Thomas Keller: A Chef with a Passion

Yountville, California --- Eating at chef Thomas Keller's famed Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry makes me think of watching Fred Astaire. When you watch the master dance, you only think about how much fun he must be having, it all looks so easy, so natural. It never crosses your mind that he is working about as hard as a human being can work.

The truth is, no matter how hard the modest, talented Thomas Keller works, you can be sure he is having fun at it. As he says himself, the trick is to learn to ''maintain passion for everyday routine,'' and there is plenty of that in any kitchen, especially one generally considered the very best table in America.

I first encountered Keller's exciting, well-crafted food in 1986, when he opened restaurant Rakel in New York City, just a few years after he served apprenticeships in some of France's best and most up and coming restaurants, including Taillevent, Guy Savoy and Le Pre Catalan.

In 1994 he purchased the 1900's stone building that had actually once been a French laundry, dedicating himself to creating a top country restaurant in the heart of Napa Valley. There are still rough spots to work out (the restaurant is too cramped for his expansive cuisine), but I can't imagine coming to the hallowed Napa Valley and not trying my best to secure a table at this superb establishment.

Keller has what many other chefs don't have, and that's a sense of humor. As our very first taste arrived on a recent dinner at The French Laundry, our table of four burst into giggles, like schoolchildren. Set before us were his legendary ice cream come starter --- buttery, miniature homemade ice cream cones filled with salmon tartare and sweet red onion crème fraîche - food that was both fun and delicious, and they went down so well with delicate sips of bubbly. It is all the better to know that the chef actually created the dish during a moment of personal sadness, while eating a Baskin Robbins ice cream cone!

The Napa Valley was originally inhabited by the Wappo Indians, and nappa was their word for plenty, and plenty certainly applies to a meal at The French Laundry. Rather than a first course and main course Keller will tempt you with many many little bites, well rehearsed, close to flawless, well executed. And there are plenty of them.

A favorite legendary French Laundry treat is Keller's "'Oysters and Pearls,' plump, gorgeous oysters set atop a bed of smooth pearl tapioca sabayon then topped with a small oval scoop of glistening osetra caviar. What could be bad about this? The kind of dish that must be savored, oh so slowly, for once you down the last grain of caviar, it's all over. All that remains is the fine memory, and a palate still filled with the iodine-rich essence of the sea.

Strong, assertive flavors continue as we confront warm, sweet, fruitwood smoked salmon served with feather-light potato gnocchi all joined together with a signature balsamic vinegar glaze. Keller cooks the delicate smoked salmon in milk (much as the French do traditionally with herring) to help retain its texture and to allow him to serve it warm.

The meal moves on, with rabbit treasures and goat cheese surprises, ending with perhaps his most famous dish, Coffee and Doughnuts, another creation born out of sadness, and you guessed it, a trip to S&K Doughnuts in Los Angeles. What Keller serves in a giant bowl of warm ''cappuccino semifreddo,'' or a frothy white blend of sugar, eggs, espresso extract and cream, paired with adorable homemade cinnamon-sugar doughnuts, yeasty, golden, and reminiscent of some of my best food memories of childhood.

Keller tugs at our food memories in the nicest of ways. He is also lecturing us a bit. He rightly considers a respect for food, a respect for life, but admonishes that "our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for one-pot ease, prewashed precut ingredients has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking." He says it all. So go into the kitchen and cook up a meal you can be proud of, with respect.

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, California 94599-1301
Telephone: 707 944 2380.
About $100 per person, not including service or wine. Reservations are accepted no more than two months in advance.

Fish, Main d'or, Chez Marcel, and Il Vicolo