, but to Keller, it is much more – the perfect opening gambit, an experience that diffuses tension and sets the tone for a luxurious evening. “It is an opportunity to put people at ease,” Keller says. “You don’t have a plate or a knife. It’s an ice-cream cone: two bites and you’re done. You’ve got a napkin, you dab your mouth, take a sip of Champagne, and it’s a wonderful, complete experience.”
Over the years, the cornet has subtly evolved. Indeed, evolution is a watchword – but for Keller, evolution comes in thoughtful, often subtle ways. “Guests come to our restaurant because they feel they know what to expect and there are reference points to everything,” he says.
It is a measure of Keller’s talent and drive that this comparatively quiet approach gave rise to a gastronomic empire: there are two Michelin three-star restaurants (The French Laundry and its New York counterpart, Per Se), making Keller the only American chef to achieve that distinction, plus nine Bouchon bistros and bakeries, and the casual Ad Hoc restaurant.
A new retro-classic American restaurant in the Hudson Yards development in New York City is slated for 2018. And there have been innumerable awards and honours, including, of course, the No. 1 position in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2003 and 2004 for The French Laundry.
Equally important, if not as quantifiable, is Keller’s rigorous approach to the profession, one that has changed American gastronomy and produced some of its finest next-generation cooks including Cory Lee of Benu in San Francisco and Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago.
Legendary chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who worked with Keller at the Westbury Hotel in New York City in the 1980s, puts it this way: “We can eat well today in every city in every part of the country because of Thomas Keller. It might not be because he trained that particular chef, but that chef trained other cooks.”
Modernising the classics
Keller began his career as a teenager in Palm Beach, working at a restaurant that his mother managed. “My mother taught me the importance of cleanliness and the work ethic, I learned organisational efficiency and critical feedback.”
He went on to work in several New York restaurants, then headed to France, where he put in time at Taillevent and Guy Savoy. After he came back to New York in the 1980s, “he was really making his mark,” Boulud recalls. “He was doing a cuisine that was very clean, very precise, driven by ingredients and technique. He was breaking from the French classics. It was exciting.”
But his first restaurant failed during the economic downtown of the late 1980s, and after a brief period as a consultant in New York and a chef in Los Angeles, Keller found his home – The French Laundry – in the Napa Valley. He expanded the modest kitchen garden into what eventually became the lush, three-acre garden across the street. And he became one of the first champions of local, sustainable ingredients, modernising French cuisine to reflect the local terroir along with a touch of American whimsy.
Keller says the recent remodel is largely about representing his dedication to the organic process and sustainability. The kitchen’s exterior is wrapped in a shimmery etched green glass. The air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration is regulated by a geothermal system that circulates water 450 feet below ground.
The changes to the dining room are subtle, partly because it is an historic building. The color palette is softer, and the tabletop has been uncluttered.
No modifications needed
Keller bristles a little when asked if he considered any modifications to his menu. “We don’t want to have a drastic change with our food, nor do we have to,” he says. “Paul Bocuse said this 40 years ago: if your restaurant’s full of people, it’s relevant.”
Bocuse is also a pivotal figure for Keller—a mentor and teacher who presented him with the Legion of Honour medal in France in 2011. After a number of disappointing US performances at the Bocuse D’Or, the international culinary competition held every other year in Lyon, France, Bocuse asked Keller to oversee the American team.
Keller created Ment’or, a foundation that supports the development of young chefs for the US team. After 10 years, the US won the gold earlier this year. “The Bocuse d’Or goes far beyond me or this restaurant or our restaurants; it goes to the heart of our profession. A lot of people may not make that connection yet – to what we do from a culinary view to our sense of national pride – but I think more and more people are starting to realise it.”
Developing young chefs – whether through Ment’or, at his own restaurant kitchens, or indirectly via his unique dishes and popular cookbooks – remains a constant theme for Keller. The French Laundry is one of just seven restaurants to lay claim to being the best in the world, and (intentionally or not) its recent revamp has helped cement its future. Ultimately, Thomas Keller’s enduring legacy as one of the great culinary figures of our times is secure.
Images: © Getty images