Between the Sheets at The French Laundry
The greatest restaurant in the world, is really a small house.
The clock above the kitchen door reads 10:30 a.m. The first wave of prep cooks — which have been here for more than five hours — are moving in accordance with Chef Thomas Keller’s simple reminder placard beneath the second-keeping clock: “A Sense of Urgency,” it reads.
Which is exactly what is needed in order for the small, spotlessly clean kitchen to serve each of that night’s 76 guests one of two nine-course menus (“vegetable” or “chef’s”), each course containing completely different ingredients than the one preceding it. That’s a damn lot of ingredients. And while there are certain mainstays like the “oysters and pearls” — tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar — the menu changes daily.
The kitchen and the half-bottle wine cellar — tucked between the chef’s office and the four-table portion of the dining room affectionately referred to as “the cave” where celebs like Mick Jagger like to dine — are the only modern-day additions to this 17th century cottage that has in its lifetime served as a pub and, of course, a French steam laundry before Keller bought it in 1994 and elevated its status to that of triple Michelin.
The sparse kitchen is seemingly equipped with only the most essential items, making a large flat-screen television, which hangs front and center seem all the more unusual. What’s on this morning? Not the Giants game, no — it’s another kitchen, which actually looks a whole lot like this one. Across the country, similarly blue-apron clad chefs are prepping for the day at Per Se in New York City — under the ever-watchful eye of Chef Keller.
But alas, we are here to talk about wine, so the impeccable and gregarious head sommelier, Dennis Kelly, leads us from the kitchen (without, sigh, even an amuse bouche) and outside through the courtyard — where this season, for the first time, there are a few tables for private parties — into the property’s tool-shed of a wine cellar containing primarily French and Napa Valley wines (what do you drink when in Bordeaux? Burgundy? And what should you drink when in Napa? goes the house mantra — though some local somms still quip “Bordeaux” or “Burgundy” with eyebrow firmly raised, to that last rhetorical query).
Of the 20,000 wines they have on inventory, only a fraction are stored on premise (the rest are relegated to the off-site storage facility known as Siberia). Kelly proudly shows us the latest addition to the Laundry’s wine program, an iPad in a custom-designed leather binder.
And what is in Keller’s drawer? “Probably Zinfandel,” laughs Kelly as if to say, these chefs…such sophisticated palates, such simple tastes. (It does pair nicely with a roast suckling pig.) “If Ridge ever ran out of wine, the chef’s private collection could probably keep them in business for years.”