Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Day I Beat Thomas Keller

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French Laundry. Bouchon. Per Se.

Icons of the American restaurant scene. The mere mention of the name Thomas Keller subjects chefs around the nation to intimidation, fear and mediocrity. Read anything by Anthony Bourdain and you'll see a chef gushing about the man and his Yountville encampment.

It was a bright and sunny January afternoon that I made my way over to Yountville after attending the Barista Guild of America directors meeting. The French Laundry. A $60 rental car. It wasn't a sightseeing trip. It was a pilgrimage.

For a mere mortal like myself, landing a seat at The French Laundry means swift use of your speed-dialer, the kind help of people-in-the-know, or an Act of God. And since my speed-dialing is poor, I don't know the right people and didn't feel comfortable asking The Creator to help me for something so self-indulgent, I made my way into the wine country content with the notion of enjoying a late lunch at Keller's French bistro, Bouchon.

I have the cookbooks (both "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "Bouchon"). I've read them thoroughly and couldn't wait. In fact, I was so eager to eat in The World of Keller that I didn't eat at all morning. My only consumption was an espresso at Steve's new Blue Bottle Coffee stand on Linden Street in San Francisco.

Luckily, the weather was beautiful. Slightly cool in the upper fifties but with bright sunshine - so taking a seat outside, in the sun, was a no-brainer. My server Gerald brought me a full bottle of Vittel and recommended a couple of wines to go along with my meal of a half-dozen raw oysters and the steak and frites.

How was the food? Beautiful. The oysters were perfect. Succulent, briny and expertly shucked with no visible trauma to the shells. Juicy flavor. Fantastic. The steak and frites was also wonderful. Perfectly cooked to a medium rare, the meat was just the right shade of bloody pink and had a soft, chewy texture with solid flavor that matched brilliantly with the Joseph Phelps Syrah Gerald recommended. In fact, both wines Gerald recommended were stellar with both the oysters and the steak. Brilliant.

It was a relaxed, slow and oh-so-enjoyable late afternoon lunch. Basking in the sunlight, it was as though the world was shining on my face.

Time for dessert.

By this time, I had decided that I would have a cappuccino. That would be perfect: Espresso, milk and foam with exquisite sweetness - a perfect way to end a great meal.

Before I had been seated, I took a run to the rest rooms where I passed Bouchon's two group Unic espresso machine. Evidently, Keller takes this French thing so seriously that he even uses the French-built Unic. I had the opportunity to work with a Unic several months ago while visiting Small Town Coffee in Kapa'a, Kaua'i and was more than interested in seeing just what this machine could do.

I'm somewhat adventurous when it comes to food and when I feel as though I'm in capable hands, I'm perfectly comfortable with allowing the staff to choose for me. I simply asked Gerald to bring me whatever he felt best complimented the cappuccino.

As I sat there, basking in the Northern California sun, I noticed a tall-ish man in a chef's coat and a dark-haired woman in a dark suit walking past. "Hey, I swear that was the lady I saw in The French Laundry Cookbook." Gerald confirmed that they were indeed both Thomas Keller and general manager Laura Cunningham. I was giddy with excitement seeing such stars casually walking down the street on their way to another night serving food that I've never tasted.

Those of you who know me know that I've met a lot of movie stars and celebrities. No big deal. Let Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie walk by and you'll hardly get a yawn from me, but let Chef Keller and General Manager Laura walk by and I'm ready to stalk them - at a good distance, of course.

My dessert was a chocolate mousse. Served in a small cup with several biscuits, the mousse was light and delicate. A great pairing idea for a cappuccino.

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One of the biggest problems in the American restaurant scene today is the lack of attention to the coffee being served. So many chefs and restaurants go to great lengths preparing their dishes but end on a low note by serving poor examples of coffee and/or espresso-based drinks.

I'm sad to say that Bouchon was no different.

All this work. All this planning. All this anticipation. A wonderful meal. Spoiled by a bitter, lackluster and slightly offensive cappuccino. The portion size was about right. The ratio between coffee, milk and foam was about right. But the flavor was just, well, not so good. Bitter, burnt, bubbles, no sweetness. It was a cappuccino in serious need of the two sugar cubes that came as an accompaniment.

It was no better than my neighborhood Starbucks.

At three dollars, at least it didn't cost more than my neighborhood Starbucks.

So what to do? Send it back and ask for another? No. It's unlikely the replacement would be any better. Besides, I was in Yountville, eating at Bouchon and planning on walking over to see the famed French Laundry. I wasn't about to let a crappy cappuccino spoil my afternoon amongst the stars of the restaurant world.

After bidding Gerald a fond adieu, I made my way next door to the Bouchon Bakery where I spied lots of tasty French pasties - none of which would make it back to the East Coast in suitable condition. Croissants, baguettes and more. I ended up with a Ham and Cheese sandwich for the plane ride and a bottle of Mexican Coke that I tore into right away.

By this time, I had figured out that Equator Coffee prepares the coffee for both The French Laundry and Bouchon. But the espresso being served in the bakery is Illy and in pods. Pods. PODS??? Here's the bakery of the world's greatest chef and they're serving espresso made from pods that have travelled from the other side of the planet???

Where was I? In some sort of culinary and coffee Twilight Zone?

Pods. Bah!

Again, another Unic espresso machine. This one though was rigged for pod use. Two pods per grouphead.

Strange looking.

Cool looking.

But pods?

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I wandered down Washington Street, past Beard Plaza, winding through the neighborhood and a small park with a water fountain, to the famed French Laundry. I had read that the French Laundry is a small place, but it was smaller than I expected - and much more nondescript. Just a simple facade of dark wooded two-story structure with small, brass plaques letting the initiated know they have arrived. There's a covered walkway running along the length of the building that opens into their inner gardens

I didn't know my way around and I must have looked rather befuddled walking awkwardly around the premises. Even though I knew I had zero chance of eating there, I had to check it out. In Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, he chronicles a visit with chef friends as they gather in the window peering into the kitchen. I was content to do just that.

The grounds were spectacular. Sort of a California meets Japanese garden kind of thing. The gravel curbside on Washington and in the back parking lot were being carefully groomed by The Man With The Rake. All of the walkways had been freshly hosed down, giving the place that movie-quality look. Staff in various modes of dress were rushing about setting up their stations, arranging plants, putting together table centerpieces and who knows what else.

Okay, I'll admit it. My timing was poor. I got to Bouchon later than I hoped and ended up at the French Laundry around 4:30pm. With a staff meeting at five, everyone was frantically doing their final cleaning and prep. Through the only windows I could see into, the cooks, in their chef whites and aprons, were scrubbing off the stainless tables, hosing everything down, drying them and then climbing into the windows to clean the glass and the frames. By hand.

Though a side door, I spied Thomas Keller sitting in a directors chair in a small alcove. On the phone, probably speaking to some purveyor somewhere in the world about a special ingredient he must have at any cost. Either that, or he was just sitting there on hold like the rest of the world.

Suddenly, a young server named Ben jumped out, tie dangling around his neck and asked me if I would like a tour. A tour? At 4:45pm? Is this guy serious? Well, I didn't travel all the way across the country and rented a sixty dollar a day car for a few hours just to turn down a tour invitation of the object of my pilgrimage.

Looking back on it all, I must have looked like a total doofus. One of the other servers, an Asian female, noticed my shirt and proclaimed that she loved Hawaiian Shave Ice. In my awe of being addressed by Those Who Work The Best Restaurant In The Nation, I barely managed a thank you.

As we made our way through the side door, Ben showed me the main kitchen. We stood there in the hallway, next to the alcove where Keller had been on the phone and that's when he finally acknowledged me with the "What is this idiot doing here on a tour at 4:45pm," look.

Intimidated, I would have preferred to melt into the walls.

There I was, no more than three feet from the person who has been hailed as the "world's greatest French chef" and he wasn't looking particularly pleased with my presence. So much for the photo opportunity and autograph signing.

But really, I don't think he was all that pissed off by my standing in the middle of the kitchen hallway. He started off with a curious look from his director's chair, gave a glance at the logo on my collared shirt and was probably wondering: "Who is this guy in the shave ice shirt and why the hell is he in my kitchen at 4:45pm!?!??!?"

So, if you ever read this Chef Keller - my apologies for getting in the way.

My tour of the French Laundry continued with Ben leading me around, through the hallways, everyone rushing, but quietly, around, getting everything just right for another night of world-class service.

The French Laundry has 18 tables and seats about 85 people per night. Everything is in immaculate condition, right down to the polished wood railing for the upstairs staircase.

What's this I spy in a server's alcove? Another Unic espresso machine. There really is a theme here and I'm starting to wish for my La Marzocco Linea. Doesn't this guy know anything?

Ben continued showing me around, the service wine cellar, the space where they prep desserts, fold napkins, keep china and God knows what else. I saw everything but was so in awe, it's like I saw nothing. Everything moved so quickly, I just couldn't absorb it all in time.

"Any questions?" Ben asked me.

"No, not really."


Of course I had questions! What kind of espresso do you use? What blend? Who prepares it? Are you serving your Coffee and Doughnuts tonight? Could I see where you prepare that salmon in a cone amuse gueules that everyone raves about? Could I meet the Chef? Could I talk more to that attractive server who likes shave ice? Can I sit in a corner somewhere and watch? Or wash something during service?

But I didn't say any of those things. Just some lame answer about how I didn't have any questions and with a friendly push, I was spit back out into the garden, wondering just what happened and where was my Mexican Coke?

There it was, sitting on the outdoor bench where I had left it not more than ten minutes ago.

What was I to do? I've seen Mecca and now what? Do I just go home? Is it that simple? No French Laundry meal? I didn't ask the receptionist, but I should have. I have to ask. I can't leave without asking. So I head back inside and ask the pretty blonde if by some miracle they might have an opening for lowly little me - the lonely single diner.

Hmmm, maybe.

Maybe? Damn, that's the best answer I've heard in two years! Over the past two years, I've tried calling many times. The very first time, I got through, spoke to a receptionist about a particular date and then said that I would call back when everything was in order. I thought it was pretty easy.

I have never succeeded reaching a live person since.

Eh, Eh, Eh - that's all I hear when I call The French Laundry. That busy tone that means I've been relegated once again to the unloved, ungraceful and outcast masses who must forever look through the glass window like the homeless.

Maybe there might be an opening. If someone cancels. There's a chance. She wants to take my name and number just in case. I'm thrilled. Then I remember that French Laundry dinners are long, lavish affairs and I ask how long will dinner last. Three hours is the reply. A 5:30 seating and finish at 8:30, but my flight to the East Coast leaves at 10:45. I'll never make it. I don't want to make it. But I don't want my first meal at The French Laundry to be one worried about making a flight on US Airways, so I reluctantly decline, tuck my tail and walk out as more staff carry centerpieces through the front door.

My day in Yountville, Bouchon and The French Laundry is over. I have to accept that and drive away from this hallowed place. In one day, I've managed to soak it up in the hotel jacuzzi, visit a great new coffee stand in San Francisco, pick up a car, drive out to wine country, spent money recklessly while eating great French food at Bouchon, pick up a meal for the plane at Bouchon Bakery and irritate a world renowned chef at The French Laundry. Not bad for one day in Northern California.

I leave with the knowledge that our little shop in Timonium, Maryland makes better cappuccinos than some of the world's most famous restaurants.

It is a grand triumph, no matter how small.

Thank you Thomas Keller.

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