The French Laundry

While having my lunch today and on a whim, I put the words ‘French Laundry’ into youtube to see what would come up. To my delight, someone has posted clips from an episode of Tony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour featuring a visit to this restaurant.

For those that don’t know (and unless you’re a shameless foodie, there’s no reason why you would know) the French Laundry is a restaurant located in the town of Yountville in Napa Valley, California. Run by Thomas Keller, it’s renowned for being one of if not actually the best restaurant in the world. There are contenders to that title, but at the level these kind of places operate, the criteria for deciding pole position are kind of meaningless – we’re talking about degrees of opulence and luxury rather than what’s on the actual plate.

Thomas Keller is the head chef and genius behind the place, and I’ve had the privilege to eat in a couple of his restaurants over the years (as well as Tony Bourdain’s Les Halles in New York – hey Chris, how’s it going? – which was really good in a different way ) as well as a number of other restaurants that hold one, two and three Michelin stars.

Any restaurant that holds a star is working at a serious level of professionalism and creativity, but for my money, Thomas Keller is the most exciting chef I’ve ever come across. Not only are his restaurants really special places, but his cook books are also head and shoulders above the competition.

To eat in the French Laundry is to experience the elevation of food and the sensory experience of eating to a true art form. I was lucky enough to go for dinner there a few years ago and the memory is a defining one for me. It was simply stunning, and going back there one day is quite high on my list of ambitions. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel that a repeat experience might disappoint, compared to how amazing the first time was. Maybe it’s better left as a perfect memory?

Anyway, Bourdain has captured pretty accurately my experience of eating in this establishment, the sense of wonder and playfulness and sheer impressiveness of the whole exercise. Give his show a watch, to get an insight into how things work at this level of artistic expression.

Often there is an element of smoke and mirrors about fine dining at this level (and at this price tag) but my opinion is that Keller on a good day is worth every dollar and cent he charges and more. I left his establishment feeling that the experience offered the most astonishing value – it cost a fortune but was worth every cent to me. Out of interest, just a minute ago I had a look on trip advisor to see if there were any recent reviews, and there are hundreds. One caught my eye – the person who wrote it said that the experience was very impressive, but he also suggested that The French Laundry could lose one of its Michelin stars, based on his experience of dining there. In particular, he levels the following accusations at the staff:

“In general all courses tended to be a little too cold when served. There seemed to be something going wrong between the kitchen and the waiters – their relation was not super sharp. For one course in particular we even had to wait, for which the headwaiter apologized – and when it finally arrived it was too cold.”

Fair enough. Temperature is something of a subjective issue – too hot to some people is just right to others. This is probably fair comment.

“We asked for sparkling water but got regular water instead.”

Okay . . . hardly a crime against humanity, but then people expect a lot at a three star restaurant.

“We asked for a list of the wines that we had tasted – we never got it in the end and had to ask for it again.”

Again, is this really an issue? Hmm.

“In the restroom there was a nick in the toilet seat.”

There you have it – that’s the kind of standard chefs running restaurants at this level are held to.

There will be a certain type of person who will look at the whole idea of Michelin star cooking and rightly feel a sense of outrage that people spend so much money on what is essentially just food. And of course, they’re right. But when you experience the senses played with the way these guys can do it, then you’re eyes can be opened. Is it worth the money? I think so, and eating in these kinds of restaurants isn’t something I do very often – once or twice a year if I’m lucky and can save up to be able to afford it.

(I have had disappointments – The Waterside Inn in the UK is another three star establishment and that was a complete letdown, but perhaps that’s a subject for another blog entry.)

In other art forms, people don’t bat an eyelid at the prices pieces of sculpture or paintings command, and to me, it’s obvious that food at this level is an art form as well, and guys like Keller who are at the top of their game have much more in common with artists than they do with cooks. I suspect they might argue with that comparison, but that’s the way it seems to me.

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