The French Laundry in Yountville, California has been named the number-one restaurant in America by Esquire, Zagat Survey, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, USA Today, and Wine Spectator. Writing in The New York Times, Ruth Reichl called it "the most exciting place to eat in the United States." What more need be said? When chef and proprietor Thomas Keller visited Powell's to present The French Laundry Cookbook, he talked about the recipes he's generated and the lessons he's learned over the course of twenty-seven years in the kitchen.
"To consider it merely a 'cookbook' would be to trivialize its content and impact," Library Journal raved.
"A cookbook must have recipes, but it shouldn't be a blueprint," Keller explained. "The book is there for inspiration and as a foundation, the fundamentals on which to build."
Filled with gorgeous photography and illuminating essays about Keller's serving style and the purveyors who bring fresh ingredients to his door, The French Laundry Cookbook is a monument to one of the country's truly great restaurants and the people who make it what it is. Oh, and there are also a hundred fifty mouthwatering recipes in there for when, inevitably, the inspiration comes.
Dave: How did this project start? Why did you decide to write a book?
Thomas Keller: I think every young cook wants to write a book. You think about it in an abstract way, but as a young cook, you're looking at other books for recipes, for inspiration, and for ideas. You're getting to know who the great chefs are through their books. It's one thing you aspire to: someday, you'll be able to write a book.
People ask, "How long did it take you to write the book?" Well, it took me twenty-seven years, as long as I've been cooking. But the project, from beginning to end, was a little over two years, from the time we wrote the proposal to its publication.
Dave: You say in the book that you wanted to bring out the stories, your experiences, as much as the recipes. That shows; it really comes out. And it makes the book a lot more accessible, particularly to people who might not be familiar with the restaurant or your style of cooking. The rabbit story seems representative of the book's theme as a whole: to respect food and respect the ingredients, respect what you're doing.
Keller: We all have stories. We go through our careers and things happen to us. Those experiences made me what I am. I hope the cooks who are working for me now are getting that kind of experience so they can use what they're learning now as a foundation for a great career.
Dave: How many people do you have working in the kitchen?
Dave: You serve extravagant meals, often nine or more courses. That must necessitate a certain amount of advance planning. When do you make up the menus for each night's dinner?
Keller: The final menu is printed at four o'clock. Up until that point, we can make changes.
The season is a deciding factor - we deal with certain ingredients, depending on the season. We rely on our purveyors to tell us what's available and what's good. Once we have that information, at the end of the night, we'll sit down and decide on tomorrow's menu. Then, as the day progresses, depending on how the product is coming in - for instance, the fish man will fax us and say black bass is great - throughout the day, we'll also make judgment calls and adapt to what's available.
Dave: There are stories about some of your purveyors in the book. They all seem to be fairly unique, somewhat eccentric individuals. That must bring an interesting variable into the equation. You're not relying on wholesalers or corporate supply chains; you rely on people.
Keller: Yes, and more importantly, we're relying on relationships. In any restaurant of this caliber, the chefs are in the same position, building relationships. Let's face it: if you and I have the same capabilities, the same energy, the same staff, if the only thing that's different between you and me is the products we can get, and I can get a better product than you, I'm going to be a better chef.
Resourcing is a key element. Part of that is making relationships. I've had relationships with some of these people throughout my career. They know what my standards are. They know what I need and how to get it to me, and they know how to communicate with me if for some reason they can't get it.
Dave: We see the menus as they're presented in the cookbook, but how much do these recipes evolve?
Keller: One of the problems with writing a cookbook is that recipes exist in the moment. We look back at the book sometimes and scratch our heads. Why did we do that?
For me, that's one of the important things about cooking. What was good enough yesterday may not be good enough today. We're always trying to make it better. Some of the recipes in the book have evolved for us. Many haven't. The lemon tart, for instance: I've been doing the same lemon tart for fifteen years. I can't make it any better. To me, it's perfect.
Dave: Many of the recipes in the book aren't likely to be reproduced by the average cook at home. The pig's head is one example. On the other hand, some are pretty straightforward and just about anyone who cooks could make them. How much effort was there to present a full spectrum, simple recipes to complex?
Keller: I wanted to write about what we were doing at the French Laundry, the recipes and the stories. I didn't want to be encumbered by what anyone else's abilities were, their equipment or environment or their ability to get certain products. There are some recipes which are very complicated; there are some which are easy. There are many which are complicated but whose components are very easy, and you can extract one or two of those components to use in your own way.
A cookbook must have recipes, but it shouldn't be a blueprint. It should be more inspirational; it should be a guide. If you don't like truffles or you can't get them, that doesn't mean you can't make the sweetbreads. Substitute celery for endive. Fine. It should be what you like. The book is there for inspiration and as a foundation, the fundamentals on which to build. Once you understand the foundations of cooking - whatever kind you like, whether it's French or Italian or Japanese - you really don't need a cookbook anymore.
Hopefully, imparting what's important to me, respect for the food and that information about the purveyors, people will realize that for a restaurant to be good, so many pieces have to come together. The purveyors, the staff, where you are...I got to the right place at the right time with the right idea. Whether it's destiny or fate or whatever, I don't think I could do a French Laundry anywhere else.
Dave: You say in the book that you wanted to have the restaurant in a place where people simply wanted to eat and drink. Your lunches can take as long as four hours. It's true: you can't do that in the city. People want to go to the theater or a club....
Keller: The seductions are endless.
Dave: There aren't many places as well-suited for what you're doing as Napa Valley.
Keller: Napa Valley, being our premiere wine-making region - not taking anything away from Oregon or Sonoma or Santa Barbara - why do you go there? Up until ten years ago, you went there just to drink. Now the restaurants have begun to catch up with the wine-making; there are numerous great restaurants in Napa Valley, and it's wonderful because the people are there for just that: great food and great wine.
Dave: You also spent a long time in France, which has its own famous wine-making regions. Do you have any favorites, particular bottles?
Keller: I drank more wine when I wasn't working as much, to be honest. My favorite wines are Zinfandels. I like to drink young wines, wines which are robust and have a lot of forward fruit to them.
Dave: You mention that readers may not have access to some of the ingredients in your recipes, but it works the other way, too: next door to our store for Cooks & Gardeners is a great market called Pastaworks. My girlfriend was looking through your book and said, "I've always seen White Truffle Oil on the shelf and I wanted to try it, but it's expensive and I had no idea what to make with it so I never did." Now she knows. I think that's one of the real thrills of the book; for the most part, these are dishes that are significantly different from what people are accustomed to making.
You provide a lot of instruction in the book. All the techniques are thoroughly explained. But you're not professionally schooled, right? You learned in restaurants.
Keller: I have no formal culinary training, right. When I started cooking, in our country, there weren't really any schools to go to. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) had just been founded. A couple hotels had apprenticeship programs, but I was ignorant to those. My mother ran a restaurant and said, "Do you want to be a chef?" I said yes. She said, "Here you go, you're the chef. Now learn how to cook."
As I worked through those first two years, it was very mechanical, learning how to make hollandaise...But it was a challenge, trying to make it perfect every day, as I talk about in the book. It wasn't until 1977 when I met Roland Henin, who became my mentor, more or less, that I understood what cooking was all about. It wasn't about mechanics; it was about a feeling, wanting to give someone something, which in turn was really gratifying. That really resonated for me. I wanted to learn everything I could about what it takes to be a great chef. It was a turning point for me.
But you should tell your girlfriend to do the White Truffle Custard. That's the perfect way to use the White Truffle Oil, I think. We've been doing that recipe since we opened. Someone will come in, we'll do a whole meal for them, and they'll say, "The one thing that really sticks out in my mind is the White Truffle Custard."
Dave: When I mentioned the idea of very small courses to a coworker of mine, he said, "Oh, that reminds me of Japan." Do you find lessons in the food of other cultures? How did you come to your style of cooking and serving?
Keller: A kaiseki meal is like that, very small courses over a long period of time. That wasn't the inspiration for it, but there is a strong similarity.
The law of diminishing returns is something I really believe in. It's something I learned way back in high school drinking beer on the beach in Florida. On a hot day, that first cold beer tasted really good. By the time you got to the second or third one, they weren't so good anymore.
Where do I want you to be after you've eaten something? I want you to be thinking, "God I wish I had a little more of that." Your memory of that taste is excellent. Also, it's more healthy - in the Japanese way - to extend the meal for a longer period of time. It helps your body digest the food instead of packing your body with so much food that you're uncomfortable for hours afterward. This way, you're able to taste better and you know when you've had enough. The law of diminishing returns is the most important part of that.
When I got to the French Laundry, they had an existing menu, and it was a five-course format, a five-course meal. My food, even before that, was always on the small side. I was always trying to focus more than trying to pack the plate. When I got to the French Laundry, it was a match. The format was already there. People who knew the restaurant were already familiar with that style, so it gave me a good starting point to develop even further the multiple-course meal.
Dave: At the restaurant, a course is served....How long might it be until the next course?
Keller: It depends on the customer. Some people want to go slow. They've come to dine; they want to enjoy the experience - the food, but also the wine and the service and the environment. There are other people who want to go quick; they want to do it in two and a half hours. As much as possible, it's gauged around what the customer wants.
Dave: What do you eat when you travel?
Keller: I starve! No, it's funny, when I eat out it's not typically in the kind of restaurants people might imagine. I certainly go to my colleagues' restaurants, and they always feed me way too much as I do them when they come to mine, but people ask me all the time, what's my favorite restaurant, and I define my favorite as a restaurant I go back to often.
When I lived in L.A., for example, Rosco's Chicken and Waffles was one of my favorites, Yang Chow was one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. But once in a while you might see me at In and Out Burger; they make the best fast food hamburgers around. My childhood wasn't full of wonderful culinary memories. My mother was a single parent. I grew up with four older brothers who forced chili dogs on me. When I go out to eat, it's usually something moderate in style.
Dave: So many of the recipes take their names from familiar dishes: Soup and Sandwich, Grilled Cheese...I think that helps reinforce the fact that regardless how fancy some of these recipes might be, it's all food.
Keller: You're absolutely right. It started with Coffee and Doughnuts. I was unemployed, living in L.A., and I was in New York doing a dinner for the Beard Foundation. I had to come up with a dessert. Well, I lived right across the street from a doughnut shop. I'd go over there and get a coffee and doughnut each morning. Then one day it just hit me: this is it. That's how I came to that recipe.
The Cornets, which we serve as a canapé when people come into the restaurant - they resemble little ice cream cones, and that's exactly where the inspiration came from. I was in a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop with some friends of mine. I had to create a dish for my new employer to serve at one of those food and wine functions where people walk around. When the person stuck the ice cream cone in one of those plastic holders, I said, "There it is."
Restaurants like the French Laundry can be very intimidating for a lot of people. What I want them to do is see the Cornet and smile. I hope they're going to get it. This reminds me of an ice cream cone. It's a reference point they have from childhood.
It's developed, using "Tongue in Cheek" or "Coffee and Doughnuts" or "Macaroni and Cheese"...you should be able to have a good time in the restaurant, and I don't want to intimidate people by writing things out in French or presenting them in a way that they don't understand. Food should be fun. Creating reference points helps.
We try not to do it too much because it can get kind of silly, but every once in a while it can be nice. "Yabba Dabba Do," the prime rib steak...we don't do that kind of food at the French Laundry, right? It's enormous, it doesn't exist. It's mythical. That's why we called it Yabba Dabba Do. It's like Fred Flintstone with that big thing they brought out that knocked over his car.
What it also does is, if you think about Macaroni and Cheese, what do you think about?
Keller: Right, we're all thinking about Kraft. We grew up on it. Well, I'm going to give you my version of Macaroni and Cheese, which hopefully gives you a whole new reference point. Your idea of that dish has evolved, and if you're a cook, you can start thinking in different ways about it, maybe even a different way than I think about it.
Thomas Keller visited Powell's Hawthorne Street store for Cooks and Gardeners on October 18, 2000 to sign books and meet fans, some of whom had dined in his famous California restaurant. Thanks to Susan Crittenden, manager of Powell's C&G store, for pointing me to this event on our busy calendar.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State