April 3, 2010 2:20 am

Inside the award-winning French Laundry

Two young chefs describe what it’s like to work in the celebrated California restaurant
 
César Troisgros and Richi Desai

César Troisgros and Richi Desai in the kitchens of the French Laundry

The French Laundry, twice named the world’s best in Restaurant magazine’s closely watched annual survey, has built an enviable reputation for its chef and founder Thomas Keller. But what’s it like to work in his celebrated kitchen? To gain an expert insight, I spoke to two young chefs from contrasting backgrounds.

Hrishikesh Shridar Desai, known as Richi, was born in Pune, India, and is the first of his family to become a chef. Richi, who at 30 is head chef in the brasserie at Lucknam Park Hotel, near Bath, earned his three-month stint at the French Laundry in Yountville in California’s Napa Valley, by winning the Roux scholarship, a leading competition for UK chefs. Winning the prize was “one of the best days of my life,” says Richi.

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Nicholas Lander

He works alongside 20 other chefs, including César Troisgros, who at 24 years old is the latest scion of the renowned French cooking family. His grandfather and great-grandfather cooked at the Michelin three-star Maison Troisgros in Roanne, central France, which is now run by his father Michel.

Having watched the young chefs in action in the French Laundry’s quietly humming kitchen, I join the pair of them for lunch at the nearby French bistro Bouchon, also owned by Keller.

Neither can hide their enthusiasm for their work. Troisgros, who has also cooked at the Michelin two-star Michel Rostang in Paris and the three-star Cellar Can Roca in Girona, Spain, says: “I never believed that the kitchen of a Michelin three-star restaurant could be organised enough to change its menu every day. This is very, very different from where I’ve worked. In Europe, the menus in restaurants of similar standing may change only every month, or even only every season.”

 
French Laundry restaurant

French Laundry

Chefs must work harder to produce a daily menu, Richi adds. First, after each service – at 4pm following lunch, and at midnight after dinner – they all meet to compile the next menu and discuss what will work best. The fish, meat and poultry will have been ordered in advance but the sauces, accompaniments and garnishes are the result of these brainstorming sessions.

The French Laundry provides two nine-course tasting menus every day for a dining room that can accommodate 60 customers. For this operation to work successfully, every last detail must be precisely planned.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Templates are drawn up for all the accompaniments and nothing is left to chance,” says Richi.

“Two things really hit me when I started working here,” he continues. “Chefs in any kitchen use plastic containers for their ingredients or sauces but, invariably, the lids go missing and they end up being covered with cling film. Here, I’ve never seen a container without its lid, which is not only neater but it saves a fortune on cling film.

“Also, this kitchen is so tidy. If there is a dirty towel on your section, another chef will come along within five minutes and remind you to tidy up. I’ve developed a lot of good habits here.”

Another example is the habit of taping a copy of the day’s menus to the table on which all the chefs deliver their dishes for final inspection, ensuring that everyone – not just the head chef – can check that the food matches the menu’s description.

Troisgos is appreciative of the fact that all the chefs are involved in creating the daily menu. “I’ve never seen this in Europe, even in my father’s kitchen,” he says. “There, the menus are devised by the chef and his sous-chef. Here, I come up with ideas for three dishes every day, and sometimes even more when we know there’s a VIP in the restaurant to whose table we are going to serve one or two extra courses.”

Unlike Troisgros, Richi is a stagaire , or trainee, and is not paid for his three months at the restaurant (although he receives £75 a week from the Savoy Educational Trust , a culinary education foundation as part of his prize) . But he is grateful for the opportunities that his scholarship has given him.

He has learnt how to prepare fish from the Pacific – “which are so different to those I’ve cooked before” – and use fresh ingredients from the restaurant’s own five-acre garden, all of which are “treated with great respect. We’re told to use [the ingredients] to paint the plates using all of [the garden’s] colours and flavours”.

Richi, who returns to the UK next month, wants to open a restaurant in London one day and is convinced his experience in California has made him better-equipped to achieve that dream.

For Troisgros, 18 months at the French Laundry are possibly another stepping stone to taking over from his father one day, although sensibly, at his age he will not commit himself.

“The social life in Roanne is much better than in Yountville but I know for sure that through working here I’ve learnt to manage myself much, much better,” he says. “But I think I would like to cook in Japan next.”

nicholas.lander@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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Details

The French Laundry 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, California tel: +1 707944 2380; www.frenchlaundry.com

Bouchon 6534 Washington Street, Yountville, California, tel: +1 707944 803; www.bouchonbistro.com

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