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French Laundry's Lessons

Laura Cunningham, general manager of Napa Valley's French Laundry and consultant at Manhattan's new Per Se, explains how she creates a unique mood—both at the restaurants and at the dinners she gives with her partner, chef Thomas Keller.

People wait months for a reservation at Yountville's French Laundry. They may have to wait even longer at Per Se, New York City's most anticipated opening in years, in the new Time Warner Center. Thomas Keller's food gets the headlines, but his restaurants' appeal has a lot to do with his partner, Laura Cunningham. The behind-the-scenes force who creates what many call "the perfect dining environment," Cunningham oversees everything from design details to service to wines. Here, she tells the secrets of the restaurants' success and describes the dinner parties she and Keller give together.

How does your entertaining style differ from Thomas's? I don't think I've ever seen Thomas entertain by himself. I focus more on the energy of the room, including the table, timing and social interaction; he concentrates on the food, of course.

Who are your favorite florists? I love Jeff Leatham, the florist at the Four Seasons George V Hotel in Paris. His designs are brilliant, original displays that somehow heighten the color. He also makes great use of glass containers. Christian Tortu, also in Paris, does wonderful things with fruit and flowers. San Francisco has a great florist, Fioridella, on Polk Street. In New York City, we're using Lotus and its designer, Luis Collazo, for Per Se's arrangements. Our florist at the French Laundry is Kathy Hoffman, the daughter of the original owners. She's done the restaurant's flowers since she was 24 and picked them all from the garden; now she's 49 and gets them from the market.

What lighting is best for parties? I like using candles in varying heights but of the same width and color. Beeswax burns nicely. I prefer unscented candles, but Tocca and Molton Brown both sell good scented ones that make wonderful gifts.

Do you have books out on your coffee table? There are stacks of them—we're into stacking—Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics, The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!, Wild Raspberries by Andy Warhol and Suzie Frankfurt, miscellaneous gardening books and way too many New Yorkers. The hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks are upstairs—Thomas Keller territory.

What kinds of party ideas make you cringe? I dislike dinners and lunches that are too theme-oriented: going overboard on a color motif, or carrying through a French or Asian theme on everything from flatware to bathroom towels. It makes me think that everything has come from the same mold.

Do you dress up for parties? I dress casually if possible because I have to dress up for work every night. I'd always rather be in jeans, and I definitely don't wear heels.

Do you give party favors? Theoretically, I think homemade or personalized gifts are great, such as a small frame. But in reality, when Thomas and I entertain at home we don't send people off with anything, unless there are leftovers.

What's your favorite music to play at dinner parties? My personal choices are eclectic: Frank Sinatra, of course, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Tony Bennett, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder. For pop music, Sting is an all-time favorite. I tend to stay away from classical music, unless I know the guests intimately, because it sets a too-serious and too-quiet mood.

What are your kitchen essentials? My must-haves are a gas stove, a toaster oven, a waffle maker and a great teakettle—mine chimes with a sound like a chirping bird when the water's boiling.

What kind of china do you and Thomas use at home? We have a mixture of styles: simple white Rosenthal pieces and sturdy terra-cotta plates from Mexico. Calvin Klein makes beautiful white tableware, and I love his wood trays. The line that Thomas designed for Raynaud came out last year, and it has lovely large platters, small vases and a teapot. For something special, I use Ted Muehling's gray designs for Nymphenburg.

What do you eat on a regular night at home? Thomas's favorite dish is roast chicken; he makes a great one. I love sushi, so I'm happy that Masa Takayama's new place [Asayoshi] is one of Per Se's neighbors in the Time Warner building—we've joked about swapping staff meals with them. I wish I could say we cook at home, but we've been too busy; oatmeal, bread and cheese, yogurt and Progresso lentil soup have been the favorites this past busy year.

Do you drink coffee? I start my day with coffee. Equator is my favorite. It's a Bay Area—based company owned by two women who sell only specialty blends. They do the coffee for the French Laundry and re-evaluate the blend periodically. They're doing Per Se's coffee too.

What's your favorite Champagne? Billecart-Salmon Rosé is the best, and Salon and Krug are wonderful for very special occasions. Vilmart is a current favorite.

What cocktails do you serve at parties? I almost never serve hard liquor. A lot of my friends mix specialty martinis or theme-oriented drinks, which are great and fun, but I've never had a real bar set up in my house, and we don't serve hard liquor at the French Laundry—only wine.

What are your favorite white wines for parties? I like California Viogniers, particularly Pride Mountain's, and Alsatian Rieslings like Trimbach, Domaine Dirler and Domaine Weinbach, which are also great bargains. I'll pour almost anything that's from Austria, including Hirsch and Prager.

What are your favorite food and wine pairings? It's tricky; guests have different palates. I pair courses with safe bets and add a few experimental alternatives. My fail-safe pairings are a crisp white, like a Cotat Sancerre or a Raveneau Chablis, with almost any salad or seafood, a great Brunello di Montalcino with pasta, and a nice Pinot, like Sinskey Four Vineyards from Napa Valley, with chicken. For lamb or beef, I go with a wonderful Napa red: Abreu or Merus Cabernet Sauvignon, or Neyers Syrah. Gott Zinfandel is perfect for anything grilled.

Which do you prefer—plated dinners or a buffet? I always like plated or family-style meals. It's much more comfortable than buffet lines, where people have to stand and wait for everyone to serve themselves—especially if people don't know each other well.

At home, what do you keep on hand to feed surprise guests? For baking, I keep Betty Crocker cake mix and Nestlé Toll House chocolate chips, plus Whitley's salted peanuts from Virginia for a predinner snack. We almost always have pasta with fresh tomato sauce or take-out Margherita pizza from Piatti, which is down the street from the French Laundry.

What hotels do you particularly admire for their design? The Hotel Costes in Paris has an amazing courtyard with tall-backed chairs and the greatest umbrellas I've ever seen. I think it's a perfect place to sit.

What's your favorite design element at Per Se? The bronze tiles. We're using wood and marble in so many different areas, we didn't want them for the floor. Adam Tihany [the restaurant's designer] had found these beautiful little bronze tiles in Italy and came up with the idea of creating a metal floor. I love the way it looks, but it might not be particularly stiletto-heel friendly.

How has designing Per Se differed from designing the French Laundry? These plans are so luxurious compared to the French Laundry. I remember when Thomas bought the restaurant, it took two years for him to finally decide to put carpeting on the stairs. I don't know how the customers endured the noise of everyone stomping up and down the stairs for all that time.

When you finally get the chance to take a break, where do you like to travel? We go to Las Ventanas in Los Cabos, Mexico, to relax. There are several places I've never been that I'd like to visit: Prague, Maine, Tokyo. But right now, I'd go anywhere that's quiet with no phone.

Published March 2004
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