On July 6, chef Thomas Keller's three Michelin-starred Yountville, CA restaurant The French Laundry celebrated its 20th anniversary. Keller and his team honored that milestone this past week with a party with the many, many alums of The French Laundry, a video retrospective, swag, and much more. "We're proud of where we came from and excited for our future," Keller tweeted yesterday.
Keller opened The French Laundry in 1994, four years after he stepped away from his New York City restaurant Rakel. Keller and a group of 50 investors bought the space that would eventually become home to The French Laundry for $1.2 million. Keller tells the San Francisco Chronicle about the chaotic first night of service and the decision he made following that night to switch to a daily changing menu: "'That was one of the most significant decisions I ever made without recognizing it as a true decision ... nobody was the chef; everybody was the chef ... That second night we had John Mariani come in, who writes for Esquire ... And that November, French Laundry was one of his 10 best restaurants in the country.'"
In the 20 years since, The French Laundry has been a training ground for chefs across the country. Notable alums include Alinea chef Grant Achatz, Benu chef Corey Lee, and Lincoln Ristorante chef Jonathan Benno, while plenty others — including René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen — have passed through the kitchens. Along with talent, The French Laundry has also ushered in a new era of American cooking that "gave French cuisine—always the basis of his cooking—a place of honor at a time when 'New American' was the mantra in restaurants," writes Eater restaurant editor Bill Addison. And while the menu has been constantly changing, Addison finds some of Keller's iconic dishes are still on the menu, a testament to how he "would eventually reset the nature of upscale American cooking."
While back in 1996 Keller wasn't focused on expansion ("If this is Thomas Keller's cuisine, how can you have it in two places?'' he asked the New York Times that year), today he is at the helm of a veritable empire with acclaimed restaurants like Per Se, Bouchon, and Ad Hoc, plus a magazine and a retail store. Keller has more on the way too, with an impending expansion of The French Laundry which Keller says will "give this restaurant what it needs for the next 20 years."
Below, highlights from The French Laundry's 20th anniversary celebrations: