YOUNTVILLE, CALIF.-“I’m terrified of going back to New York,” said Thomas Keller, the chef at arguably the best restaurant in America-and by the time his pastry guy’s little bombardment of desserts has arrived, like a hail of bullets covered in sugar and gold leaf, who can argue?
But this was several hours before dinner service at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, a nightly grande bouffe a couple hours north of San Francisco that draws moneyed gourmet pilgrims from all over the world. Prix fixe meals start at $115, can last four hours or more, and feel like a particularly engaging dream from which you never want to awaken.
“It’s almost like this sport,” is how Mr. Keller described cooking for strangers. “It’s almost like being on a football team or a basketball team, you know-you start pumping ’round the kitchen, camaraderie, all of that. That’s very exciting. It just gets tough sometimes when you get into a situation where you don’t know. The unknown-that is terrifying.”
Mr. Keller-don’t call him Tom-was sitting in the Laundry’s small downstairs dining room, tall and dark, impatient and droll in a double-breasted white-cotton-piqué chef’s coat buttoned up very tight. The next day he’d be leaving for New York, where, during the first week of February, he and several corporate partners plan to unveil an entity he describes as “the French Laundry, but not the French Laundry” on the fourth floor of the forbidding new Time Warner building in Columbus Circle. The restaurant will contain 68 seats in a 12,500-square-foot space with sweeping views of Central Park. There is a tentative name picked out, a Latin word which he refused to divulge, fearing premature analysis from the city’s notoriously oversalivating food press.
“It’s a scary thing,” he said.
His trepidation is understandable. For almost a decade, Mr. Keller, who turns 48 next month, has been operating in a virtual culinary cocoon. Napa is the closest thing that this country has to pure food and wine country-not necessarily in that order. Driving up from the Bay Area, there is sort of a panicked “last chance for Jack in the Box!” feeling as one makes the right onto Route 29 North, a.k.a. Sonoma Boulevard. From then on, it’s all fields of sunflowers, meandering livestock and endless expanses of grapes (the smell is apparently intoxicating in October, when they are crushed). The region’s spiritual epicenter is the French Laundry, a modestly sized former steam laundry (and onetime bordello) with slightly shabby carpeting, which Mr. Keller has transformed into a 62-seat high temple of gastronomy, though he will shudder to read it described that way. He hates the idea of an “elite food culture,” he said, “because that creates some kind of impression that there’s this ‘club.'”
Pink and white roses spring up to greet you in the front garden, herbs and microgreens cuddle up in beds in the back, and entire stretch-limofuls of excited European tourists pull up just to take a peek. Bonne chance getting a reservation.
But a heartening piece of news for Mr. Keller’s future Manhattan customers is that the French Laundry’s success apparently owes less to its Fertile Crescent location then to FedEx. Inside the well-scrubbed kitchen, as an underling stirred at something green and swampy in a big pot, the chef had just been planning a special species of red, pointy-snouted fish from Japan, an aki yagara -“as in ‘ ya gotta have it,'” Mr. Keller added. (The fish would reappear later, decapitated and bathed in a luxurious toasted-sesame emulsion.) He was drinking the house
Born in Oceandale, Calif., raised in Palm Beach, Fla., by his divorced mother (a restaurant manager), and educated on the fly in snooty French kitchens such as Taillevent and Le Pre Catalan, Mr. Keller had his first shot at Manhattan culinary superstardom in the late 1980’s at Rakel, a place on Varick Street with late-80’s gimmicks like a TV camera on the roof. His sous chef there was Tom Colicchio, now the chef and co-owner of Gramercy Tavern and owner of Craft, and still a good friend. In a phone interview, Mr. Colicchio waxed nostalgic for the tall-food excesses of the era, epitomized by Alfred Portale’s work at Gotham Bar and Grill. “It was just fearless cooking,” Mr. Colicchio said. “Dripping beet juice 10 feet off the top of a spoon onto the plate so it splattered-things like that. It was the first time that I saw food go on the rim of a plate. We were just really pushing it.” However, he said, “there was always that black cloud of ‘We’re not making money.’ It’s very, very difficult to be cheery and run a happy kitchen when you’re not making money.”
“It was very avant-garde,” Mr. Keller said. “It was in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, and the wrong concept.” He said he “slept there many nights,” trying to make the place work.
After leaving Rakel in 1990-he was unwilling to go along with its last-ditch desperation makeover into a café; it is now a Brothers BBQ-he drifted for a while as an industry consultant, then was hired to head the kitchen at Checkers, a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. But the bureaucracy stifled.
“There seemed to be a lot of meetings,” he said. “It didn’t allow me to be behind the stove, which is where I wanted to be.” After the hotel was sold to Germans and the “corporate mentality quadrupled,” he split. “It was a very difficult time,” he said. “But it brought me back to California, and in that way, I was brought here. So it was destiny. Fate.”
Awards and accolades piled up quickly for the sparsely decorated, fiercely food-focused French Laundry (there is no music and no art on the walls, a practice he said would prevail in New York), with its signature dishes like “oysters and pearls,” a tapioca sabayon with osetra caviar, and “coffee and doughnuts,” a cappuccino semifreddo with an adorable little confection nestled alongside. In 1997, then– New York Times critic Ruth Reichl applied the calcifying torch to the critical crème brûlée, declaring the French Laundry “the most exciting place to eat in the United States.”
But the acclaim appears to have left Mr. Keller, who said he works out on an elliptical trainer to de-stress, with something of a metaphysical ulcer-not to mention a staff of seven part-time reservationists. In Paris, he pointed out, “It’s a different set of standards. You start out with one star, and you get one, and you’re really, really happy, and you work the next five to 10 years for your second star. You know? But here you open up a restaurant and bang , you have four stars. You go, ‘Wow, that’s really great.’ But if you don’t get four stars, it’s like, ‘Am I going to go out of business?'”
In 1998, he opened Bouchon, an Adam Tihany–designed, Balthazar-esque bistro a short walk down the street from the Laundry, relieving some of the pressure. Mr. Tihany, the Transylvanian-born gentleman responsible for the slick power interiors of Le Cirque 2000, Jean-Georges and the Las Vegas spinoff of Aureole, has also been charged with the design of French Laundry East.
“It’s basically wood, stone and leather, but we also have a very surprising metal component,” Mr. Tihany said in a voluptuous accent. “What I’m trying to bottle here, if I can describe the process as bottling an aroma, is the scent of the French Laundry, the essence of it. I have designed a custom suit for Thomas Keller. When he walks into the place, he can breathe, he can perform, he can feel he is at the helm of his custom-made race car.”
And when diners enter? “They won’t feel like they’re in the AOL Time Warner building, that’s for sure,” Mr. Tihany snorted.
And therein lies Mr. Keller’s challenge: How to transpose the success of the ultimate boutique restaurant-a bucolic, insular place swathed in the scents of lavender and smoked wood; a place where hard liquor isn’t served, not for purist tastebud-preserving reasons, but because of some quaint Prohibition law still on the books-into the Time Warner space, a space which, many fear, may resemble nothing so much as an upscale food court, with a Jean Georges Vongerichten steakhouse and a Rande Gerber bar down the hall, and a café run by former Lespinasse chef Gray Kunz directly upstairs.
One cannot, after all, count on the executives of Time Warner, a company with a square, Midwestern sensibility (publishers not of Gourmet , but Cooking Light magazine), to “get” the leisurely, voluptuous “French Laundry, but not the French Laundry” ethos. Even if they could, the restaurant will only be open for lunch on Fridays and weekends, à la its Yountville counterpart.
“I don’t want to be the businessman’s lunch,” Mr. Keller said. “I don’t want to have to deal with people who have 25 minutes or an hour and a half. If Ted Turner wants to come down with whatever, the board of directors from AOL, and have lunch-that’s fine, we’ll do private parties.”
But isn’t that throwing away piles of potential profit?
“Ah, it’s all about money for you,” he said, twinkling a little. ” Ah ha ha! ”
The chef de cuisine will be Jonathan Benno, formerly of Craft. (Mr. Colicchio said, “I don’t consider it poaching.”) To inoculate the East Coast staff with the French Laundry culture, several of Mr. Keller’s key management people will set up camp in New York after Jan. 1. (The Napa restaurant will close for a few months, to allow for the staff’s absence and for renovations.) Mr. Keller has not figured out which staffers will eventually stay in California and which will become New Yorkers-some of the younger single members are itching to be assigned to New York. (Napa nightlife ain’t all it’s cracked up to be …. )
Rocco DiSpirito, the chef at Union Pacific on 22nd Street, is one of those wondering why Mr. Keller has chosen to expand his empire in the Time Warner venue.
“My experience with the financial haul of a restaurant that has a small number of seats and a high check average is that there’s very little money to go around,” he said. “Unless he’s got a great management deal.” This summer, Mr. DiSpirito plunged from his three-star flagship into a gaudy reality-TV show, The Restaurant , that has very little to do with his special talents as a chef.
“Every critically acclaimed chef at some point has to figure out how to convert that critical acclaim into some kind of commercial success. Otherwise, you get stuck,” he said. “As much as we hate to admit it, as much as we hate to sound like the artist who’s not sold out but compromised some of his artistic vision in order to be more comfortable, it’s the reality of the time.”
That the extension of his brand might provoke charges of selling out is a hot-button issue for Mr. Keller.
“Some people say ‘selling out,’ but it’s really ‘cashing in,'” he said, displaying a soupçon of his once-famous temper. “It’s funny how chefs are held to this higher kind of expectation than, like, Jack Welch of G.E. When you’re successful, you should make more money! But as a chef -‘Oh, noooo, you can’t make more money, you’ve gotta work 14 hours a day! And if you go out of that kitchen, we’re gonna beat you up,’ you know?”
When it came to the subject of Mr. DiSpirito, however, he became calm. “Very talented young man,” he said. “He had the opportunity, and I think that’s great. What road you choose to go down is really a personal thing. It’s hard to criticize anybody for taking the path that they choose to take. What’s the point-why? We should be more encouraging. We should be more encouraging of ourselves . Rocco-this is just one chapter in his book.”
Mr. Keller’s own book clearly has a different prose style from those of the hard-partying, priapic chefs who have popped up all over New York during the past decade.
“I’m a workaholic,” he said. “I like the idea of golfing. I like the idea of traveling. But right now, there are very few hobbies that I have.” He said he’s been listening to Frank Sinatra’s The Capitol Years . “I have no personal life. I have no family. I mean, I have brothers and sisters, but I have no wife, I have no children. I have a hundred children, so to speak, you know. Twenty wives, ha ha .”
His “significant other,” as he puts it, is the French Laundry’s general manager, Laura Cunningham, a slender, intense brunette with steely-gray blue eyes who majored in literature, art history and Italian at Berkeley and has worked in the restaurant for nine years; they have been dating for eight.
“I was stalking her for the first year,” he said.
They live together in a small house behind the restaurant. Is he as much the control freak (“I don’t use that phrase-because I’m a control freak,” he said) behind those doors? “We don’t have that kind of home life,” said Ms. Cunningham, 36, immaculate in her pinstriped suit.
Later, she added, “Although I definitely want to have kids some day, I joke around that if I didn’t, I would’ve had definitely had my fill-because the restaurant, it’s like a family.”
The two probably won’t be shacking up in a Manhattan love nest anytime soon.
“I’ve gone around in circles with it,” Mr. Keller said, “but my philosophy is, if I get an apartment in New York, it means I’ll really be spending way too much time there.”
This, of course, might open him to the same kind of absentee-landlord criticism that rained upon the French master Alain Ducasse after his perilous debut at the Essex House on 57th Street. Mr. Keller said he watched the whole thing happen with a nervous stomach, anticipating his own eventual pass through the wringer.
“When Alain was in Monaco, he was on the cover of every publication in America,” he said bitterly. “Everybody said, ‘We love you! You’re Alain Ducasse and I’m saying I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you!’ And he says, ‘O.K., wow, I’m going to move to New York and open a restaurant, because I love them, too.’ And then-you know, bang.”
In the background, a staffer had begun to vacuum. “It’s typical in American society,” Mr. Keller said. “If you’re at the top of your game, what do they want to do? The critics want to say, ‘O.K. he’s not so good.’ And you know what? I’m never the one that said I was good anyway! I open a restaurant and I cook my food, and everyone else says ‘Thomas Keller this’ or ‘Thomas Keller that,’ da da da da da. I mean, that’s not me! You’re here interviewing me, not because I’m paying you or I invited you. You’re interviewing me because you want to, and you’re going to write what you want to write. Because that’s what you do. And I can’t control that. I can just be myself.”