Chef Thomas Keller's The French Laundry is a restaurant world institution, and nowhere is its impact clearer than in the achievements of the cooks who've worked its kitchen. There's the modernist powerhouse (Grant Achatz's Alinea), the new global top dog (René Redzepi's Noma), a bustling tapas restaurant (Ryan Poli's Tavernita), and much more. All of these restaurants exhibit a chef's particular vision but also the undeniable — and occasionally indefinable — elements of Keller. So, here are nine restaurants from nine notable alumni of The French Laundry:
BenuLocation: San Francisco, CA
Chef: Corey Lee
Before opening Benu in August of 2010, Corey Lee had spent ten years climbing the ranks at the Laundry. That's a pretty long time in such a transient industry, but Lee explains: "That's a testament to the kind of restaurant Thomas runs — his ability to retain staff, constantly challenge them, and offer opportunities." He adds, "That was the first time I worked for someone that recognized chefs as individuals and cared to see what they were good at and taught them how to run a restaurant."
And now Lee does just that, offering what many consider to be one of the most exciting tasting menus in San Francisco if not the entire country; he applies the wit, precision, and technique he picked up in Yountville to the traditional Korean flavors he grew up with. After a recent meal at the restaurant, Momofuku's David Chang concluded, "Benu in sf best restaurant in America? If not now then damn soon."
TavernitaLocation: Chicago, Illinois
Chef: Ryan Poli
Ryan Poli spent two years at the French Laundry. While his cooking at Chicago's Tavernita hints more obviously at the chef's stints at places like Martín Berasategui and Sergi Arola in Spain, Poli insists that the experience with Keller was crucial: "In Napa I was exposed to products I had never heard of or cooked with, like ramps and crosnes. To 'salsify' was a foreign concept. Just living there and seeing the change in seasons made me more aware of local and seasonal foods."
It's hard to think that the "one of a kind" attention to detail Poli witnessed in Keller doesn't come in handy at Tavernita, a bustling, 300-seat space with a restaurant and pintxo bar.
DovetailLocation: New York, NY
Chef: John Fraser
The restaurant Dovetail, on New York's Upper West Side, is where chef John Fraser cooks food that beautifully blends his California background and the French sensibilities he developed while working as chef de partie for Keller, as well as at some of the great kitchens of France, like L'Arpège and Taillevent. Given the Keller influence, it's no surprise that someone like Frank Bruni would choose to describe the place as "a witty kitchen that rarely winks."
Keller's emphasis on fostering talent and teaching his cooks how to run a restaurant has come in handy for Fraser, who describes the way he's grown Dovetail as steady and measured. Recently, though, he felt the time was right for a big move: he's remodeled the space, made some staff adjustments, and restructured the menu. It could earn the place its second Michelin star.
AlineaLocation: Chicago, Illinois
Chef: Grant Achatz
When he was just getting started, the celebrated modernist chef Grant Achatz didn't spend much time staging abroad. Instead, his most notable formative experiences took place over the four years he spent at the French Laundry in the 1990s. It's a period he talks about lovingly and reverently in his memoir "Life, On The Line," with highlights that include Keller urging Achatz to go check out what a then-obscure chef named Ferran Adrià was doing in Catalonia.
Now you can go to Alinea and experience one of the more stunning progressive menus in the world, with an emphasis on flavor and knock-you-out luxury that has more than a bit of Keller running through it.
Lincoln RistoranteLocation: New York, NY
Chef: Jonathan Benno
After wrapping up at the CIA, Jonathan Benno had crucial experiences in Northern California, and — wait for it — Keller and the French Laundry were a significant part of that. Benno left to pursue various high profile gigs in the northeast, but returned to the Laundry as sous chef in 2003 to prepare for the opening of Keller's first New York restaurant, Per Se. He served as chef de cuisine there for six years and helped to quickly make the restaurant one of the best in the world.
Benno left Per Se at the start of 2010 to open Lincoln, an ambitious Italian restaurant in Lincoln Center Plaza. Says Benno: "To this day I still pick up the phone, I still ask him questions, I still run ideas past him. He's a friend and a mentor, and that relationship has gone on for more than twenty years."
CityZenLocation: Washington, D.C.
Chef: Eric Ziebold
Chef Eric Ziebold came to the French Laundry in 1995, when few people knew what was going on there. He would become the restaurant's first sous chef, and then, chef de cuisine. He spent just over eight years there, and has said of the experience: "We were doing food that wasn’t as predominant throughout the country, in its clarity and intensity of flavors. It used to be ‘What else can you put on the plate?’ At French Laundry, it was ‘What can we take off the plate?’”
In 2004, Ziebold opened CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C., which is one of two restaurants in the area with the AAA Five Diamond Award. And just one look at the menu, with its prime beef millefeuille and butter poached lobster, suggests that Keller's still a big part of the man's cooking.
NomaLocation: Copenhagen, Denmark Chef: René Redzepi
Rene Redzepi, who as you may known runs the #1 ranked restaurant in the world, recalls the time he was working at elBulli when fellow stageaire Grant Achatz showed him the French Laundry Cookbook: "It amazed me. Keller was embracing things that people made fun of — pop culture, the mac and cheese."
Instead of going to France, as he had originally planned, the young chef went to Yountville, where even he could learn some things about seasonality and, perhaps more importantly, to not look at your culture and its food as inferior. Another lesson: "Listen to your doubts, because if you have any, something must be wrong."
Trummer's on MainLocation: Clifton, VA
Chef: Clayton Miller
Chef Clayton Miller was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef last year for the work he's done since opening Trummer's on Main in 2009. He worked at the Laundry for a year and a half as chef de partie of garde manger and meat, an experience that gave him the boost he needed to run his first big show: Norman Van Aken's expansion to Orlando.
He describes the cooking at Trummer's, which is located his hometown of Clifton, VA, as "creative American." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
The Spence (Upcoming)Location: Atlanta, GA
Chef: Richard Blais
Richard Blais has appeared on Top Chef numerous times and become a symbol forall the crazy shit you can do with machines in a kitchen. There is, however, no question that the guy has chops. In 1996 and 1997, he worked as a cook for Keller, and it's no surprise that the humor and cleverness of the food had the greatest impact: ''That wit, that spirit, all comes from Thomas."
He'll be opening a 100-seat American brasserie, The Spence, in the next month or so.
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