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Perfection and Its Price

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TIMES FOOD EDITOR

The French Laundry kitchen is a roil of barely controlled activity. Chefs shuffle skillets on hot burners, juggling four or five orders. The passage from the kitchen to the dining room is crowded with waiters coming and going.

At the center of it all, tall and taut, stands Thomas Keller, chef, owner and focus of a collective obsession. He has his eye on everyone, and everyone has an eye on him. As tickets come up from the waiters, he calls the orders to the kitchen like some kind of culinary quarterback: “Two veal, four lamb for table 23. Are we ready on the soup?”

After the individual components are cooked, they come to him for assembly into finished dishes. Coolly, he arranges them and dispenses his grace notes--a dab of oil here, a dash of powder there. Every dish passes before him. He’s only inches from a blazing flat-top stove, but he never sweats.

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That can be taken figuratively as well as literally. Although the French Laundry celebrated its fifth birthday only last month, it is probably the most highly praised restaurant in America today. That’s an honor that carries a lot of baggage.

It is one of the hardest restaurants in America to get into, which, if anything, only increases its allure. Because it’s in southern Napa Valley, most of its guests have traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to eat there. It’s tiny, only 62 seats. Reservations must be made at least two months in advance.

And it’s expensive. The fixed-price dinners start at $70, and the chef’s nine-course tasting menu, which 60% of the customers order, runs $95, not including wine, tax, tip or any surcharge for foie gras and other exotic ingredients.

Given all that, Keller walks a tightrope of constantly increasing expectations. Everyone who comes to the restaurant expects not only good food but great food, the best food they’ve ever eaten. Food that is even better than they ever imagined food could be.

Making Keller’s balancing act even trickier is his history. At 44, he’s not some new kid on the block. He’s been around. He’s crashed and burned in the restaurant business--twice. He knows the flip side of those high expectations.

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The odd thing is that for such a white-tablecloth chef, Keller fell into cooking in a very blue-collar way. He’s neither a highly programmed culinary institute graduate nor a frustrated art history major who finally found his true calling. He got into the restaurant business the old-fashioned way: His mom hired him.

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After divorcing Keller’s father, she ran private clubs as a way of supporting her five boys, of whom Thomas is the youngest. She was managing the Palm Beach Yacht Club in southern Florida when he turned 17. One day the chef quit. Thomas, who was washing dishes to earn allowance money, was promoted.

“Going from being a 17-year-old dishwasher to a chef, that pretty much defines what type of restaurant it was,” he says. “It was one of those ‘70s places: club sandwiches, hamburgers and eggs Benedict by day and roast prime rib and surf and turf by night. It was the real white-shoe crowd.”

In his early years, Thomas was a gypsy cook, one of those aimless youths who travel where they want, concentrating mostly on having a good time, bouncing through menial restaurant jobs to pay the way.

That changed when he met Roland Henin, then chef at a private club in Rhode Island, now at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. “He was the first person I met who showed me that cooking wasn’t about techniques, it wasn’t about recipes, it was about having the love for what you’re doing,” he says.

“I realized at that time that cooking was more important than making money, it was more important than being able to travel around. There was really something there that was a kind of an inner feeling that satisfied a need in me to satisfy a need in other people. Cooking for people really made me happy.”

So Keller embarked on his own educational program, fighting for lesser jobs at ever-better restaurants, then taking a step back to be top man at smaller places so that he could practice what he had learned.

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“It was kind of like learning from the book and then doing the exercise at the end of the chapter,” he says. “It was like going up a ladder and each time you go up two steps, you step down one, but you go further up each time.”

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Great food is built on details. At Keller’s side at all times when he’s cooking is his magician’s box: a plastic container full of oils and powders. These are for garnish, but also for flavor. On this day, the dry mixtures include gray sea salt; fleur de sel sea salt; squab spice (a ground mixture of toasted cinnamon, cloves, mace, coriander and black pepper); hot paprika; citrus powder (lemon, lime and orange zest dried and ground); tomato, carrot, beet and mushroom powders (made from the dried pulp of each vegetable); and pepper confetti (made from yellow, red and green bell peppers). There are also vibrantly colored and scented oils flavored with basil, thyme, parsley, coriander, lobster coral and curry.

Michelle Karr, a student from the Culinary Institute of America, makes the pepper confetti. Every night she filets various bell peppers, removing the tops, bottoms and seed veins. Then she cuts them into slabs and, using a very sharp knife, carefully cuts off sheets so thin you can see through them. They’re so thin she gets four or five slices to a slab. She shreds them hair-fine, lays each strip separately on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and leaves them out overnight to dry. Then she minces them.

“All of those kinds of things are used in the final assembly,” Keller says. “They have a lot of flavor, especially when they hit hot plates. It’s all about getting as much complexity as you can on the plate. It’s an aroma thing. It’s a visual thing. It’s taste and texture.”

A typical plate at the French Laundry begins with a circle of a sauce or flavored oil or both. Then comes a base--maybe a crouton, a chip or a vegetable. On top goes the main element--beef, lamb, fish. That is then garnished with a final fillip: caviar, perhaps, or a perfect vegetable quenelle of finely diced tomatoes and black olives. Finally, Keller carefully places herbs on top and finishes it--sometimes with dots of glaze, sometimes flicking a dash of an appropriate powder at the rim.

Each part in the assembly has been perfectly prepared just beforehand and the whole thing comes together in a flash. If the diner is not ready when the plate is finished, it is disassembled and put back together with mostly fresh materials when he is. (For this reason, you would be well advised to let the waiter know a course in advance if you desire a walk in the middle of dinner.)

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After working his way up through a series of big-name restaurants in New York and in France--Taillevent, Guy Savoy, Le Pre Catalan, Le Reserve--Keller and partner Serge Raoul opened Rakel in Manhattan in 1986. Although the acclaim was deafening--glowing reviews in the New York Times, the cover of New York magazine--so was the hangover that came after it went broke in 1990.

“It didn’t turn out; I wasn’t sure enough of who I was,” Keller says. “After we started to get some exposure, I started to neglect the restaurant. That was in the mid-’80s, and chefs had just started to become fashionable. I got wrapped up in that and I forgot why I was who I was. And I was who I was because I was a cook. But I didn’t realize that in time to to save the restaurant.”

On top of it all, New York was in a recession and restaurant times were hard. “It was the beginning of the ‘90s, when creative chefs were a dime a dozen because people didn’t want that kind of food anymore,” he says. “So I got lost. I was one of the outcasts.”

After a period of wandering and picking up the odd restaurant consulting gig (“the worst job in the world; I don’t even know why they have them”), Keller left New York behind, moving to Los Angeles in 1991 to run the restaurant at the Checkers Hotel. Five months after Keller’s arrival, the hotel was sold. Keller lasted a year longer, but it was tough.

And so began another stretch in the wilderness, jobless and flat broke for the second time in three years. For a while, Keller was rumored to be filling every restaurant opening that came up on either coast. He even undertook the blending of a premium olive oil, EVO.

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Despite the maelstrom of activity, the French Laundry kitchen is surprisingly quiet except for the clatter of pans and the orders, which are delivered at conversational volume. There are no raised voices, no music. It is more like a hospital operating room than a bond trading floor.

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There is an almost unnerving politeness. Everyone says “please” and “thank you,” even when dealing with the waiters--objects of scorn in most kitchens, but not here. When passing a waiter, a cook will say “Behind you, please.” At the end of the shift, everyone pauses to shake hands with Keller before heading for the door.

With their youth (most of the staff seem to be in their mid- to late 20s), uniform (the cooks wear white jackets, black pants, black clogs and, needless to say, no baseball caps) and almost uniformly short hair cuts on both men and women, the staff sometimes makes the place seem like the headquarters of some kind of cult, a cult of of culinary perfection.

Keller never shouts. In the past, he was known as quite a screamer, but it no longer seems necessary. That doesn’t mean he’s gone soft. When one cook is seen doing something that doesn’t measure up to Keller’s standards, he pulls him aside and speaks to him quietly but intensely. The miscreant recoils as if he’s been slapped.

Keller has a soft side, though it can be masked by a brusque manner. When a couple in their 70s enter the kitchen and want to have their picture taken with him, at first Keller is impatient. “Quick, quick. We don’t have time,” he says. Then he puts his arms around them and poses patiently. A waiter snaps the picture. “Did you see the flash?” asks Keller, worried. “Did the flash go off? Here, take another one. Let’s be sure.”

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At the time Keller was leaving Checkers in L.A., Don and Sally Schmitt were retiring up in Yountville. In 1977, they had taken over what had originally been a turn-of-the-century steam laundry and turned it into a restaurant. Don, a former town mayor, ran the business and Sally cooked. They served a single set menu every night and were known for the depth of their California wine cellar.

When the restaurant came up for sale, half a dozen big-name chefs looked at it and passed. It was too small, and under Yountville’s zoning regulations, you couldn’t add seats. Pretty place, but the numbers just wouldn’t work.

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Keller took a look and fell in love. “I looked at it in a different way, not strictly on a financial basis but as a place I could make a connection. What I wanted was to do a restaurant here that was essentially a great European restaurant.”

He was long on vision but short on cash. It took 19 months to put together the deal to buy the place. In the process, Keller found that salesmanship is another of his talents. Flat broke, he talked his lawyer into drawing up his prospectus on spec, with a retainer of olive oil in case the deal didn’t go through.

The restaurant cost $1.2 million. Keller says 70% was financed by a combination of Small Business Administration and private bank loans and the remaining 30% came from a pool of 50 investors who bought in beginning at $20,000 a share.

That leaves him securely in charge, both artistically and financially. “The control of the restaurant is not diluted,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be put in a situation where I didn’t have control again.”

Also, by limiting the amount the investors chipped in, Keller says he felt freer to take the risks necessary to make a great restaurant. He’d learned from the Rakel experience. “Serge [Raoul] had a lot of money invested and he lost a lot of money, and that was painful for me because we’d had a great friendship prior to that. I didn’t want that to happen to anybody again.”

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Keller’s flavors are vibrant, complex and profoundly delicious. His food has the power to shock. You sometimes see diners physically react to a dish, throwing their heads back in pleasure or laughing out loud in surprise.

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The portions at the French Laundry are small, even tiny, but in truth, you probably wouldn’t want more. Keller designs them to be eaten in two or three bites, emphasizing the “tasting” in “tasting menu.”

“You reach the peak after the first two or three bites,” he has said. “If you have 10 or 12 bites and the dish was good, your memory will be that it was OK. If you remember just the first two or three bites, you’ll think it was magnificent.”

The food works on many levels, satisfying sensually and challenging intellectually at the same time. One night lobster is served five ways, each pointing up a different aspect of flavor or texture. Each one would be a revelation; taken together they are an in-depth lesson in what lobster is.

There are luxury ingredients aplenty. “To give people a real taste of something, you can’t scrimp,” says Keller. “If you don’t experience them in abundance, you don’t see what’s so special about them.” But less exalted stuff is equally appreciated. One night, pig’s head and feet are served (boned and formed into crusty, slightly chewy cylinders).

Of course, that was no ordinary pig. Keller gets his pork from a small farmer in Pennsylvania. He contracts for the hog before it is weaned and it is fed to his specifications until it reaches the desired weight. Then it is slaughtered and the whole animal is flown west. This pig, he says with pride, was raised on nothing but McIntosh and Fuji apples.

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It’s midnight and, except for pastry chef Stephen Durfee plating the last desserts, everyone is busy with the top-to-bottom scrubbing that marks the end of the day in a great restaurant. Keller has been at work since a 10 a.m. management meeting, but he shows no wear. Instead, he grabs a couple of pieces of that famous pig. “I haven’t made a pa^te in a long time,” he says. “That would be fun.”

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Boning out the shoulder, cutting and weighing the respective parts and then combining them in a mixing bowl with various seasonings to marinate, he relaxes. For the first time all day, he smiles and cracks jokes.

All that striving comes with a price--and not just for the customer. So all-consuming is it that Keller’s house, a charming Craftsman cottage adjoining the restaurant, seems more an auxiliary office than a home. Despite his having lived there five years, the house has the empty, undecorated feel of temporary housing. His laundry room doubles as the office for the restaurant’s bookkeeper.

Still, friends say he’s beginning to entertain notions of life away from the kitchen, albeit very tentatively. He’s in a relationship, but his girlfriend works at the restaurant. He’s promoting one of his sous-chefs, Eric Ziebold, to chef de cuisine and is talking about taking Saturdays and Sundays off, but he says it’s mainly because that will give him more time to work with the midweek crew.

“It’s my goal to create a restaurant that’s going to be a great restaurant for longer than its owner or chef is around,” Keller says. “I want to create a restaurant that will do for somebody else what it did for me, and that says a lot.

“This is a magical place. Don and Sally Schmitt had a wonderful life here, and now I’m able to carry on their legacy. Someday, I want somebody else to be able to carry on the legacy of Thomas Keller.”

All of that is in the future, though. Right now, it’s hard to picture the restaurant without him--or vice versa.

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“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “People ask me how I did it, and I tell them it’s simple: I just worked as hard as I could, the best that I could, every day.”

And for the first time all day, he laughs, really laughs, in great gulping swallows that sound somewhere between joy and release.

The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St., Yountville, Calif. (707) 944-2380. Reservations must be made two months in advance. Lunch: Fridays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Dinner: daily 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Macaroni and Cheese (Butter-Poached Maine Lobster With Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo)

Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 4 hours plus 3 hours for chilling

No two ways about it, this is a project for overachievers only. But if you stick to it, you’ll have a dish that is incredibly rich and absolutely delicious--a showpiece people will talk about for a long time. Take things a step at a time and plan on its lasting the afternoon. Keller says originally this was an actual gratin with lobster and macaroni, “but now I use orzo with mascarpone, the lobster on top and Parmesan crisps--an echo of the crisp texture of a traditional gratin dish.”

LOBSTER

3 (1 1/2- to 2-pound) lobsters

Distilled vinegar

Water

* Place lobsters in tight-fitting heat-proof container such as stockpot. To determine how much steeping water you will need, add cold water just to cover, then drain it off, measure it and place in large pot. Bring water to boil and add 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar for every 8 quarts of water. Pour boiling liquid over lobsters and steep 2 minutes if using 1 1/2-pound lobsters, 3 minutes for 2-pound lobsters. Remove lobsters from hot water, but do not discard water.

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* One at a time, using towel or rubber gloves to hold hot lobster, grasp tail and twist and pull to detach from body. Twist and pull off claws and return them to hot water for 5 more minutes. Reserve bodies.

* Hold tail flat and twist tail fan to one side. Pull off and discard. Gently use your fingers to push through tail end pulling meat out through large opening at other end. Save shell for broth. Lay tail meat on back and cut lengthwise in half through middle. Remove vein running through top of meat. Lay meat on paper towel-lined plate or platter, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Repeat with each tail.

* After 5 minutes, remove claws from hot water. Twist off each knuckle to remove from claw. Hold claw in your hand and pull down to loosen lower pincer. Push to either side to crack and pull it straight off. Ideally, cartilage from inside claw should be attached to pincer and claw meat should remain intact. You may not always succeed in keeping claw meat in 1 piece, but with practice, your success rate will increase. If claw breaks apart, just arrange pieces nicely.

* Still holding claw, crack top of shell with heel of knife about 3/4 inch from joint where knuckle was attached. You want to go through shell but not damage meat. Wiggle your knife to loosen and crack shell. If shell does not pop off, turn claw over and repeat procedure. Shake claw to remove meat (if it doesn’t fall out, cut off very tip of shell and blow through hole to release meat).

* Cut off top joint of each knuckle, the one that was attached to lobster body. Use scissors to cut away shell along smooth outside edge of knuckle. Use your fingers to pry open shell and remove meat. Add knuckle and claw meat to the tail meat. Reserve shell for broth.

* Pull back and discard top shell of each lobster, including heads and antennae, and reserve for broth. Remove dark green coral (tomalley and roe).

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LOBSTER BROTH

1/4 cup oil

3 lobster bodies (3/4 pound total) cut into quarters

1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped carrots

1 bunch tarragon

2 cups whipping cream

Water

* Heat oil in large, deep, straight-sided braising pan. Add lobster shells and sear over medium-high heat 1 to 2 minutes per side, until they turn red. (If your pot is not big enough to accomplish this easily, do it in 2 batches.) Add tomatoes, carrots and tarragon, cover shells and vegetables with water, and bring to boil. Skim off any impurities that rise to top. Reduce heat and simmer over low heat 1 hour.

* Strain stock through large fine strainer, smashing lobster bodies with wooden spoon to extract all liquid, and then strain again through fine strainer into clean saucepan. Return strained stock to stove and simmer until reduced to 1 cup, about 2 hours.

* Add heavy cream, return to simmer and cook, skimming occasionally, until broth is reduced to 2 cups, about 30 to 40 minutes. Strain through fine strainer into container, discarding any solids remaining in strainer. Cover and refrigerate broth several hours to chill, or up to 3 days. Makes 2 cups (6 to 8 servings of broth).

CORAL OIL

3 tablespoons lobster coral (roe), reserved from shell

1/2 cup oil, heated

* Place lobster coral in blender and blend until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds. With machine running on low speed, drizzle in hot oil. Increase to high speed and continue to blend about 15 to 20 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides occasionally. Oil will continue to heat in blender from friction and will take on red-orange color (coral will remain dark). The longer machine is run, the darker the color will be, but be careful not to damage blender by overheating it. Strain oil by pouring through cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer into container. Cover oil and store in refrigerator. Makes 1/4 to 1/3 cup.

ASSEMBLY

1/2 cup orzo

2 tablespoons mascarpone

Coarse salt

1 1/2 (3 sticks) cups butter

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon minced chives

6 Parmesan Crisps (see accompanying recipe)

* Bring lobster broth to simmer over medium heat in saucepan and reduce to sauce consistency, about 1 cup, about 30 to 40 minutes. Set aside in pan.

* Cook orzo in boiling lightly salted water 8 to 10 minutes. Drain cooked pasta in strainer and rinse under cold water. Shake strainer to remove excess water and add pasta to lobster broth.

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* If lobster pieces have been refrigerated, bring to room temperature.

* Heat orzo and lobster broth to simmer. Add mascarpone and season with salt to taste. Let simmer 1 minute, then remove pan from heat and keep warm. Mixture should be thickness of risotto.

* Heat butter and water over medium-low heat until butter is melted and mixture is very warm, then whisk together to combine. Add lobster pieces; lobster should be almost covered. Heat gently to warm lobster.

* Stir chives into orzo. Pipe circle of coral oil in center of each serving dish. Place about 1/3 cup orzo in center of oil, allowing it to spread oil out into larger circle. Arrange piece of lobster tail and claw in center of orzo and top each serving with Parmesan crisp.

6 servings. Each serving: 902 calories; 696 mg sodium; 292 mg cholesterol; 84 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps With Goat Cheese Mousse

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes

If any fancy restaurant dish can be said to be made in a snap, this one is it. It’s a great appetizer with Champagne and so good you’ll make it again and again. The crisps have many uses besides this one. Both of these recipes are from Keller’s upcoming “The French Laundry Cookbook” to be published this fall by Artisan.

PARMESAN CRISPS

1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (from moist piece of cheese)

* Line baking sheet with nonstick baking sheet. Place 2 1/2-inch ring mold in 1 corner and fill with 1 tablespoon grated cheese. Using your finger, spread cheese into even layer. Repeat to make 8 rounds, leaving at least 1 inch between them.

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* Bake at 325 degrees until crisps are rich golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and cool about 30 seconds to firm crisps enough that they can be removed with spatula. Carefully remove crisps and gently press into hollow in egg carton to form slightly fluted cup. After a few minutes, remove cooled crisps and set aside. Repeat until all cheese is used.

GOAT CHEESE MOUSSE

6 ounces fresh goat cheese

4 to 6 tablespoons whipping cream

1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

* Place goat cheese in food processor and process (depending on cheese used, it may look smooth or crumbly). Pour 1/4 cup cream through feed tube and continue to process until mixture is smooth but will hold shape when piped; if necessary, add little more cream. Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste and mix just to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings. (Mousse can be refrigerated 2 to 3 days; let stand at room temperature about 30 minutes to soften slightly before piping.)

* Just before serving, place mousse in pastry bag fitted with medium star tip. Pipe 2 to 3 teaspoons mousse into each Parmesan crisp and serve.

16 crisps. Each crisp: 59 calories; 171 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 0 carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0 fiber.

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