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Expert Guide

15 Lessons from 20 Years of the French Laundry

Chef Thomas Keller

Photo © Gabriela Hasbun / redux

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Thomas Keller's legendary Napa restaurant, The French Laundry, F&W’s Kate Krader and Chelsea Morse have collected reminiscences and lessons from some of the chefs who worship him. Here are a few of his teachings.

Tasting Vinegar

In the early days of The French Laundry, Thomas made his own red wine vinegar. One afternoon, he was tasting it to make sure it was ready for bottling and release. I watched as he dipped a sugar cube into a bowl of vinegar and then sucked on it. When I asked what he was doing, he said, pretty matter-of-factly, “That’s how you should taste vinegar”—the sweetness of the sugar softens the vinegar’s edge. It was the first time I’d seen someone taste vinegar, much less use that method, so I tried it. And it worked. —Eric Ziebold, Cityzen, Washington, DC

Searing Fish

At The Laundry, I learned to wait until a pan is very hot before adding oil—it should be so hot that a little white smoke comes off the oil when you pour it in. The smoke means you are ready to sear and will get a nice crust on fish. I saw this technique when I worked on the garde-manger station, watching chef Keller train the new fish cooks. I learned to always pay attention to what others were being taught: Sometimes great lessons aren’t directed specifically at you. —Timothy Hollingsworth, Restaurant at the Broad (opening 2015), Los Angeles

Using Fresh Herbs

My wife was a back server at The French Laundry and we had a meal there soon after she started—the staff was required to eat there at least once. We had a lobster-and-orzo dish that I later adapted as my truffle mac and cheese. It had a very creamy mascarpone sauce and chives. The chives smelled so fresh that they must have been cut the second the dish was plated. That technique—not even picking an herb until you were ready to use it—was pioneered by Thomas Keller. —Steve Corry, Five Fifty-Five, Portland, ME

Organizing the Kitchen

Working at The French Laundry made me organize my home kitchen totally differently: Now I arrange cereal boxes from smallest to tallest, and label and date everything. At The Laundry, we were obsessive about green FrogTape—it’s a tape that won’t slip off if it gets wet, but it’s also easy to peel off. I use it to label deli containers—the kind wonton soup comes in from a Chinese takeout place. They’re the perfect containers for leftovers. —Richard Blais, The Spence, Atlanta

Working Efficiently

Space in The Laundry kitchen was very limited; efficiency was key. I learned to peel vegetables onto parchment paper or a paper towel, and not right onto the cutting board. Then you can discard the paper and keep your board clean. —Matt Louis, Moxy, Portsmouth, NH

Seasoning to Taste

One of the things I learned from Thomas is to always finish food with a little fleur de sel. He loves that texture and crunch. He actually carries around a box of salt: I saw him pull it out when I was the chef at New York City’s Café Boulud and I served him fried chicken. After that, I always sent sea salt out with his food so he could adjust it to his taste. —Gavin Kaysen, Merchant (opening soon), Minneapolis

Butchering Rabbit

Once, Thomas needed 100 rabbits butchered for an event. There wasn’t room in the kitchen to do it during the day; it had to be done overnight. I fell asleep at home, then had to race to the restaurant on my motorcycle. I stayed up all night butchering rabbits. When Thomas came into the kitchen the next morning, he was pleased. I will never forget how to butcher a rabbit. —Jonathan Benno, Lincoln Ristorante, New York City

Understanding Hospitality

On the last day of my stage, Chef told me to hand him my apron. I thought I was in trouble. He folded it perfectly and then escorted me to his office, where a place setting was arranged at his desk for dinner. The food was perfect, but more than that, the sense of hospitality was overwhelming. I have hesitated to go back to eat at TFL since then because this was one of the most important meals of my life—one that can never be topped. —Michael Voltaggio, ink., Los Angeles

Making Stock

Chef once helped me make a very special blanquette de veau. He showed me how to break down a side of veal, down to cleaning the bones for the stock; he was adamant about using every bit of the animal. We meticulously rinsed and blanched the bones. After the third blanching, he left, and I accidentally dumped the cooking liquid down the drain. When Chef came back, he was upset that we’d lost this “golden” stock that we’d worked on for three days. But he didn’t yell. He put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head—kinda like, “We all make mistakes.” —Grant Achatz, Alinea, Chicago

Perfecting Gazpacho

There’s a garden outside TFL, so we had access to unbelievable vegetables. For our gazpacho, we’d use a dressing of olive oil and white vinegar to marinate super-ripe tomatoes—all one color, either red or yellow—with sliced cucumber, shaved white onion, garlic and red bell pepper. It was like a salad. The flavors really develop when you marinate the ingredients before pureeing them. —Ari Weiswasser, Glen Ellen Star, Glen Ellen, CA

Sweetening Peas

When blanching fresh peas, I learned to add a pinch of sugar to the salted boiling water. It doesn’t make the peas sugary; it just reinforces their natural sweetness. Whether we were using the peas in soup, as garnish or on canapés, we’d use this trick every time. —Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO

Drinking Champagne

The Laundry was one of the first restaurants in the US with a tasting menu, for which you need a light, refreshing and acidic wine to start. The best option? Champagne. A glass of it excites the appetite and is a reset button for your palate. There is nothing more perfect to get you ready for eating. —Bobby Stuckey, Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO

Mellowing Onions

When I started my job at The French Laundry, I was working next to Thomas on the canapé station. He asked if I was going to rinse the onions. I had no idea what he was talking about. Why would I rinse onions? He’s probably a foot taller than I am, and he reached right over me and started rinsing the onions, with me trapped between his arms. He said in a soft voice, “You see, if you rinse the onions, it makes them less harsh.” Needless to say, I felt like a little boy. —Corey Lee, Benu, San Francisco

Saving Freezer Space

The Laundry had a small freezer when I was there, so saving space was key. We’d freeze sauces and stocks in Cryovac or ziplock bags, stacked between parchment paper. They also thaw quicker after being frozen flat and thin. —Ryan Poli

Cracking Peach Pits

The last day I worked at The French Laundry, I was breaking down peach pits with a hammer to get the little bitter almond inside; we used them for a foie gras glaze. It was always a pain to get the almond out intact. Thomas saw me and went out to his garden. He came back with a brick and dropped it on the pit, and the almond came out perfectly. He stayed with me for an hour cracking peach pits and talking. —Erik Anderson, Formerly of The Catbird Seat, Nashville

Related: Recipes from Thomas Keller
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