The French Laundry: In celebration of being in the service for 20 years!
On one of the news bulletins of Inside Scoop SF, the bay area source for breaking restaurant news, Jonathan Kauffman discussed the restaurant critic Ryan Sutton’s charts about restaurant cancellation fees, and believe me, I freaked out on looking at the numbers. Well, when you charge the price of a complete meal for the last minute cancellation, it’s reasonable because the restaurant can’t have diners who pay $300 or $400 for a meal waiting in the wings for unoccupied tables. However, charging $248, the price of a full meal, for cancelling before some specified or on the appointed day is something ridiculous, and people like me, who have to cancel their tables for a number of reasons certainly feel exasperated.
I felt quite relieved when I read about The French Laundry ‘requiring guests to confirm their reservations three days in advance, and only after a reservation is “confirmed” does the restaurant charge a last-minute cancellation fee, $100 a person’! I hope it’s the same policy they have in Per Se, French Laundry’s sister concern, in New York City.
I can accept, not so willingly, though, about the exuberant corkage charges, $150 a bottle, applied in The French Laundry while other best restaurants charge mere $30 or $40, because, I believe, when you want to have your own way, you have to pay ‘extra’ for it… sometimes five times more. Cancellation fee is something you charge for nothing, and most of the cancellations are genuine; no decent person wants to lose $100 or $248 or even $50 just to play a prank.
Though I have not been to The French Laundry, I have had a business dinner or two at Per Se, and as the season is approaching, I may have to visit it a couple of times more, and this cancellation fee news is certainly some consolation.
Before I proceed any further, I must talk about its older sister, The French Laundry, because both The French Laundry and Per Se are twins.
The French Laundry: The Flagship of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group
The French Laundry, opened in 1994, is in a building built in 1900, which is in the National Register of Historic Places in the town of Yountville, Napa Valley county, California. This famous Michelin Starred restaurant is owned and run by Chef Thomas Keller. The dining room has a seating capacity of 62 diners and boasts ‘no ingredient is repeated in the daily changing menu’.
In the early days, this building was actually a laundry run by some French people, which was later remodelled into a restaurant and finally fell into the hands of Thomas Keller who has since done justice to this Historic Place by giving it the right kind of Brand Image!
On July 6, 2014, The French Laundry celebrated its 20 years of giving the American foodies the taste of French cuisine they long for, and the galaxy of luminaries that attended the 500-intimate-guest party speak of the grandeur of the Laundry. Francis Ford Coppola, the famous film producer, director & writer; Nancy Pelosi, former (60th) Speaker of US House of Representative & her husband; Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, the famed art collectors with their daughter Meghan Looney, a business woman in her own capacity; Laura Ceron, the Alma award winning actress; Marcia Backus, the business magnet; and Keller’s fiancée and Brand Director, Laura Cunningham, to name a few.
Those who were unable to make it to the venue in person showed their presence and sent their greetings through a video, voice-overed by Chef Daniel Boulud: Adam Sandler, the Hollywood actor with whom Thomas Keller worked in the 2004 movie ‘Spanglish’; Jacques Pepin, popular TV chef; Ryan Seacrest, media personality, and many more.
And the Awards this restaurant won are so many that the best and easiest way to mention them all is by saying it’s a Michelin Starred Top Best Restaurant winning all the coveted awards and titles there have been in the restaurant ratings, since 1996!
Who is behind all this success?
The Chef that thinks ‘The more you have of something, the less you like it’
Thomas Keller of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group is not a chef that just popped up from nowhere. He has had a long practical and personal involvement in cooking, kitchens and restaurants. As a young kid, he worked in his mother’s eatery where, when his mother fell sick, did most of the cooking, and during summer holidays, he worked in other eateries and learned the art of keeping a kitchen. He went to France and stayed there for some time learning the art of French cuisine in its own element. He then returned to the States and worked at different famous restaurants of those days. He said these words in one of his TV show program’The more you have of something, the less you like it’ in reply to the comment that some of the items on his menu are so little in quantity. He meant that when you ate something, the taste of it must linger more in your mind than in your mouth so that you longed for it; not bored of it.
The Turning point
He gives much of the credit of his success to his mentor French-born Master Chef Roland Henin who kept in touch with him for the most part of his career. In 1987, he left his position as chef de cuisine at La Reserve restaurant in New York to open Rakel restaurant in partnership with Rakel, another budding chef at that time. However, due to the financial crisis of those days, Rakel had to be turned into a bistro for survival; consequently, Thomas left Rakel because he did not want his talents limited to a bistro-type restaurant.
And then in 1994, he, along with several of his associates and financiers, opened The French Laundry, and the rest is culinary history.
He personally won almost all the accolades, awards and titles there are for the chefs of talent, skill, determination and vision. Apart from being “Best Chef of the year” which he got almost every year from every award issuing authority, he is the first American chef to receive Three Star Michelin ratings for two of his different restaurants… simultaneously! In 2003, he was conferred ‘the honorary Degree of Doctor of Culinary Arts by Johnson & Wales University, and in 2010 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of CIA, the Culinary Institute of America (not the notorious CIA).
The aroma of his cooking has spread so far and wide that in 2007 he merged all his eateries under one umbrella ‘Thomas Keller Restaurant Group’:
The French Laundry (restaurant 1994) in Yountville;
Bouchon (bistro) in Yountville (2003), Las Vagas (20004) & Berverly Hills (2009);
Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, 2 in New York, Las Vegas & Beverly Hills;
Per se (restaurant) in New York (2004);
ad hoc (restaurant) in Yountville (2006).
A chef with entrepreneurial instincts
Even before becoming a noted chef and owner of a restaurant, Thomas Keller had the business instincts in him. In 1992, he started EVO, Inc, a small olive oil company, in partnership with his the then girlfriend, to distribute olive oil and red wine vinegar.
After becoming a recognised chef, he wrote five cook books: The French Laundry, Bouchon, Under Pressure, Ad Hoc at Home and Bouchon Bakery with stories about cooking that sold faster than the hot cakes in his bakery.
Recently, Thomas Keller, like many of his peers, got into marketing porcelain dinnerware, called Hommage Point, and some trade mark cutlery.
And he’s so sensible that he has given the most important job of Branding his businesses to his fiancée, Laura Cunningham, so that nothing goes out of his hand!
While wishing him many more grand celebrations of his Restaurant Group, I have made a mental note to have my future business lunch in New York at Per Se!