While walking through the administrative back-end of TKRG (Thomas Keller Restaurant Group), a village of offices in a compound, including The French Laundry, inter-connected by trellised walkways, Monica Bhambhani, the Director of Competition and Events for the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, turned to chef Thomas Keller and said, wistfully: “Chef, I think I want to move to Yountville.”
He replied, half joking: “Most people do.”
We three chuckled, less at the wittiness, and more at the truth of his statement.
Yountville is wonderful.
It’s small and intimate, five square blocks of calm façades supported by a constant sense of urgency in the kitchens and spaces behind them.
The weather is particularly perfect, especially at this time of year: balmy stretches of sun and clouds bookended by crisp nights and foggy mornings.
The surroundings are beautiful. Napa is a valley of vineyards running between parallel ranges of mountains over which the sun jumps at the beginning and end of each day.
The food is fresh, abundant, and, in all other respects, excellent. And the wine, of course, is plentiful and good.
There is a modest, white-shingled house two doors down from The French Laundry with the American and Marine Corps flags waving from its front posts. Once home to chef Keller’s father, with whom I had the pleasure of chatting on the patio of The French Laundry before my first meal there in 2006, it has now been dedicated to the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation.
Outside, the house offers a small porch, a couple of bikes, and the shade of a giant elm tree. A tall hedge makes a quiet courtyard of its small front, shielding it from Washington Street, the lazy thoroughfare that runs through Yountville.
Across the street is The French Laundry garden, at once wild and orderly, a stretch of green striped with a rainbow of beds – electric-purple listada di gandia, milky-white fraises du bois, fire engine-red peppers, and plump orbs of orange and greenswaying gently on the giant tomato vines in the hoop house.
Inside the Bocuse d’Or USA House is a dream kitchen, outfitted by Viking and All-Clad, with a centrifuge, and a super-duper dehydrator the size and shape of a washer-dryer combo. I have no idea how it works. All I know is that one day, the dehydrator is stacked with sheet trays of vegetables, fresh from the garden. A couple of days later, those same vegetables have been reduced to colorful powders.
This is where the Bocuse d’Or USA team spends a week each competition cycle training and preparing a tasting for a panel of chefs, who gather to evaluate the competitor’s progress. (The Bocuse d’Or competition his held every other year at the end of January in Lyon, France.)
Two years ago, James Kent (now chef de cuisine at Eleven Madison Park) and his commis, Tom Allen (then a cook at Eleven Madison Park, now working at le Meurice in Paris), were the first American Bocuse d’Or competitors to have use of this house. This year, the house was opened to Richard Rosendale, the executive chef of The Greenbrier, and his commis Corey Siegel.
As the photographer for the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, I went to document it all with my camera.
As with my previous reports from the Bocuse d’Or USA training grounds, I can’t tell you much about what Rosendale is cooking up for the competition. So, instead, I’ll spend this post telling you a little about what else we did in Napa Valley that week.
Our mornings were fairly early. Our nights went fairly late.
The majority of my days were spent in the kitchen with Rosendale and Siegel, and photographing the team – which also included coaches Gavin Kaysen (a former Bocuse d’Or competitor and now the executive chef of Café Boulud) and Gabriel Kreuther (executive chef of The Modern), and former Bocuse d’Or competitor and the current chef de cuisine at The French Laundry, Timothy Hollingsworth – in and around Yountville.
There were multiple runs to the garden each day for fresh produce, and visits with The French Laundry chickens (which, live in a coop with a blue door, of course). Having grown up on a farm in the Alsace, Kreuther turned out to be quite the chicken whisperer. While the rest of the team chased the chickens around the yard hopelessly, he efficiently rounded them up and handed them out like gifts on Christmas morning, one for each chef, for a photo op. Kreuther told me that, once, as a child, he killed and cleaned 150 chickens in one day.
And throughout the week, the team fielded interviews, with Ben Tracy of CBS This Morning, Paolo Lucchesi of Inside Scoop at the San Francisco Chronicle, and others.
Lunches were usually quick and informal.
One day, we hovered around the large, counter island in the kitchen at the Bocuse d’Or USA House eating tacos (lengua, cabeza, longaniza, carnitas, and al pastor) and tortas from Tacos Garcia, a local food truck. It’s parked in the lot adjacent to Pancha’s – a local bar, where Kaysen held court in his shades one night, while Prince and a patron at the bar reconciled their differences in the purple rain.
Another day, we made quick work of a stack of pizzas, ordered from Richard Reddington’s Redd Wood, where we also had dinner one night. The ricotta pizza there, littered with sweet corn kernels, threaded with bacon, and flecked with chile flakes, is terrific. So is the bucatini, tart with tomato, rich with guanciale.
The only exception to our short mid-day breaks was a walk down the street to the Michelin-starred Redd one day, where we had lunch on its spacious patio with Brandon Rodgers, once Kaysen’s commis at the Bocuse d’Or in 2007, now sous chef at benu in San Francisco. The tamarind-glazed wings there were delicious, as was a bowl of tempura-fried figs that the chef sent out.
Dinners were a little more relaxing.
At Cook in St. Helena, we stacked our phones and dug into hearty bowls of pasta – basil tagliatelle spiked with Calabrian chiles and gnocchi bathing in a rich, gorgonzola cream sauce – and large plates of meat, including one with thick chicken “chops” on a beautiful bed of mixed grains and fresh figs.
On the terrace of the Michelin-starred Auberge du Soleil, we watched the valley blush at the setting sun before having a multi-course dinner cooked by chef Robert Curry, under whom Kaysen had worked at the Domaine Chandon years ago. King salmon tartare with osetra caviar, suckling pig with pickled mustard seeds, and a pretty collection of strawberries and coconut perfumed with lime were my favorite dishes that night.
For our final meal together in Yountville, Keller invited us to have dinner with him at Bouchon. To start, there came a tower of seafood. Then, arrived a round of pâtes and salads, followed by meats and fishes (I had the skate, bone-on, with lots of garlic). And, finally, desserts: the ever-showy Mont Blanc, like a pile of sugary spaghetti garnished with candied chestnuts; île flottante, adrift in a sea of crème anglais; profiteroles, fat and tall, smothered with chocolate sauce; and a truly magnificent tarte au citron. We ate them all.
In between lunches and dinners, there was an embarrassing number of visits to Bouchon Bakery; it was just so convenient, being only a block from the Bocuse d’Or USA House, and on the way to town. I stopped in for one of their gigantic ice cream sandwiches every day, in addition to a couple of fig tarts and coffee eclairs.
Beyond my time with the Bocuse d’Or USA team, I had a few meals on my own and with friends.
On my way from the airport to Yountville, I caught a quick brunch with Joshua Skenes and Shawn Gawle, the chef and pastry chef, respectively, of saison at Boulette’s Larder in San Fracisco, my third visit to that wonderful eatery in the Ferry Terminal Marketplace this year. As I’ve written before, chef Amaryll Schwertner’s cooking is incredibly thoughtful, her ingredients are superb. We had silky scrambled eggs with fried chicken and gravy. There was a simple plate of dairy products – ricotta, burrata, and yogurt – served with jams and toasted brioche. I’ve never seen a prettier plate of fruit than the one she prepared that day – a salad of grapes, melons, figs, and berries, all atop thick swatches of vanilla-huckleberry honey. And her Mediterranean-themed chicken salad – with chickpeas, tzatziki, and baba ganoush – is a highly craveable combo. This was my second time having it, and I’d gladly order it again.
After the Bocuse d’Or USA team left, I stayed an extra day in Napa.
I ate at addendum, the satellite luncheonette to ad hoc, with my friends Keefer, Heidi Eats A Lot, and Andrew Longres. Formerly a sous chef at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, where I first met him, Andrew is now a chef de partie at The French Laundry.
Addendum is a walk-up orbited by picnic tables in a tidy little park with a vegetable garden. There are only two choices: fried chicken or barbecue. And both come with the same sides; that day, they included succotash, cornbread, and potato salad. The food is prepared in the ad hoc kitchen, packaged, and delivered to your table, ready to be taken away, or to be eaten there. I especially liked the fried chicken and succotash, a wonderfully sweet and crunchy combo. The potato salad was good too, waxy, not grainy, and lightly dressed.
Christopher Kostow, the chef of the three Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, told me that a lot has changed since my first meal there in September of last year. I should return for an update, he said. So, I did. I’ll write about that meal, my week-long stay at The Meadowood on this trip, and an update on the the Twelve Days of Christmas, which I will be attending in December, in a following post.
Just when I thought my time in Yountville was over, TKRG asked me to stay an extra day to photograph for the company.
That last day was a full one, the shot list was long. Up early, down late, I photographed every one of the TKRG establishments in Yountville, in addition to dozens of other locations.
I spent lunch service photographing in the kitchen at The French Laundry. Making oneself invisible and unobtrusive in a busy kitchen can be a challenge. Thankfully, I am small, and the staff there – both front and back of the house – is exceedingly friendly and patient. And, despite the sense of urgency there, everyone was calm and professional. I was reassured repeatedly that I was welcomed to move about as I pleased.
For the front half of dinner service, I photographed at Bouchon, where, from the boisterous bistro dining room, I passed into a surprisingly quiet and calm kitchen run by Harry Butcher, the chef on duty that night. Mounted on the wall, directly opposite the pass, is a split screen monitor, with a live cam shot of Bouchon Las Vegas’s kitchen on one side, and Bouchon Beverly Hills’s kitchen on the other.
I ended the day back at ad hoc, where I had photographed the Bocuse d’Or USA tasting a couple of days before. After I wrapped up my shot list there, I had dinner on the restaurant’s patio, a hearty and delicious meal that started with a beautiful endive and arugula salad, anchored in the middle by a generously sized veal chop (that came with sunchokes, maitake, and a creamy butternut squash gratin), and finished with a lemony posset (a cooked cream curdled with lemon juice) topped with strawberries.
Having only rushed in and out of the Napa Valley for one-night dinners before, it was lovely to finally spend a length of time there, to familiarize myself with the area and eat around the valley. I look forward to returning for more of it in December.
The following is a list of the restaurants where I ate on this trip. If and when I write about them, I’ll hyperlink them to their respective blog posts. Until then, they’re linked to the photos on my Flickr account.
ad hoc (Yountville)
Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford)
Bouchon (Yountville) (once, twice)
Bouchon Bakery (Yountville) (once, twice, thrice, and more)
Boulette’s Larder (San Francisco)
Cook (St. Helena)
Redd Wood (Yountville) (once, twice)
Tacos Garcia (Yountville)
The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena)
Photos: The kitchen at The French Laundry, Yountville, California; foggy mornings in the vineyards, Oakville, California; listada di gandia eggplants at The French Laundry Garden, Yountville, California; Richard Rosendale at the Bocuse d’Or USA House in Yountville, California; Corey Siegel, Gabriel Kreuther, Gavin Kaysen, Monica Bhambhani, and Richard Rosendale with The French Laundry chickens, The French Laundry Garden, Yountville, California; tacos, tortas, and quesadillas from Tacos Garcia in Yountville, California; a stunning sunset from the terrace at Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford, California; autumn fruit compote at Boulette’s Larder, San Francisco, California; Andrew Longres at The French Laundry, Yountville, California; Timothy Hollingsworth at the pass at The French Laundry, Yountville, California; the bar at ad hoc, Yountville, California; sole on the pass at The French Laundry, Yountville, California; Gavin Kaysen, with Milton Abel, Timothy Hollingsworth, and Monica Bhambhani at Pancha’s in Yountville, California.
2 replies on “travel: sense of urgency…”
just curious–on average, how many miles do you run a week? (assuming you run to burn off the excess calories from these meals) or is your metabolism simply that fast?
Curious – do you ever wonder if raw salmon has been previously frozen? I have been reading up on this quite a bit.