Category Archives: Thomas Keller/French Laundry/Et Al

The Brilliance of Benu

Caviar atop "brioche.'' One of the many astounding morsels at Benu.

When a former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry leaves to open his own restaurant, it’s a big deal.

When his former mentor, Thomas Keller, thinks so highly of him as to invest in that new restaurant — the only one Keller has ever poured funds into that wasn’t one of his own — it’s a huge deal.

And when that not even year-old San Francisco restaurant is up for an award on Monday for “Best New Restaurant” in the country by the James Beard Foundation, it’s beyond the realm of  impressiveness.

Or maybe it’s just all according to plan in Chef-Owner Corey Lee’s world.

With Benu restaurant, Lee, who won his own James Beard award for “Rising Star Chef” during his nearly nine years at the French Laundry, set out to create an elegant, serene restaurant in a historic 1912 building that was once home to Hawthorne Lane restaurant, then Two restaurant.

From the start, he wanted to create something extraordinary. Award-winning New York architect Richard Bloch, who created the look of Masa in New York, was brought in to transform the space. And kitchen designer to the star chefs, Tim Harrison of Harrison, Koellner, LLC in Mill Valley, took charge of creating a brand new kitchen here from scratch, one that boasts a rare feature — a wall of windows to let natural light in. Lee was already familiar with Harrison’s work, as he also created the kitchens for both the French Laundry and Per Se.

Even the filted water carafe is tres stylish here.

Crunchy, thin, buckwheat lavash with nori and sesame seeds.

Korean porcelain makers created special pieces to showcase Lee’s progressive American cuisine tinged with Asian influences. Tabletops of steel, metal and synthetic rubber were custom-made and are intentionally left bare. And a plush, gray-blue carpet was hand-loomed in Thailand for the main dining room.

Recently, I treated my husband to dinner at Benu for his birthday. Choose either the tasting menu or a la carte options. Although I paid for the $160 per person tasting menu we each had, Lee, whom I interviewed extensively last year for a profile story in Food Arts magazine, was kind enough as to give us the wine pairings on the house, about $110 per person.

After visiting the site last spring, when it was a mere construction zone, it was amazing to see what it had become. On a rainy night, we drove past the large iron gates and into the Japanese-inspired garden courtyard with maple trees and flowering vines. As I got out of the car, a valet immediately approached with an open umbrella, which he handed to me. Then, he escorted my husband and me down the short path to the restaurant’s front door, where he let us in and retrieved the umbrella from me.  Talk about being taken care of right from the start.

The interior is all soothing grays and earth tones. A dramatic light well gives the main dining room a sense of airiness.

The tasting menu is composed of about 16 courses. That may seem like a lot, but they progress from precious, jewel-like, one-bite morsels to more substantial ones as the courses go on. Lee, who is Korean-American, may use a lot of molecular gastronomy and classic French techniques, but he also draws on his Asian roots, so that the dishes don’t rely on lots of butter or cream for flavor. Indeed, even after about 16 courses, you will leave very satiated, but quite comfortable.

Instead of the usual baguette or other artisan bread, dinner here starts with buckwheat lavash imbued with nori and sesame seeds. Paper-thin, they have the flavor of brown bread and the aroma of an umami bomb.

A "thousand-year'' quail egg.

If you’ve ever eaten a Chinese thousand-year-old egg, you know it’s one of the funkiest things you’ll ever taste. Lee’s refined take on it comes in the form of a thousand-year-old quail egg. Draped with a little ginger and scallion, and nestled on a spoon, it’s far daintier and with a much more mild taste.

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Etoile’s Perry Hoffman — A Chef To Watch in the Future

Chef Perry Hoffman in the kitchen at Etoile.

Perry Hoffman, executive chef of Etoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, has quite the pedigree.

His grandparents, Sally and Don Schmitt, were the original owners of the French Laundry in Yountville, who turned a dilapidated building into a destination restaurant in 1978, before selling it in 1993 to a then down-on-his-luck chef named Thomas Keller.

At age 4, Hoffman played in the kitchen of the French Laundry, while his grandma cooked in the kitchen, his grandfather seated guests in the dining room, and his mom (Sally and Don’s daughter) arranged flowers and worked as a waitress in the dining room.

His Mom later started her own florist business, which still supplies the blooms to the French Laundry, as well as a host of Wine Country restaurants. His grandparents went on to buy the Philo Apple Farm in Mendocino County, once again turning a rundown property into a showcase. Today, it is an organic, biodynamic farm that grows 80 varieties of heirloom apples in a setting so picturesque that Pottery Barn does catalog shoots there.

Hoffman, 27, followed in his grandmother’s footsteps, working in restaurants since he was 15. His food is already quite refined and mature for his young age. In fact, two years ago, he became the youngest chef in the country to garner a Michelin star — an achievement that prompted Keller to send him a hand-written note and a bottle of Dom Perignon.

For the past three years, he’s overseen the kitchen at the elegant Etoile, the Napa Valley’s only fine-dining restaurant housed inside a winery.

Etoile, the only fine-dining restaurant inside a winery in the Napa Valley.

The serene dining room.

Starting the evening off with a rose from Domaine Chandon.

During fall and winter, too, there are apples aplenty on his menu, which, of course, come from the Philo Apple Farm. My husband and I couldn’t resist honing in on those particular dishes when we treated ourselves to dinner at Etoile in December. Choose either a seven-course chef’s tasting menu for $110 or a four-course tasting menu with options for $85. The latter is what we went with, though we added one additional dish.

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Take Five with Chef Grant Achatz, on His New Memoir Chronicling His Brave Battle Against Tongue Cancer

Grant Achatz's new book. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Next is the prophetic name of the new restaurant expected to open this spring in Chicago by acclaimed chef, Grant Achatz, of the James Beard Award-winning, Michelin three-starred Alinea.

Like his first Chicago ground-breaking sanctum to molecular gastronomy, Next also will challenge and provoke the defiinition of what a restaurant is by completely reinventing itself every three months with period-themed menus and decor, along with an audacious non-refundable ticketing system as the only option to snag a table there.

It’s bold. It’s daring. And it’s a miracle that it’s even possible.

After all, if you know Achatz’s story, you already realize that the odds were stacked against him far higher than the city’s iconic Sears Tower when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer four years ago at age 32. By the time it was caught, his squamous cell carcinoma was at stage 4. There is no stage 5.

Doctors told this chef and father of two young sons that he would die a painful death in mere months if he didn’t undergo radical surgery to remove his tongue and part of his jaw, which would leave him disfigured, unable to talk and without the ability to taste. Despite conventional thinking, Achatz decided to gamble on an alternative, experimental and brutal treatment of intensive, targeted chemotherapy and radiation that ended up saving his life.

His stunning story is recounted in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat’’ (Penguin), which debuts March 3.

You can meet Achatz on March 17 in San Francisco, when he and his business partner and co-writer, Nick Kokonas will be signing copies of the book at 12:30 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building. Later that day, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., they will also sign books at Omnivore in San Francisco. The talk they will hold afterward at Omnivore sold out days after it was announced.

Last week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Achatz on what it was like to reveal so much about himself in this book; his relationship with rival Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter; and his feelings on who might portray him in the feature film-version of his memoir, which may be directed, surprisingly, by David Dobkin of “Wedding Crashers” fame.

Q: Has your sense of taste returned fully now?

A: I believe so. Taste is a funny thing, though. If you go to an ophthalmologist, they can tell if your eyes aren’t working correctly. They can give you a prescription for glasses or contacts. Same with hearing. But taste is something you can’t measure.

To me, at least in my memory, my tasting ability is the same as it was pre-cancer. I would even argue that certain aspects resulting from the treatment helped me to taste better now. It doesn’t have to do with the physiology of it. It’s the mental thing. It’s learning what taste is and how it’s composed.

My ability to taste came back in pieces. I was down to under 130 pounds and I never used to drink coffee with sugar in it. But I did then to get calories. I’d put three giant tablespoons of sugar in my coffee. One day, I took a sip and I could actually taste the sugar. Up to that point, I couldn’t taste sweet at all. Then, three months later, I’d drink my coffee and say, ‘Damn, this coffee tastes bitter.’ And so, I could taste bitterness again. Having tastes come back in stages like that really teaches you about how they all relate to one another as they come together on the palate and function in relation to one another. It was a very informative process. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. (laughs) But it works for me.

Alinea's hazelnut yogurt, curry saffron, freeze-dried corn in edible tube. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Q: How did your fight against cancer change you as a person and as a chef? Do you look at life differently now?

A: It does make you look at life differently. You have to make fundamental decisions. Different people handle things differently. Some people might say, ‘I need to reprioritize my life, spend more time with loved ones, and work less.’ When you face mortality, you undergo a self-evaluation of your life. I’m pretty happy with my life. I didn’t feel like I had to change anything. How lucky am I to get to go to work for 14-16 hours a day to do something I love? I probably do focus more now on my two young boys. And I make a more time now for relatives, and for my girlfriend. But on a whole, I really didn’t change anything.

I don’t think it made me more driven. My trajectory pre-cancer was such that I think I would be exactly what I am now even if the cancer had never happened.

Q: Did you ever think, ‘Why me?’

A: I had maybe a couple moments of that. But it was not a consistent feeling.

In the book, I reveal how I was sitting on the couch with my mother and she started to cry and I started to cry. She asked me what was wrong. And I thought, ‘What’s wrong??!’ I guess you could call it self-pity. I guess it was then that I thought it was unfair, that I was too young for all of this, that this was supposed to happen to old people. There was a sense of helplessness. That was my low point. I did nothing to deserve this. I wasn’t a chain-smoker; I wasn’t an alcoholic. So, I did ask myself, ‘Why me?’ It was probably only twice. That time with my mother and then when I was sitting with Heather (Sperling, his girlfriend who is the editor of the Tasting Table Chicago e-newsletter) after the diagnosis. I felt bad for her and for my boys.

Q: In the book, you state that your experience in working at the French Laundry in Yountville as a young cook essentially helped save your life. Can you expound on that?

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Food Gal Ticket Giveaway and Foodie Happenings

(Image courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country)

Win tickets to the Los Angeles Grand Tasting Tour

Taste wines from more than 40 Paso Robles wineries and nosh on gourmet bites at the glam 2011 Los Angeles Grand Tasting Tour, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. March 2 at the Virbiana.

Tickets are $60 each. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Alzheimer’s Association of Southern California.

Because the Food Gal has so many loyal readers who live in or travel regularly to the Los Angeles area, I’m happy to announce that I’ll be giving away three pairs of tickets to the event.

Contest: Entries should be limited to those who will be in Los Angeles on the day of the event, March 2. Contest runs through midnight PST Feb. 26. Winners will be announced Feb. 28.

How to win?

Tell me one of your favorite eats in Los Angeles and why I should try it the next time I’m there.

Here’s my own answer to that question:

“Do you love Chinese dumplings? And specifically, do you love xiao long bao, otherwise known as “soup dumplings”? Then, make a beeline pronto for Din Tai Fung in Arcadia for the very best dumplings you will ever have. I have Pulitzer Prize-winning, Los Angeles food writer Jonathan Gold to thank for telling me about this place. Here, the wrappers are the thinnest ever and so fragile you have to be careful picking them up with your chopsticks, lest you puncture them accidentally. They are tender, juicy, brothy and plain amazing. How good are they? So good that my husband and I ate there twice in three days last year. Until recently, its two Arcadia branches were the only ones outside of Asia. But Pacific Northwest foodies are sure to be rejoicing now that one just opened in Seattle.”

Winner of the Last Contest: In the most recent Food Gal contest, I asked you to tell me your favorite thing to eat back in school. The top three answers will win an annual membership to Blackboard Eats.

Congrats to the winners:

1) Single Guy Ben, who wrote: “I felt like we had the best school lunches growing up in Honolulu. Every day was a different entree always served with a carton of milk, a side salad (which I always ate) and dessert. And I don’t want to date myself but we got all this for a quarter! (Yeah, back when we actually did walk a mile to get to school.)

One of my favorites is the good ole’ Sloppy Joe. It’s ironic that it’s my favorite because growing up (and still today as an adult) I’m a bit of a neat freak. I used to eat my lunch in sections, eating the salad, then the entree, then dessert. Never mixing bites here and there. So sloppy isn’t really in my vocabulary. But something about the Sloppy Joe, whether it’s the flavor or the fact that the sauce soaked into the bun and made everything soft and juicy, just brings a smile to my face. An oddly enough, the Sloppy Joe’s weren’t necessarily super slopppy. Sure, a few clumps of ground beef would fall out as I slowly ate the bun in a systemized concentric pattern, but it still held together.

It’s funny how a lot of school lunch favorites aren’t a part of our regular diet when we grow up. It may be my adversity to eating too much red meat, so I haven’t had a Sloppy Joe in many many years. Or maybe it’s because I don’t use those ready-mix packets any more so don’t have the perfect recipe for Sloppy Joe’s made from scratch. But when I look back, I think now that a perfect, juicy, Sloppy Joe may be just the item I’d like as my last meal on Earth.”

2) Sadie, who wrote, “We had different exchange students every year when I was growing up. Nothing was more wonderful than discovering that a stroopwafel from Barbara or a pulparindo (tamarind candy) from Claudia had snuck into my otherwise very Wisconsin-Midwestern lunchbox.”

3) Jennie Schact, who wrote: “We carried lunch to school. Mom would sandwich thick slabs of roasted turkey between slices of challah slathered with Russian dressing (which is to say, mayo and ketchup stirred together), wrap ‘em up, stack ‘em in the freezer, and throw one into the lunch bag in the morning. You were lucky if it was defrosted enough to eat around the edges at lunch time. Frozen turkey = not pleasant. She was also the innovator of leftover cold hamburger on a bagel. I preferred Ring Dings from the vending machine.”

Dungeness crab salad at One Market Restaurant. (Photo courtesy of the restaurant)

Fabulous Restaurant Events

There’s still time to indulge in the annual Lark Creek Restaurant Group’s “Crab Festival.”

Through the end of the month, you’ll find special dishes at each restaurant that spotlight fresh, sustainable Dungeness crab.

Look for such lip-smacking fare as crab salad with grapefruit at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco; Dungeness crab raviolis with chanterelles and brown butter at Yankee Pier at Santana Row in San Jose; and chili roasted Dungeness crab with garlic and smoked paprika at Fish Story in Napa.

There’s also still time to try the the special prix fixe Black History Month menu with wine pairings from African-American wineries at 1300 on Fillmore in San Francisco.

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A Comforting Cake Laden with the Bounty of the Philo Apple Farm

An apple-cranberry cake with a sense of time and place.

Amid all the lengthy, elaborate and supremely elegant recipes in “The French Laundry Cookbook” (Artisan) is a most homey one that concludes the book.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate, too, since “Sally Schmitt’s Cranberry and Apple Kuchen with Hot Cream Sauce” was a favorite dessert at the original incarnation of the French Laundry when it was owned by Sally Schmitt and her husband, Don, before the couple decided to sell it to Thomas Keller.

As “The French Laundry Cookbook” co-author Michael Ruhlman so eloquently writes of the couple in the intro to the recipe, “…they are the ultimate purveyors. They purveyed a restaurant.”

Indeed, had it not been for them, and what they nurtured in that spot, there might not have been the French Laundry as we know it today, nor the now vaunted reputation of the town of Yountville as a tiny culinary capital of the world.

So when I purchased some Philo Gold (Golden Delicious) apples from the Philo Apple Farm that the Schmitts bought after leaving Yountville, and which their daughter and son-in-law now run, I knew just what to do with them. To pay homage to all that the Schmitts have accomplished and created, I knew those apples that Sally had helped sow the seeds for had to be baked into the apple cake she used to serve at her restaurant.

A very thick batter of butter, sugar, egg, flour, a little milk and baking powder gets stirred up with nutmeg and a pinch  of salt. Spread it evenly into a greased cake pan. Then artfully press thin slices of apples down into the batter. Arrange fresh or frozen cranberries over the top. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and bake.

Gild the lily with hot cream sauce.

The simple, tender cake lets the fruit shine through. It’s fine as it is. But Sally also adds a hot cream sauce fortified with sugar and butter that you can pour over slices as liberally as you want. I must say, it does add a rather nice touch, making the cake even more special and memorable as it soaks up all that warm richness.

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