Dining

Inside the French Laundry's New $10 Million Kitchen

The architects embedded themselves in the restaurant's world-class kitchen to see exactly what chef Thomas Keller and his team would need.
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The French Laundry's most recent evolution began modestly enough four years ago. Chef Thomas Keller wanted to remodel the wine cellar.

Fast-forward about 1,460 days and the Yountville fine-dining destination is nearing the end of a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion, anchored by a new state-of-the-art kitchen.

The project's price tag has surpassed $10 million, and the overall scope of the work encompasses a 2,120-square-foot annex, 9,000 square feet of landscape design and a rebuilt wine cellar capable of housing 16,000 selections.

Further portions of the revamp, such as the entrance, will not be finished or unveiled until the spring, according to the French Laundry team. But February 18 was the restaurant's first dinner service since the kitchen was completed, with a $310 tasting menu.

All it took was four years and, according to general manager Michael Minnillo, some patience.

"We're in our 23rd year, and we're still that same group that wants to drive this profession," he said.

Keller collaborated on the project with Snohetta, an architecture and design firm with Norwegian roots and offices in Austria, New York and San Francisco. The joint effort led to aesthetics that showcase a sleek, stylish yet minimalist concept.


Chef Thomas Keller (right) chats with Emily McCandless (left) while cleaning up in the new kitchen of the French Laundry.

Prior to the French Laundry, Snohetta spearheaded the $305 million expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Keller's new digs are steeped in functionality. For example, the restaurant is moving away from the walk-in refrigerators seen in most restaurants and toward smaller, more efficient coolers. The counters are elevated so kitchen staff won't have to stoop their shoulders while using a cutting board.

The improvements were the result of research. The Snohetta team spent time in Keller's kitchen, learning the needs of high-level chefs. The kitchen not only has more natural light and better acoustics for communication among team members, but it's also lined with windows so guests can see the inner workings of the French Laundry operation.

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Minnillo, who has been with the restaurant since the 1990s, said a key characteristic of the design is efficiency. Everything from the spacing of work stations to the height of cabinets plays a role, he said.


The new kitchen of the French Laundry.

Executive pastry chef Elwyn Boyles, who oversees the dessert menus for both the French Laundry and New York sister restaurant Per Se, reiterated Minnillo's sentiments — functionality is key.

 

"The old kitchen was great but we outgrew it as a staff," Boyles said.

 

Snohetta's design increased the size of the kitchen by about 25 percent, according to the company.

 

The ceilings are reminiscent of flowing table cloths, both for aesthetics and practical use, as they obscure equipment on the kitchen's ceiling.

 

The renovation, while planned years ago, is being completed at a unique time for both the French Laundry and the Bay Area dining scene, as storied dining destinations are no longer surviving on reputation alone.

 


Christine Ng works the wood fire in in the new kitchen of the French Laundry.

 

Keller has said in the past he doesn't plan to distance the restaurant from its roots. The menu still changes daily and remains an amalgamation of French tradition and high-quality ingredients. Still, the project is wrapping up less than a year after New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells stripped Keller's Per Se of its perfect rating, instead describing a "slow creep of mediocrity." In the aftermath, Keller expressed a renewed vigor for righting the ship.

While the conversations about French Laundry are layered with story lines, Minnillo said outside influences have nothing to do with what's happening on the Yountville property. The changes are the result of progressive thinking, the heartbeat of French Laundry over the decades, he said.

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A rolling kitchen hutch is seen full of dishes in the new kitchen of the French Laundry.\

"We're constantly changing everything everyday," Minnillo said. "I tell the team all the time, we're trailblazers. We have to do it for the profession. We're always cutting-edge, from concepts to food to designs."


From: San Francisco Chronicle

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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