Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The French Laundry

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I visited The French Laundry. Along with El Bulli near Barcelona, The French Laundry is one of the top three restaurants in the world, with its chef Thomas Keller, among the top three or four chefs in the United States. Keller presided over a stunning vegetarian degustation menu and a full Chef’s version to die for and yet, the experience was a tremendous disappointment.

The food was beautiful and the vegetarian nine course tasting menu is tough to find anywhere else in the world, but the décor is pedestrian. Guillaume, the maître d' who hails from Versailles, does his best to add color, but the whole place is dull and unimaginative. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know I believe in the power of Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy. These qualities were all there in the food but were lacking in the total experience. For a start, when you first arrive you’re parked in the garden with no music and no offer of a pre-dinner drink. Zero intimacy and a profit opportunity missed. Once you are inside there is no art on the walls, so the effect is rather like eating in a cell in the Villa San Michele in Florence. Restaurants are about conviviality, social interaction and fun, as well as great food. The French Laundry takes itself far too seriously. It seems to me to have a very Calvinistic attitude to food, seeing itself as a temple of haute cuisine. Literally.

Meanwhile at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal and his team rock. The French Laundry feels to me like listening to music – before Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.


Kempton said...

Hi Kevin,

I can feel your love of good food and The French Laundry from your expressing the things lacking in the current interior design and ambience of the restaurant -- "the effect is rather like eating in a cell". I suppose you care enough to say something.

For me, I've heard some good things about Nobu. For example, you mentioned the Nobu blocks away from your NYC home as one of the best restaurants in your "Food Dreamers" entry. I wasn't going to leave any comment until I read this entry.

So, in the spirit of saying something in hope for improvement, the Nobu Hong Kong branch may be viewed as the opposite of The French Laundry. According to "the Hong Kong based food critic Chua Lam (also known in Japan as a judge on the show Iron Chef), quoted his good friend and fellow dinner Ni Kuang in rating NOBU Hong Kong with 90/100 for service and only 10/100 for food."


I love good food but it always deeply sadden me to see once great/good restaurants loosing their bearings and self-destruct.


(Disclosure: I did some partial translation of the original Chinese Nobu Hong Kong reviews into English for the reason that the original articles are behind a paid-wall and English translations may be easier to understand for some English speaking readers.)

David MacGregor said...

Food is rarely very enjoyable in contrived 'experiences'. I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and have enjoyed meals in restaurants like Euro, White, Clooney (curious name choice) and Dine. They are all 'fine' dining establishments but, in truth, I never really enjoyed them. The staff always seem uncomfortable with the pretension (hard for low-paid workers to have the same passion for food and hospitality that owners do - especially in a town where the custome is not to tip).

The best experiences are usually in small, ethnic establishments - even food courts like Food Alley where the Laksa is legendary. The experience feels real, and not self conscious. I guess because it is.

You'll know what it is like to visit Disneyland...sure it's fun like a sugar rush;the staff are well trained - but they(tellingly known as 'cast') are annoyingly and universally pleasant - although routine business visits to Disneyland Paris in the mid 90s was an amusing antidote to that ideal.

Ersatz, contrived and commoditised experiences never seem as satisfying in toto as they might be in parts.

The most fun I have ever had over a meals were when invited into family homes in the Philippines, the Bahamas and even New Canaan Connecticut. The food was often alien and challenging (candied yams at Thanksgiving are about as weird as I have ever experienced) but the hospitality was a genuine pleasure to give and receive. I don't know how it would fit in but I think home-cooked hospitality would be a Lovemark in my book!

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant Saatchi work...

Kempton said...

Reading David's comments, I can see a lot of truth in it. I agree totally that sometimes the best experiences are in small and ethnic establishments. In fact, I've been to some great and tasty Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong where are food is great but the deco and the services are just non-existing. But the restaurants are always buzzing with food-lovers. I suppose they won us over by decades of great food (even without deco or services). A friend said, "Do you want your money to go into the food or the table-cloth?" I am more of a "food" kind of guy.

Mind you, just to practice some fence-sitting (my new hobby (smile)), I think some dinning experiences may require a better total experience. Not that I am a French dinning expert but I think the it may be challenging to put a great French chef in a restaurant with just four walls and tables without table clothes. I don't know will that work? But you see, the food lover in me will hope and wish that great food will be good enough to draw people in. I don't know.

May be I have been "house-trained" by Toronto's Chinatown BBQ restaurants too well in my school days - super good and cheap food and super crappy service. For me, if I am going with friends, I will always go to a restaurants with better food.

Gee, after all these food talk, makes me want to find some good food to eat tonight. (smile)

Denis said...


This is one of the few mentions of anything Thomas Keller and French Laundry related that isn't so ebullient about the experience that it is nauseating. Thanks for both your candor and insight.

I've read numerous articles and quotes by and about Thomas Keller and noted that he has no approval of pre-dinner drinks, most especially sweet ones, because they alter the chemistry of the pallet. That's an obvious dedication to the diner sitting at the table, but it is bothersome to the parched guests that are sitting in the middle of Napa without a wine glass.

Thanks again for noting your experience