It used to make me wonder a little when people would begin their critiques of dinner at the French Laundry by saying, "Well, it didn't change my life." Really?" I'd think, if your life is in such a state that a restaurant meal could change it, perhaps you have bigger issues to deal with. And then one day I realized that, actually, the French Laundry had, indeed, changed my life.
With Thomas Keller's storied Napa Valley restaurant celebrating its 20th birthday next week, it's a good time to appreciate it for everything it has meant.
Certainly it has changed the restaurant world. The French Laundry opened at a time when fine dining had been declared dead and buried (sound familiar?). It proved that if you provide the right mix of exciting food, great wines and attentive service, people will still pay upwards of $300 for dinner and wait two months for the pleasure.
But the restaurant's influence extends well beyond the 60 to 70 people who are fortunate enough to dine there each night. The French Laundry has influenced an entire generation of chefs and restaurateurs. That endless parade of tiny, perfect bites? Thank (or blame) Keller. Service so perfect your needs are met before you realize you had them? The French Laundry certainly didn't invent it, but it did bring back what had seemed like a vanishing art.
But in the end, perfect meals are not the most important thing I've learned from the French Laundry. Having known Keller for more than 15 years now (he's been a regular contributor to The Times since 2000), what I've learned is not the importance of achieving perfection but of constantly pursuing it.
In the end, perfection eludes all of us. In fact, it sometimes seems that the better you get at something, the further perfection fades in the distance.
It's tempting when you hit that point to throw up your hands and settle for the fatal "good enough." But that is a long downhill slope. Because, just as perfection always recedes just out of reach, "good enough" rushes to meet us.
How does Keller do it? "It's simple," he told me many years ago. "I just worked as hard as I could, the best that I could, every day."
Though it's easy now, 20 years later, to assume that the restaurant's success was foreordained, opening it was, in fact, a huge gamble. When Keller was putting together the investment prospectus for the French Laundry, he was so broke that he had to pay half his legal fees in olive oil. The first night, there were only four people working in the kitchen. And still he insisted that he was going to pursue his dream of a great restaurant, come what may.
He is famously obsessed by the tiniest of details. He once praised a kitchen worker to me by pointing out that when he put labels on containers, he always cut the tape at precise right angles.
At a time when it sometimes seems some chefs are doing us the favor of serving us dinner, Keller goes to ridiculous lengths to make sure every diner is happy. His motto: "The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer."
I've been in the kitchen when an entire table's dishes were returned before they could be served because a waiter had noticed that one diner had gotten up for a break — every plate was rebuilt from scratch when he returned. Odds are nobody even noticed, but it was the right thing to do.
I'm not going to pretend that I'll ever reach Keller's level of obsessed perfectionism. In fact, quite honestly, I wouldn't want to. Life is just too short.
But I do know that whenever I finish writing or editing a story, developing a recipe or cooking a dish for friends, I stop and ask myself whether there is anything more I can do to make it better.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the voice I hear in my head when I ask myself that question sounds a lot like Thomas Keller.