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SAME SPIN, NEW CYCLE : A Visit With Thomas Keller, Formerly of L.A.'s Checkers, Now in the Napa Valley

August 14, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

A couple of years ago, Thomas A. Keller was a chef without a kitchen. He had just left Checkers, the elegant downtown hotel where, as executive chef, he had bemused Los Angeles with his daring, highly sophisticated American cooking. While considering his next move, he started work on a cookbook, launched an enormously successful, first-rate California olive oil called EVO--and did a little traveling.

I didn't know any of this the night I arrived for dinner at the home of Barolo producers Alfredo and Luciana Currado of Cantina Vietti in Piedmont. This corner of northwestern Italy is one of the world's great gastronomic regions, home to two of Italy's finest red wines, Barbaresco and Barolo, and to a distinct and original regional cuisine. The lanky American at the far end of the table who had pitched in to prepare vegetables for the big bagna cauda , the famous Piedmontese "hot bath" of olive oil, garlic and anchovies, turned out to be Thomas Keller. And it was the Currados who had helped arrange for the Los Angeles chef to work in several top Piedmontese restaurants during his visit. At one place, the chef so admired Keller's stylishly tailored chef's jacket that he proposed a trade: one bottle of the legendary Romano Levi's grappa for the garment. Before Keller could say yes, the owner, who also fancied the jacket, popped his head in the kitchen and offered two bottles of the rare grappa. Offer accepted. Now Keller was not only without a kitchen; he didn't have a jacket either.

The next time I saw Keller, he had settled down in another renowned wine region, the Napa Valley. Seated at a table at the edge of the herb garden at the historic French Laundry in Yountville, wearing black clogs, long legs crossed, he looked completely contented as he poured coffee from a tall French pressoir. After a year and a half of working on the project, Keller had just acquired one of the Napa Valley's most beloved restaurants, and after a modest renovation, he had reopened it the week before. "Finally, I can just cook and not be constantly called away for meetings when I'm about to go into the kitchen," says Keller, referring to his hotel experience.

Some cooks would give anything to get out of the kitchen and become an executive chef. Not Keller. He couldn't wait to leave all that behind and realize his dream: his own small restaurant near vineyards. "For a chef to do what he wants to do," says Keller, "Napa Valley is the perfect place. People come here for one reason: that's to learn about wine and food." He envisions the French Laundry as a sort of gastronomic retreat.

The simple two-story stone structure, now designated a national historic site, was built originally as a steam laundry in the early 1900s. When Yountville residents Don and Sally Schmitt turned it into a restaurant in 1977, they named it the French Laundry. Like Alice Waters, who had opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley six years before, the Schmitts served just one menu each evening. Meals at the French Laundry unfolded at a leisurely pace, but that was part of its charm. The table, they would always assure you, was yours for the evening.

"The French Laundry is a very special place to me, as it was to the Schmitts and to the Napa Valley," says Keller. "I wanted to continue that." Instead of turning the tables two or three times a night, as he did in New York and Los Angeles, Keller turns them, at most, once. He intends to keep the prix fixe menu, but he'll offer four or five choices within each course. "Sally's original format of the five-course meal is perfect for me," he says. "If I'm going out to a restaurant, that's exactly the way I like to eat." He must be thinking of France, where the prix fixe menu is a fixture even at Michelin-starred restaurants and where he spent a year and a half working at some of the great restaurants in Paris.

The Napa Valley is a long way in spirit from the frenetic big city scene where Keller made his reputation, first at Rakel in New York and then at Checkers. In 1988, he was named Best New American Chef by Food & Wine magazine. While chefs with pretensions to nouvelle were busy arranging everything on the plate to make a pretty picture, Keller's style was closer to sculpture, and some of his ephemeral structures of foie gras or fish were really more like architecture than anything else. Splashy, yes. But he also has an astute palate and the technical mastery to pull off his elaborate constructs. He is a confident cook, and as chef-owner for the second time in his 22-year, he can now cook exactly as he likes. His style is already more relaxed, though it's hardly what you'd call rustic. It's easy to see how much he's beginning to enjoy this new setting and the challenge of making the French Laundry his own.

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