Run a 3-star kitchen out of shipping containers? No problem at French Laundry

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Four shipping containers make a kitchen at storied French Laundry restaurant

One of the world's greatest restaurants is now cooking out of shipping containers.

When French Laundry chef/owner Thomas Keller ran up against a time crunch after designing a new, futuristic kitchen in honor of his acclaimed restaurant’s 20th birthday, he went to the architectural team Envelope A+D and asked them for a solution that would allow him to keep the restaurant running while the new kitchen was being built.

The answer? Four shipping containers tacked together. It opened last week and the restaurant hardly seems to have missed a beat.

In a way, that’s not surprising, since the size of the four containers almost exactly matches the old kitchen. They were able to move the old equipment layout intact to the new location.

French Laundry chef de cuisine David Breeden says the biggest change he’s faced is that the “pass” — restaurant lingo for the area where all composed dishes come for finishing before being taken out to customers — runs from right to left, whereas before it ran from left to right.

“If that’s our biggest change, we’re doing well,” he says.

In fact, when viewed from Washington Boulevard, the main drag in Yountville, the temporary kitchen looks much like an architecturally advanced permanent facility constructed by some minimalist designer.

But the new place, when it’s finished (the timeline now is six or seven months), will be even better, says Keller. He says the new design was inspired by the way the renovation at Paris’ Louvre museum so successfully blended old and new.

The old stone dining room at the French Laundry hasn’t changed a bit outside of a little freshening up — in fact, since it’s a historical property, the exterior couldn’t be changed at all.

But the new kitchen, 25% larger than the old one and beautifully designed, should be a source of inspiration for the cooks who work in it, Keller says.

“If we accomplish what we set out to do, then the inspiration our team can take from that will be extraordinary,” he says. “You just have to reinvent yourself every 10 years; take a step back and say this is pretty extraordinary what we’ve done, what can we do now?

“It’s not about reinventing the food, that reinvents itself, but about setting new goals and pushing further in what you can do.”

And some things never change. Legendary for its hot reservations — they sell out in hours two months in advance — the French Laundry experimented with putting the first two months of the temporary restaurant out on OpenTable. And sold out the entire run in 36 hours.

Keller says he began thinking about remodeling the kitchen three years ago, when he began planning the restaurant’s 20th anniversary, which came this summer. But what started out looking like a short-term remodel kept expanding.

“It started with three months, then it was six months and then it was a year, and that just wasn’t going to work closing that long,” he says. After exploring various temporary options at different locations, “we realized we already had the restaurant we needed — the dining room is still there.

“The more we thought about it, the more we thought let’s just build a temporary kitchen there. We got together with the architects and started exploring options. They had done some work with shipping containers and they already had a source for them and someone to modify them.”

In the end, the French Laundry closed for 100 days while the temporary kitchen was being constructed. During that time, Keller and company ran Ad Lib, a pop-up re-imagining of country club cuisine at the Silverado Resort (slated to close when the French Laundry reopened, it's been extended until October).

“It comes down to always wanting to improve,” Keller says. “That’s the basic fundamental thought process behind everything we do. What would it take for us to do things better? What resources would it take? It’s the same whether you’re talking about education, new facilities, new equipment, or just new service wear. With all that stuff, we’re continuously striving to evolve.

“I think what we learned with this project, with all modesty, is that we continue to be surprised by what we can do when we set out to,” he says.

But run a three-star Michelin restaurant out of converted shipping containers?

“You can do anything you want to do as long as you set yourself up with the right attitude to do it,” Keller says.

The French Laundry, 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, (707) 944-2380.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

CORRECTION

The story originally said the temporary kitchens were designed by Snohetta. While that firm is designing the permanent kitchens, the temporary kitchens were designed by Envelope A+D.

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