Back of the House

Understanding French Laundry’s Kitchen

Photo: Marisa Woocher

The great Georges-Auguste Escoffier is widely credited with developing the “brigade system” at the Savoy Hotel in London in the late nineteenth century. In use in most of the world’s top restaurant kitchens, the brigade is based on the structure European military cooks created as early as the fourteenth century. The system ensures that each position and station is defined with a clear and specific set of duties; from it came the modern chef titles like “chef de cuisine” and “chef de partie.” (Many of the French Laundry stations are identified in English, while Per Se uses the all-French model.) Looking at the org chart of the French Laundry, which celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this week, it’s easy to see why Timothy Hollingsworth is the big man on campus in Napa (he’s at the top of the chart!), but the specifics of what he does versus what the executive sous chef does versus what the chefs de partie do — and what the hell, really, is a garde manger? — is less clear. While every kitchen is managed differently, French Laundry and Per Se are models for the industry — in no small part because chefs see the experience of working at one of these restaurants, at any level, as a spectacular learning experience.

Organizationl structure of French Laundry’s kitchen.

We’ll start at the top and work our way down. If we happen go in order of ego size, biggest to smallest, that’s purely coincidence.

Chef Patron: Patron in French means owner or boss. In the case of French Laundry and Per Se, chef patron Thomas Keller is an owner and chief food officer at the restaurant. Like Keller, Gordon Ramsay’s title at Maze is chef patron, which indicates, perhaps, that the chef patron is not quite as present as an executive chef would be. Elsewhere, the title is somewhat interchangable with executive chef, the “face, eyes and palate” of the kitchen, as Eric Ripert says in On the Line, though using the word patron generally implies ownership, too.

Chef de Cuisine: The chef de cuisine is in charge of all kitchen operations, from payroll to plating. For Ripert, the chef de cuisine, “has total control, from a managerial perspective, of the food that enters and leaves the kitchen.”

Executive Sous-Chef: The ‘executive’ in front of sous indicates that this chef has wide latitude to manage the staff and operation under him or her. (Sous is French for under.) So, the executive sous chef is the head underling in the kitchen, executing the chef de cuisine’s broad direction. Executive sous-chefs often manage off-site operations as well.

Sous Chef: A middle management buffer for the executive sous-chef. Sous chefs will expedite orders, assist on the line and generally ensure service is running smoothly. There is no saucier on the line at French Laundry, according to the org chart, which indicates that the sous chef is likely on the line a fair bit, and oversees sauce-making too. As for A.M. versus P.M. teams, starting with the sous, P.M. team slots are more prestigious, though in many ways the A.M. teams do work that is equally important. If there is braising to be done, the A.M. team does it; ditto sauce-making, curing and such. On the other hand, P.M. teams get to cook dishes to finish, and in this way are closer to the diner.

Meat Butcher: Receives and preps meats for cooking.

Commis: The commis are high level apprentices, working with the sous chefs and chefs de partie (line cooks, see below) to learn the kitchen. As a commis, one is also responsible for maintaining the tools of the stations, too, such as pots and pans.

Chefs de Partie: The line cooks, responsible for preparing specific dishes.

Meat: Line cook responsible for meat dishes.

Fish: Line cook responsible for fish dishes.

Canape: Line cook responsible for canapes, such as amuse bouches.

Cheese: Line cook responsible for cheese.

Garde Manger: “Pantry” in French, this person is responsible for prep of cold dishes, such as salads and pates. In On the Line, Ripert explains this role: “The garde-manger … is where everyone, regardless of experience, starts in Le Bern’s kitchen. Neophytes — culinary-school grads and those with at least one year of restaurant experience — develop their knife skills, identify ingredients, and work efficiently in a small space. To keep things simple and to avoid error, each of the three garde-manger cooks has at most two dishes to prepare during each service. The menu’s eight appetizers come from the garde-manger.”

Executive Pastry Chef*: Responsible for the design and management of the pastry department at the restaurant, including budgeting, staffing, and execution.

Chef de Partie-Pastry: With commis, responsible for the baking and plating of pastry dishes, especially dessert.

Pastry Commis: Under the direction of the chef de partie-pastry, pastry commis, essentially, make dessert.

Compared to Per Se’s org chart, French Laundry is missing a bread department. On the West Coast, French Laundry gets its bread from Thomas Keller’s bakery, Bouchon.

Related: Understanding Per Se’s Kitchen

Understanding French Laundry’s Kitchen