Back of the House

A Look ‘Behind the Stove’ at The French Laundry

Keller looking stern during a menu meeting.
Keller looking stern during a menu meeting. Photo: Lance Iverson/Chron

“They look at me like I cooked their meal. I feel awkward,” Thomas Keller tells the Chronicle after signing autographs for diners from “the box” in the French Laundry kitchen where he sits in a director’s chair to observe and advise. In a lengthy behind-the-scenes piece about the big daddy of Bay Area restaurants, chef/writer Sophie Brickman reveals a number of interesting tidbits about the way things are done in Keller’s world: everyone is called “Chef,” no matter what their position; line cooks create dishes; Keller has an odd sense of humor; and chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth very rarely gets mad, at least while there’s a reporter in the room.

(“Pull it out of the fucking pan,” he says at one point to a cook who fired a piece of foie gras too early. “Then he returned to his orderly self,” writes Brickman.)

We also hear a brief, harrowing account of a Nepalese cook staging (auditioning) and “sweating along” in one of the side-rooms off the kitchen:

He’d called every day for months before getting a response. Two hours earlier, after one day in the kitchen, Hollingsworth had given him a sudden-death opportunity: Armed with a duck breast and anything in the kitchen, he was to create a three-course tasting menu featuring a salad, an egg dish and the duck. If it was up to French Laundry standards, maybe he’d get a job.

Hollingsworth came to check on him. “How you doin’?” he asked, all smiles. The stage reluctantly left his quinoa to talk: “So overwhelmed … trying to do my best … honored to be here … just want to learn.” Tim nodded, grinning, then squinted. “Gotta visa?”

Sadly, he didn’t get the job.

But we’re still fascinated with “the box,” the “small, closet-like room with a high director’s chair looking out into the kitchen” where Keller sits during service. It’s good to know that he’s still in the kitchen at all, whenever he’s in town. Is there a two-way mirror? Does he shout commands through an intercom?

Look to the Scoop for a few outtakes from the piece, and look for more pieces from “behind the stove” at Coi and La Folie in the coming weeks.

How French Laundry’s Chefs Reach for the Stars [Chron]
Earlier: Understanding Per Se’s Kitchen [Grub Street]
Timothy Hollingsworth Ate Some Really Spicy Sh*t in Sydney [Grub Street]

A Look ‘Behind the Stove’ at The French Laundry