It’s All About Finesse

my authographed menu from the French LaundryI’ve always loved cooking, for as long as I can remember. And now that I live in San Francisco, I’ve gotten more into cooking than ever. There’s so much great quality produce available year-round, so many farmer’s markets, and so many wonderful, inspirational, restaurants to try out. But I don’t care about going to the best restaurants simply because they’re the best, or because the chef is famous or trendy. So though I’d heard about The French Laundry for ages, I hadn’t been much interested in fighting to procure a reservation or shelling out the big bucks for a meal which I assumed couldn’t live up to expectations.

All that changed last fall when I read The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman. Nearly a third of this amazing book was focused on The French Laundry’s chef and owner, Thomas Keller — from his cooking career and his struggles to open The French Laundry to his philosophies on cooking (he stores fish on ice in the direction they swim in the ocean!) and his approach to preparing the best food possible. I was hooked on Keller from this point forward. I couldn’t stop talking about him, and thinking about him when I was in the kitchen preparing food. There was something in his approach that resonated with me — I knew if I were a chef, I’d approach things in a similarly obsessive and perfectionistic, yet Zen-like, manner.

I started dreaming of eating at The French Laundry. Then for Christmas Jason gave me The French Laundry Cookbook (where Thomas himself explains how he prepares food and why) and I decided: I simply must eat there. So I took a tin can with a plastic top, cut a slit in it, typed a label that said, “The French Laundry Fund” and started sticking a dollar in the can every day, back in early January. In late March, I called and got a reservation. And last night, I had dinner at the French Laundry.

After a wonderful afternoon exploring Napa, we arrived early so we could enjoy a glass of Champagne in the lovely gardens. It was still broiling hot, as it had been all day, but sitting in the shade surrounded by flowers, sipping chilled bubbly Champagne cooled us a bit. Aperitifed, we headed inside to be seated. We were led upstairs, where there were only five tables, and we were seated by french doors that were later opened onto an upper-level deck, ushering in a wonderful breeze as the air cooled down.

I threw my non-dairy vegetarianism to the wind and ordered the Chef’s Tasting Menu (see photo) and even chose the foie gras option. We ordered a half-bottle of 1999 Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc (which was excellent, highly recommended) to begin and the food started flowing. First, little cornets with salmon tartare and red onion crème fraîche. These looked like tiny ice cream cones and were so delightful. Then I had “Oysters and Pearls”: oysters and caviar in tapioca. No words can adequately describe this dish. It was simply one of the most delicious, sweet, creamy, briny, amazing things I’ve ever tasted. I almost licked the bowl it was so good. (Oh and I got to eat it with a beautiful mother-of-pearl caviar spoon.) That was followed by the foie gras.

Foie gras. I’d only had it once before, didn’t like it one bit. But I knew I had to try again. It was my favorite course of them all: a big round disc of poached foie gras, so smooth it spread like butter. I spread it on toasted brioche and topped it with pickled field rhubarb, greens, and some balsamic glaze. Accompanied by a glass of Château Reynon Cadillac (so smooth and sweet, almost like a glass of honey), this dish was the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. No words can describe the combination of crispy toasted buttery brioche, creamy foie gras, and the tang of the pickled rhubarb. Phenomenal.

Our bottle of 1998 Château de Fonsalette syrah arrived and the food kept coming: sautéed sea bass and sweet New Zealand langoustine tails, “pork and beans” and delicate slices of rib-eye (My God, writing all this is making me hungry again!) accompanied by morels and a fried piece of bone marrow (which looked like a tater tot but tasted rich and creamy).

Our waiter, Michael, used to work as a chef at the restaurant but was now working the front of the house so he could get more experience, as he’s hoping to open his own restaurant one day and thinks chefs need to know what it’s like to be a waiter. He’d seen the French Laundry Fund can sitting on our table, and I told him about my interest in Thomas Keller. He suggested we take a break after the meat course to go outside and peer into the kitchen. The kitchen is off the back of the building, surrounded by windows, so you can look in and watch the chefs in action. So at this point, we went outside to look through the open windows into the bustling kitchen.

Then we were back for more: a cheese course of “Brie de Nangis” with poached dried pears, a superb Watsonville strawberry sorbet (you have no idea — sorbet isn’t even close, imagine the full flavor of strawberry but creamy and cold, icy but not watery), and a chocolate concoction with chocolate sauce topped with “Chibouse à la vanille”. At this point, I was so full, I couldn’t eat another thing. Not one more bite. Until they brought out this baby crème brûlée (for the ladies, gentlemen received a pot de crème) which was so cute and tiny, and amazing.

Sated, I was happily enjoy a cup of coffee when a final round of treats arrived: meringues and baby little tartlets. I managed to squeeze in one. And then, sadly, that was it. I asked Michael if I could get a copy of the evening’s menu and we paid the bill (oy! luckily my savings covered all but $50). Then we thanked our waiters and headed downstairs.

In the lobby I stopped to sign the guest book when Michael appeared behind me.

“Would you like to meet Thomas?” he asked.

(With my eyes bulging out of my head) “Uh, yeah!” I replied, dumbfounded.

He led me down a long sloping hallway towards the kitchen, and there he was: Thomas Keller, standing behind a work bench, plating eight orders of “Pan Roasted Rib-Eye of Prime Beef” as people swirled all around him.

“He’s a little busy right now, but don’t worry. He’ll get to you eventually,” Michael said.

He pointed out the different kitchen stations and the names of the people operating them: the poissionier, the sous chef, etc. Then he stepped back, leaving me pressed against the doorway to the kitchen, as wait staff and chefs rushed back and forth with food and plates. I stood and watched everything: Thomas moving the order tickets along a little rack, someone wiping the edge of a pure white plate so that not a speck of sauce was out of place. Thomas plated another set of dishes and I just stood, mesmerized by all the action, by the smoothness of it all. I think I was grinning from ear to ear. And then, the next set of dishes was whisked away and he looked up towards me, extending his hand.

I don’t remember exactly what he said, I think he asked my name. We shook hands and chatted, I told him the meal was amazing, wonderful, beyond expectations. I told him I’d been saving a dollar a day to experience his food. Jason stepped forward to show him the French Laundry Fund can and he got a kick out of it. He smiled and said he never heard of anyone doing that before. Then he looked at the menu I had clutched against my chest and asked if I’d like him to sign it.

Meg + Jason
It’s all about finesse
Thomas Keller

My cheeks were beginning to hurt from the giant smile. I don’t think my eyes have ever been open so wide. We thanked him again, shook hands, and said good-bye and then Michael led us back down the hall to the lobby and out the door. We stepped out into the warm scented garden and looked up at the sky filled with stars, the kind of stars you see out in the country away from all the bright lights of the city. I looked at the stars as we walked back to the car, holding my menu, still tasting all the food on my tongue. It was the most amazing night of my life.