“The French Laundry, Per Se”, a new philosophical cookbook by Thomas Keller and his team | Food


A question that editors often ask a writer is, “Who are you writing for?” “” Who is your audience? These same questions came to mind when I opened chef Thomas Keller’s latest book, “The French Laundry, Per Se” ($ 75, Artisan).

During a global pandemic, climate crises, economic collapse, untold suffering, deepening civil unrest and divisions over equality and justice issues, and the craziest presidential election in memory of most folks, why choose one book out of two of the most expensive, exclusive, licensed restaurants in the United States?

Keller addresses this, to some extent, in a preface he wrote in April 2020. “Two years ago, in what now seems like another life, I started working on this book. My intention at the time was to celebrate two restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se, by telling their stories in the larger context of the evolution of gastronomy.

“I never imagined how much his bow was doomed to change,” he adds, relativizing the decision to go ahead with the publication of a book that could be seen as an ode to the new golden age in America.

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Like all of Keller’s books, “The French Laundry, Per Se” is more of a work of art than a cookbook that you would open to find out what to prepare for dinner. And like a plate that comes out of one’s kitchens in either of these restaurants, it’s a thing of beauty, made up of the best elements with exquisite attention to detail.

And it tells stories. Keller recounts how, after two failed restaurants in New York City, he hit a low point in his life, landed in Yountville, Calif., And found an old restaurant, called the French Laundry. His success, his ideas and his cooking made him famous. A decade later, I returned to New York to open a restaurant. People kept asking him if this would be another French laundry, and after answering enough times, “Not the French laundry per se”, he realized he had the name of the New York company.

To browse “The French Laundry, Per Se” is to fall into a culinary wonderland created by a culinary imagination without borders, at least in terms of whimsical, elusive, surprising, fun and undoubtedly delicious. . In this world, even the familiar is something different: French onion soup looks like frothy beer in a parfait glass. Fish ‘n’ Chips is a beer-battered pufferfish with malt vinegar jam, and to create it, the recommended equipment needed includes a vacuum sealer and infrared thermometer gun.

“This book contains over 70 fairly elaborate recipes, which include equally elaborate components,” Keller writes. “One of the goals of this book is to provide an overview of our kitchens, an overview of the ingredients, recipes and the actual processes we use. We haven’t changed the recipes significantly to make them easier for home chefs.

Well, there you are, kids. No Royal Ossetra Caviar with Chocolate Hazelnut Emulsion tonight.

If anything, Keller writes, the recipes have gotten more complex than those he featured in “The French Laundry Cookbook,” published in 1999, and the ingredients have gotten more and more refined. He and his team are now working with ingredients of a quality “that would have surprised me 26 years ago” when he opened the French Laundry.

This is part of the evolution of gastronomy in the United States, which Keller traces by dividing it into three phases. The first is dominated by the reign of restaurants such as Delmonico’s, founded in 1827 in New York, and Brown Derby, a chain founded in Los Angeles in 1926. The second sees the rise of French haute cuisine, inspired by the success of The Pavillion. at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The wave swept through the 1960s and saw French-born chef René Verdon pass through the Kennedy White House.

The 1960s, Keller writes, saw the rise of what he called “personality-specific cooking styles.” It all started with Paul Bocuse in France in the 1960s, and Jean-Louis Palladin, the French chef who, in the 1970s, introduced “nouvelle cuisine”, a movement that liberated the image of French cuisine and introduced innovative, lighter and simpler menus focused on exceptional ingredients.

“Jean-Louis was the first chef to come out into the country to find farmers and fishermen to get him good lamb and fresh scallops in the shell,” Keller writes. “He figured out how to get fresh foie gras in this country. He was the first chef to source the best eggs.

Palladin influenced a generation of young chefs, one of whom was Keller. “My generation wanted friendlier restaurants that also served Michelin-caliber food,” he writes. The chefs “took the fancy of French cuisine, began to create mixed plates and got rid of the stuffy table service.”

These chefs have become celebrities and dining in their restaurants has become a new form of entertainment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have eaten at the French Laundry a few times and found it to be quite enjoyable, although I was glad someone else footed the tab. And I had to admit that I would be happier with a can of beans on top of a mountain or a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese in Paris. But it’s just me; for many others, a meal at Per Se or the French Laundry or one of the other cult establishments is a major item on the to-do list.

Which brings me back to the question of who is Keller’s wonderful new book for. An answer came from David Bredeen, chef at French Laundry for seven years and co-author of “The French Laundry, Per Se”.

Bredeen left his Tennessee home at 14 with $ 21 in his pocket, after a difficult upbringing, which he happily admits had in no way steered him towards a career in the upper echelons of fine dining.

“The only thing I’ve ever done in a country club was wash the dishes,” he said in an interview. “It evokes memories of the butler picky with rules and things.” In a Barnes & Nobles bookstore, however, he discovered books, among which “The French Laundry Cookbook”. It got him in his way.

After striving to acquire cooking skills, working for free and for minimum wage, he landed a stage, a culinary apprenticeship, at the French Laundry. Even more impressive, perhaps, he got a reservation to dine there and found the means to foot the bill; it’s an experience he uses to underline his belief that anyone who really wants to can dine at the best restaurants in the world.

“All the chefs who don’t make that much money, they find a way,” he said. “We see people in the restaurant from all walks of life, from all places. And they have fun. “

Dinners can be pricey, he said (reopening after COVID-19 closes, fixed-price alfresco dining at the French Laundry is $ 350 and indoors is $ 850 per person) , but he pointed out that the cost supports a network of people, from those who do laundry to outfitters, gardeners, farmers and artisans as well as waiters, cooks and dishwashers. “It pays 110 employees, gardens, orchards.”

After completing his internship at French Laundry, he continued to move up the culinary ranks and returned 16 years later to Yountville Restaurant as an established chef.

“It was the dream of a lifetime,” he said. The following years were “a positive development and a period of growth”.

Evolution? “I wouldn’t call it fine dining as much as great food,” he said. “It’s meaningful to me, the process and the cuisine. We cook and serve our guests; but a lot of it is philosophy – (Keller) is our philosophical guide. My work is constantly stimulating, constantly evolving. There is great energy, great members of the team. That’s why I never left.

The other two co-authors, Corey Chow, Chef de Cuisine at Per Se, and Elwyn Boyles, Pastry Chef at both restaurants, share their own stories, which boil down to phenomenal determination and hard work, inspired by pioneers such than Keller, who gave their talent a chance to flourish.

At Per Se in New York City, Corey Chow caught Keller’s attention when he was a clerk – “the lowest echelon of the brigade” – and cooked the dish for a family meal. As the best guy now, Chow writes, “It’s all about the team … it’s about the respect … respect for the ingredients, respect for technique, respect for your colleagues and the hard work you do. they respect … teaching and mentoring. . Because that’s how we evolve.

Elwyn Boyles, born in Wales, started his restaurant, like Keller and Bredeen, by washing dishes. Finally, he found his place as a pastry chef. He was working in England when he saw an advertisement for a pastry chef at Per Se in New York and “dared to dream”.

So, coming back to the new book: her Eggplant Parmesan recipe may not be your go-to version for a family dinner, but it’s undeniably intriguing and provides a glimpse into the world where a humble dish is recreated as a Eggplant pancake on a bed of grilled eggplant bechamel sauce with a garnish of tomato raisins. Much more than a glimpse into high energy, high wattage cooking, it is the glimpse of the people who chose to do this job, night after night.

What’s in store for us, Keller asks. “More and better.”

The evolution of gastronomy has filtered out of this realm, not only with an emphasis on quality ingredients, but with the idea of ​​food as a way to explore and understand the world, at all costs.

I recently had a cheeseburger where the waiter could enthusiastically tell me who made the bun and who made the cheese, where the meat came from and how the onions were cooked, balsamic. It’s not a conversation you could have had 20 or 30 years ago, but these ingredients have made it an extremely thin burger.

And the Chef Spotlight has shed light on how, despite today’s challenges, chefs continue to do what they love – feed people.

“So few industries have been spared the devastation, even fewer have been hit harder than the profession I know best,” concludes Keller. “One of the truths revealed by the current crisis is the value of restaurants as a social force.”

So who is “The French Laundry, Per Se” for? Clearly, it’s a dream book, like the 2020 version of Sears Roebuck’s old “Dreambook”, a catalog for gourmets and young chefs alike.

Or you could see it this way: $ 75 for “The French Laundry, Per Se” is a lot less than what you would pay to eat at either place.


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