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The Laundry Man

Undeterred by a tumultuous culinary past, Thomas Keller turned the French Laundry into one of America's top restaurants
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

What is his secret? What separates Thomas Keller from the rest? What makes him one of the most gifted chefs creating in America today?

His kitchen offers clues, even at 11 in the morning. The place is immaculate, every burnished silver pot and pan is in its place, every sous chef and every preparer is trained, coiffed and busy at his station. Thanks to large skylights and windows that open out to the distant vineyards, the light coming in is natural and soothing, and even with all the activity, the kitchen is remarkably quiet, almost reverential. Immediately you know that this is a place for serious work, and you also know that nothing here is left to chance. It is all part of a single guiding ethos, a quest for perfection, a place where second best will never do.

And then there's the man himself. At 46, Keller is tall and handsome, with a strong build and a rugged jaw. As he moves in and out of the kitchen, overseeing preparations for the day's performance, Keller's demeanor is calm and focused; he seems completely in command and at ease in his domain. In conversation, too, he is tightly focused and surprisingly self-effacing, despite his towering reputation and the fabled finesse of his creations. He comes across, instead, as a regular guy, a man's man, a fellow who nine times out of ten would skip the Kir Royale in favor of a hearty, honest Beaujolais. But there is a whole other dimension to Keller, and it comes to the fore when he moves into the garden and starts talking about his love affair with the French Laundry.

It began back in 1992. A friend told him the place was for sale, and Keller drove to Yountville, in the heart of the Napa Valley, to have a look. "It was a Monday and the place was closed," Keller recalls. "There was nobody around; I didn't go inside. But I walked along the walkway and saw an antique rosebush. Further along I saw antique wooden benches in front of a window. I immediately had an emotional contact, an emotional experience with the place. It was one of those days—you see them in movies—when things get kind of cloudy and you get teary-eyed; that was what was happening inside me. I was going, 'Wow. This is it. This is where I should be.'"

As he recalls that moment and what he then did to make the French Laundry his own, Keller's businesslike demeanor peels back and you see what's pulsing inside: the heart of an impassioned, driven and unbending artist—fiercely uncompromising when it comes to his vision and his standards. Every culinary artist obsesses about taste, color, originality and getting the tiniest detail exactly right. Keller has mastered those elements and moved into a different realm: he obsesses about feeling. The feeling of the setting, the building, the lighting, the plates, the glasses and, of course, the look, taste and feel of each delicacy he sets before his guests. As Keller explains, his goal is not just to create a magnificent meal; he wants to engender in his guests enduring feelings of contentment, conviviality and well being.

"Our food is serious, but we want people to have a good time with it, we want our food to be part of a wonderful social experience," he says. "I hate that description 'making a pilgrimage to a gastronomic temple.' That's absurd. It's a restaurant. It should be enjoyed. My hope is to bring people here and give them one continuous, wonderful experience."

Fine cigars help engender those feelings of contentment and well being. Keller invites his guests to complete their dining experience with a cigar and a Port, or a single-malt Scotch, in the garden. To that end, he keeps a well-stocked humidor in a place of pride, with some serious smokes inside. Bolivars and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas from Havana. Macanudo Vintage 1993. A. Fuente Gran Reservas. Montecristos. Royal Jamaicans. Ashtons. And more. On summer nights, if he finishes early in the kitchen, Keller likes to join his guests in the garden. "It's a wonderful place to smoke, especially in the summertime. Cigars are also a real opportunity to bond. As much as you see females now starting to smoke cigars, it's still kind of a man's thing. And I don't think there's enough bonding going on, certainly not in my life. I have a few friends, but I'm not able to spend enough time with them. I'm always so immersed in what's going on here."

Keller began smoking a decade ago. "One day a friend of mine who really appreciates cigars said to me, 'Thomas, I'd like to give you something that I think is a wonderful thing. Try it.' At first, it was like the first beer you have, or the first Scotch. You ask yourself, 'What's this about? OK, I have to learn about this to really appreciate it.' I prefer Cubans and Dominicans. My favorite cigar is a robusto, because it's not a big commitment. The cigar I choose if I have a lot of time is a Hoyo de Monterrey No. 2. That's my cigar of choice. I used to smoke Cohibas when I went to Europe, but I don't find them as satisfying as Hoyo de Monterreys."

Keller and his girlfriend, Laura Cunningham, who helps run the French Laundry, live in a house behind the restaurant; off their living room is a nook where Keller keeps his private humidor. Beside it is a magnificent portrait of Madelaine Largenté, the original French "laundress." The portrait means a lot to Keller: he believes that part of his personal mission is to preserve the spirit and cultural integrity of the French Laundry, a place with a long and colorful history in California wine country.

The French Laundry was built in 1892 with local rock and timber, in the middle of Yountville, a rustic, somewhat raffish hamlet located between the town of Napa to the south and St. Helena and Calistoga to the north. The place started, as the name suggests, as a French steam laundry. It later had other lives as a private home, a salon, a brothel and finally a restaurant run by an endearing Yountville couple, Don and Sally Schmitt. It was the Schmitts who sold the place to Keller, sensing it would be a magical match.

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