The Epicurean's Atlas: The French Laundry
ADDRESS 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, California, 94599, USA
I n 2024, The French Laundry will turn 30. There has been a great deal of change since 1994 when Thomas Keller, the young owner of a small olive oil firm, brokered a deal with Don and Sally Schmitt to buy their 16-year-old restaurant in a 1900 stone farmhouse in Yountville, California. Having agreed on a price, Keller then had to find the money. It took him 18 months, but he has said that his solution – a bank loan plus buy-in from around 60 investors – was his first inkling that The French Laundry would be the creation of many people, not just one: a community of food-lovers presenting the world of fine dining with a very special gift.
Still, Keller has always been the driving force behind The French Laundry and its sibling Per Se, which was founded in New York in 2004. After cooking his way around the city’s fine-dining establishments (including a stint with Daniel Boulud), he went to France to learn his trade in Michelinstarred kitchens such as Taillevent, Le Pré Catelan and Guy Savoy. His focus is on marrying taste to feelings or memories, as with his famous cornet of salmon tartare, creme fraiche and onion. “It was inspired by an ice-cream cone,” he has said. He is interested in “recognisable flavour profiles, connected to the emotions, but used in an unusual way that makes it amusing”. His mac and cheese, with handmade macaroni and Perigord truffles, channels that impulse.
“Keller is interested in ‘recognisable flavour profiles, connected to the emotions, but used in an unusual way that makes it amusing’”
At The French Laundry, it is possible to bring your own wine, in limited quantities, for a US$200 corkage fee, but it is hardly necessary, given the 16,000-bottle cellar. Head Sommelier Andrew Adelson enjoys the challenges of matching great wine to the textured, sophisticated dishes Keller and his team dream up, and a menu that changes daily gives them plenty of scope. Of course, the top Crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy are available, as are cult favourites such as the single-vineyard wines of Domaine Tempier, Bandol. Its late owners, Lucien and Lulu Peyraud, inadvertently helped to shape the Californian gastronomic scene via their friendship with wine importer Kermit Lynch and a young chef fascinated by Lulu’s fresh-from-market cooking ethos: Alice Waters. By the time Keller opened his place an hour north of Chez Panisse, Waters’ restaurant was in its 23rd year, and she was a legend. Keller’s 3.5-acre culinary garden owes something to Waters’ influence – “Whenever I visit, Thomas marches me off to the garden to share what he is growing,” she has said – and Waters now returns the compliment. She has written: “I think of him as a culinary comrade-in-arms as concerned with the provenance of food as he is about how it tastes and looks on the plate.”
Since becoming Head Sommelier, Adelson has made it his task to complement those exquisitely prepared dishes while focusing on the customer’s comfort, whatever their wine knowledge. He oversees a list as broad as it is deep, including wines from lesser-known regions: Chardonnay from Mexico or Ao Yun, the premium red blend made by LVMH in China’s Yunnan province. Like his employer, Adelson focuses on the senses’ connection to the emotions. His own love of wine, he says, began with his childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley, where there were fruit trees and wonderful natural scents everywhere. “That all comes flooding back when you put your nose in the right glass of wine,” he has said. He loves wine because it “drops a pin in the moment, so in the future, you can go back to that place. And then it’s all the other facets of wine that grab an even stronger hold of you, like geography, geology, history, personal stories.” It is this idea of wine that Adelson tries to convey to diners.
Keller didn’t receive his Michelin stars until the 2007 guide – not because he wasn’t ready but because Michelin wasn’t. As soon as the Red Guide came to California, The French Laundry was awarded three stars. These days, the man who learned from the French greats stands alongside them: he is America’s most decorated chef and has been made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, France’s prestigious order of merit.
Keller, who has been working since the age of 15, has talked of retiring but, so far, it is only talk. In 2017, the restaurant underwent a US$10 million refurbishment. Under a ceiling that takes the form of a white wave, like a tablecloth unfurling, the multi-course menus and the concept of casual elegance – fine dining that is also fun dining – continue. The famous ice-cream cone amuse-bouche is still in evidence, and while the salmon is sometimes replaced with other fish, meat or vegetables, the ingenious idea of summoning a nostalgia for the sweets of childhood via a delicious savoury morsel is as powerful as ever. “At The French Laundry we try to bring guests to an emotional place, using the ingredients to express the idea,” Keller has said. For him, great cuisine is all about time and temperature, and the famously exacting chef seems to have both precisely right.
Photos by Deborah Jones Studio (from The French Laundry, Per Se by Artisan), Michael Grimm