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Yountville’s Thomas Keller is, without question, global restaurant royalty.

Not only is he celebrated for high-end restaurants on both coasts, but also for great strides made in casual dining and innovations in food service, design and product.

In accepting plaudits for his forward-thinking and cutting-edge practices, there’s also considerable humility.

When praise comes his way, Keller’s quick to point to staff on both coasts as the force behind the culinary throne.

Keller — who’s sharing the food service responsibilities at this year’s Auction Napa Valley — knows he’s inspired many a young cook.

Young men and women from all over the world show up on his doorstep all the time, either looking for work or for the opportunity to spend a few days in The French Laundry’s kitchen — often volunteering to work for free just to learn from the master.

Keller doesn’t take this respect lightly. He’s quick to encourage his young charges — and candidly admits his bark is worse than his bite.

“It’s not just about me,” Keller maintained during an informal chat in the office he inhabits just a stone’s throw from the venerated French Laundry kitchen. Young cooks want to work at his restaurant because they know the focus is on quality.

“The evolution and the legacy (of The French Laundry) is in their hands. ... They all embrace the responsibility of that legacy. They continue to enhance the foundation of The French Laundry ... which enables those who come after to come on at an even higher level. All of the young people who work here are part of that evolution.

“A debt of gratitude is owed to them. ... It’s their ownership. All of us work hard every day to maintain our restaurant’s legacy.”

The tall, lanky, straight-talking chef feels that the young men and women who join The French Laundry culinary team “are learning what the profession is all about. The overarching goal is improving the standards of our profession, whether it’s cooking or service. ... We’re preparing them for their future, and their future, honestly, is not with us. There’s a wide world out there. ... If it’s only about our restaurant, then we’re short-sighted.

“I need to promote confidence and courage ... giving them a strong understanding of who they are and what they can contribute so that they can go to the next job and have a positive impact.”

Keller straightaway tells members of his staff, “You can make a difference. Young people can be heard and can add to the reputation of this restaurant. Each and every one, from sous chef to chef de partie, has something to contribute.”

He admits that the first three months in The French Laundry kitchen can be the most difficult for a young cook as both he and they try to figure out “who they are and how they’ll develop in the restaurant. I get a good sense of each person within the first six months.”

Keller hopes his young charges are saying to themselves, “I like to think the chef noticed what I did and will continue to challenge me.”

He said young chefs should “continuously strive for recognition in the kitchen, which comes through in the (assigned) job that you do. If I continue to challenge (a young chef) it’s because I think you can do better. I notice how you dress, how you tie your apron, sharpen your knife ... how you wrap cheese, cut the fish ... the respect shown for what you’re working with.”

Keller candidly admits, “Those I don’t talk to, I may have given up on.”

The respected wine country restaurateur talked about those who’ve left Yountville to open their own restaurants or run their own kitchens all around the country. He said these are the young men and women who daily strove for improvement and, more often than not, set the right example.

Keller hands out a set of “core values” to each new member of the team, goals that “truly resonate with the kids who come here ... and hopefully it changes their lives.” (See accompanying story.)

That list of core values numbered 11 until recently, when Keller added a 12th — trust. His upscale New York City restaurant, Per Se, is 2,300 miles from here, he points out.

“We have to trust that (the staff at Per Se) will do the right thing on a daily basis,” Keller said. “And, with trust, we need to acknowledge none of us is perfect.”

A big anniversary

The French Laundry was launched by Don and Sally Schmitt in 1977 as a restaurant where great but simple food married well with the valley’s fine wines. A 35th anniversary celebration is scheduled for summer.

Backed by a group of investors, Thomas Keller opened the doors and served his first meal at The French Laundry on July 6, 1994. Backing Keller up in the kitchen was sous chef Ron Siegel, now executive chef at Parallel 37 in San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, and pastry chef Stephen Durfee, a James Beard Foundation award winner and current chef/instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Keller recalls having a sense that the restaurant would succeed “if only so we’d have a place to go to work. I wanted desperately to have a job” after moving from New York to California.

He credits the media with getting the word out, especially food critics Ruth Reichl and John Mariani. But it was San Francisco columnist Herb Caen who penned “one of the most insightful articles” about the early days of The French Laundry.

“Everybody read Herb Caen. ... When he suggested people dine at The French Laundry, everybody came,” Keller said.

Winner of numerous awards — including those that rank his restaurants among the best in the world — Keller insists it was a dedicated staff that helped build the reputation of the restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. He pulled out a list of alumni, which read like a Who’s Who of the hospitality industry’s leading lights.

For example, there’s Corey Lee (who worked in Yountville and at Per Se), who recently opened the acclaimed Benu in San Francisco, and Eric Ziebold, presently manning the stoves at his CityZen in Washington, D.C.

How about Grant Achatz, the creative genius behind Alinea, Next and Aviary in Chicago, or Jonathan Benno, presently cooking at Lincoln in New York?

Does anyone recall that Rene Redzepi, who runs the restaurant ranked No. 1 in the world (Copenhagen’s Noma), was once a member of The French Laundry culinary team, along with his current sous chef, Matthew Orlando?

Josh Schwarz (chef at Del Dotto Vineyards) and Jeffrey Cerciello (Farmshop in Santa Monica) worked with Keller for a number of years, teaming up to open Bouchon in 1998.

Locally, there’s Kang Kuan, executive chef at Morimoto Napa; Solbar executive chef Brandon Sharp; and Ryan Fancher, chef of Barndiva in Healdsburg — all former members of the Laundry team. So, too, is Rodney Wages, most recently sous chef at Morimoto Napa, now in a similar post at Joshua Skenes’ acclaimed Saison in San Francisco. Robert Hohmann is chef de cuisine at Bottega; Brandon Rosen is sous chef at Redd. Other local Laundry alumni include Wendy Sherwood, partner of La Foret Patisserie in Browns Valley, and Yountville’s Lena Kwak, who developed the C4C (“Cup for Cup”) brand of gluten-free flour with Keller’s support (“It’s one of the largest-selling [products] at Williams-Sonoma.”).

On the wine side, there’s three sommeliers who spent considerable time at The French Laundry and are now helping consumers in their new posts — Paul Roberts, director of Bond Estates; Michael Ireland, sommelier at The Restaurant at Meadowood; and Bobby Stuckey, sommelier at Frasca in Boulder, Colo.

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What’s ahead

At one time, Keller had a grand plan that included an inn across the street from The French Laundry. Keller says the inn is no longer on his to-do list.

“The inn was a difficult project for me. ... It was hard to get the town to embrace the project,” he candidly admits. He talked about waiting more than two years for a water hookup moratorium to be lifted. Then there was more than three years spent searching for property where he could put low-cost housing as quid pro quo for his inn project.

“The reason I bought the Ad Hoc site was that there was property for (low-cost housing). We (the town council and Keller) thought we were doing best. But we’ve all moved on.

“Today we have a beautiful garden across the street. My partners keep reminding me it’s the most expensive garden in the world.”

Keller has not abandoned his plan to open a place that will feature hamburgers and half bottles of wine. “If you remember, that’s what I had figured we’d use the Ad Hoc site for initially.” For the moment, that project is on the back burner.

Early this year, Keller repaired fire-damaged Bouchon Bakery and renovated it along with Ad Hoc, both just down the street from The French Laundry. His other successful, informal eatery, Bouchon, is doing quite well in its 14th year. Located at the rear of Ad Hoc, Addendum offers a small selection of to-go items like fried chicken and potato salad that can be consumed in the restaurant garden or taken to home or work.

There are other Bouchons and Bouchon Bakeries in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, along with Bar Bouchon, also in Beverly Hills. In addition to Per Se, Keller has a Bouchon Bakery and Cafe in the same Time Warner building on New York’s Columbus Circle and another Bouchon Bakery opened in Rockefeller Center last year. Come fall, Keller will open a larger Bouchon Bakery on The Strip in Las Vegas.

When he’s not in the kitchens of The French Laundry or Per Se, or meeting with chefs and bakers at his other operations in the group, Keller is making his mark in food and wine service businesses.

He is the first “outsider” to partner with a French porcelain manufacturer. Keller came up with a white-on-white “checks’’ pattern for the Limoges Hommage collection by Raynaud, based on the houndstooth pattern of chef pants. Keller said it has become the largest-selling collection offered by the company.

Keller teamed up with designer Adam Tihany to put his mark on holloware for Christofle. K + T, a collection of silver hardware and cocktailware, includes a Champagne cooler with a handle on the inside as well as a holder for the chef’s renowned salmon cornets.

The chef said his collaboration on the holloware “came out of my desire for an ideal egg cup.”

With all of his projects and two of the nation’s top restaurants thousands of miles apart, Keller spends an average of 100 days a year on the road. Even with closed-circuit TV between The French Laundry and Per Se, Keller feels it’s important that he spend time in New York.

But Yountville is Keller’s home. “I love it here,” he volunteered. “I live next to the restaurant in a town I adore ... in a valley that’s extraordinary. This is where I choose to live.”

 

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Thomas Keller, "Ad Hoc at Home"

Be careful. The oil can spurt as the chicken is added and fried, making this a perfect recipe to use a splatter screen. Place a thermometer in the oil to help monitor the proper cooking temperature. It is a good idea to make the brine a day ahead and refrigerate it. Do not add the chicken to warm brine and do not leave the chicken in the brine longer than the specified time or it may become too salty. You will need a

6-quart sauté pan with splatter screen.

Makes 16 pieces.

For the brine:

1 gallon water

1 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. honey

12 bay leaves

1/2 cup garlic cloves, skin left on, smashed

2 Tbsp. black peppercorns

About 1/2 ounce (3 large) rosemary sprigs

About 1/2 ounce (1 large bunch) thyme sprigs

About 2 ounces (1 large bunch) flat-leafed parsley sprigs

Grated zest and juice of 2 large lemons

For the coating:

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp. garlic powder

2 Tbsp. onion powder

2 tsp. paprika

2 tsp. cayenne

2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Two 2 1/2–pound chickens

1 quart buttermilk

10 cups peanut oil

Kosher salt

Rosemary and thyme sprigs for garnishing

For the brine: Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely before using.

Rinse the chickens and place them in the cold brine. Refrigerate overnight or for up to 12 hours. Remove the chickens from the brine and pat them dry, removing any herbs or spices sticking to the skin. With a knife and pair of kitchen shears, cut the chickens into 8 pieces each: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 breast halves and 2 wings.

Bring the peanut oil to 330 degrees F in the 6-quart sauté pan.

Mix the coating ingredients together in a bowl and place the buttermilk in a second container. Just before frying, dip each piece of chicken into the coating, patting off the excess, then into the buttermilk and back into the coating. Place the chicken on a parchment-lined sheet tray.

When the oil has reached the proper temperature, carefully lower the pieces of dark meat into the oil. The temperature of the oil will decrease. Adjust the heat as necessary to bring the oil to proper temperature. Fry the dark meat for about 13 minutes, to a deep golden brown, cooked throughout and very crisp. Remove the chicken to a tray lined with paper towels and sprinkle with salt.

Carefully add the white meat to the oil and fry for about 6 to 7 minutes until cooked. Remove to the tray, sprinkle with salt and turn off the heat under the oil.

Let the chicken rest for a few minutes to cool slightly. It is very hot when it comes out of the oil.

While the chicken rests, add the herb sprigs to the hot oil and let them cook and crisp for a few minutes. Arrange the chicken on the serving platter and garnish with the fried herb sprigs.

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