Pleasure and Perfection

Sorry, I'm a couple of days late- I have a good excuse. The feedback is that last week's post was sad- sorry for that. There is a flip side to that post, and I hope to have it ready for you next week. In the meantime and also following up on last week’s post, I'm delighted to share that I’ve managed to cross the “Holy Grail” of restaurants off my list. This past weekend D and I traveled to California for dinner. The trip was not about the food (well, maybe a little about the food). The journey was more about a philosophy of cooking, of design, and of life. 

A dozen years ago while visiting my mom in Montgomery, I was in her kitchen stealing anything that wasn’t tied down browsing for provisions and looking to add to my cookbook collection. I came across a large and handsome volume entitled The French Laundry Cookbook. A quick glance at the dust cover showed that The French Laundry is a restaurant in Napa Valley run by Chef Thomas Keller. The book was obviously not well used, so I asked mom if I could have it. (Thankfully she said yes, because I had resolved to steal it in any event.)

One of my little quirks is that like to read cookbooks. Recipes fascinate me and I love using my imagination that way. I was delighted to find that there were more than just recipes to be found in this book. Scattered throughout were essays on a variety of subjects that, in sum, express the philosophy of the chef. I was further delighted to find that almost all of these philosophies could be applied to architecture and urban design. These include concepts such as embracing the innate nature of an ingredient, the importance of sourcing local materials, economy of material versus wastefulness, and respecting the sacrifices that are made to enable a final product. In fact, those essays actually helped shape and reinforce my own professional philosophy as much if not more than any class I had in college.

Over the years I have continually played with the cookbook and attempted to master various recipes. I have had mixed results. The obvious challenge is being able to source exotic and expensive ingredients. Another challenge is one of technique. I have skill in the kitchen, but some of the work in the book is next level stuff. In the end, however, I think the book is less about how to make Thomas Keller’s food in your own house than it is about putting forth a philosophy that highlights why food and its preparation are special.

Lowering the flag at sunset in The French Laundry Garden.
In the years since I first stole acquired the book, Chef Keller has become a household name and his restaurant group has expanded. For years, it’s been a goal of mine to get out to Yountville and have dinner at his flagship restaurant. As with many things in life, however, that goal got bounced around by work and home responsibilities, other trips, and my innate skepticism of all things Californian (just kidding…mostly). For my birthday this year, however, my mom jump-started the dream by giving me a gift card for TFL. With a little help from my friends at AMEX concierge, we were able to navigate the formidable task of securing a reservation. (I mention AMEX specifically because they stand in contrast to the poor experience we had with Chase Ultimate Rewards this weekend- ditch them if they're in your wallet.)

While not ready to trade the German sedan just yet,
  this was fun for the weekend.
I’m normally guilty of over-planning our vacations, or at least making sure that every second is dedicated to some worthy experience. In this case, the only thing that mattered to me was dinner, so I made no other plans (other than requesting a convertible rental car*). Consequently, on the day of the dinner we had essentially a full day to kill. A quick glance at the map showed that we were slightly more than an hour from the coast. I’ve never touched the Pacific before so we decided to drive out to Muir Beach and do just that. On the way, we dug a bit deeper and found that Muir Woods and the redwoods were just a few more minutes away. The giant redwoods weren’t on my bucket list (primarily because I don’t have a bucket list), but were quickly added and then crossed off. Muir Beach and the Pacific were nice (nice and cold), but not quite as impressive as the forest. (Of course, “the beach” for me will always be Seagrove- and that is a tough standard to match.) After our day of sight seeing, we had a leisurely drive back in the convertible and got gussied up for dinner.

I've now hit the American tri-fecta:
the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf.
Guess which is my favorite...
The restaurant was a short and pleasant walk away from the hotel. Upon arrival, we made to take the obligatory photo in front of the restaurant sign. Before we could pull the phone out, however, Tyler (the maitre d’) appeared from nowhere, introduced himself (he already knew my name), and offered to take our picture. He then led us to the courtyard for some sparkling (Dom P for D, cider for me) and a canapĂ© (the famed cornet- this time with fluke). That was the beginning of the greatest meal experience ever. I won’t walk you through the menu**; there are only so many superlatives I could use to describe this remarkable food. In any case, the experience, while about food, was not about the food. This was a philosophy of life articulated in fourteen dishes. This was also as much about hospitality as it was food. There seemed to be a genuine interest in us having a great experience. Everyone from start to finish was exceedingly nice- not in the saccharine “customer service” way, but in a real and honest way. This stands in contrast to some of my other fine dining experiences (say, Le Taillevent and Charlie Trotter’s), where the service was cool if not aloof. We southerners take pride in our friendliness and hospitality- the people we met at French Laundry would fit right in here.

When the meal was over, the bill arrived. Not usually one of the highlights of a fine dining experience, but at this point I was willing to open my wallet and welcome them to whatever they wanted. I opened the bill folder to find a hand written note explaining that the meal was compliments of Chef Thomas Keller.*** Apparently, after we made our reservations, a curious staff member came across the blog, and brought it to the Chef’s attention. I protested their generosity, but was told that the decision had come from the top. Who then am I to disagree with Thomas Keller? Tyler then led us on a tour of the kitchen. In the middle of service the chef de cuisine (Tennessean David Breeden) and a number of his colleagues stopped what they were doing and came over to shake hands and have a chat. It was an extraordinary end to a magnificent evening.

If I live to be a hundred, I don’t know that I’ll ever have a more memorable night. It was a most special time for D and I to enjoy together. It was made even more special by the people who worked to ensure that two total strangers had such an experience. I am indeed a lucky man, and thankful to have lived such a charmed life.

*Originally, I thought the idea of driving through Napa Valley in a convertible was bougie and cliché. That actually still holds true, but I must admit that it was an awful lot of fun.

**Ok, I won't walk you through the whole thing, but I have to tell you about one little element. Do to my liver, I can't drink alcohol. For the meal, they had a relatively easy time of pairing wine for D, I presented a much greater challenge. One of their solutions was next level stuff. A flute arrived at the table filled a quarter of the way with grated black winter truffle, it was then filled with Ftiz's root beer. I can't even...I need a moment...

***Is it downright tacky to mention that the bill got comped? Sure. After some deliberation, however, I felt that I had to include it in the story because it reinforces the generosity of spirit that made that night so special. It also goes to show that in addition to being the G.O.A.T American chef, Mr. Keller is also a stand up guy.