Category Archives: The French Laundry

It’s my party and I can blog if I want to (Part 3)

This is part three of my Turning Old Birthday Party.  If you haven’t read part one or part two you might want to start there or even with the Turning Old intro.

One of the dessert courses (yes, as in one of many) at that French Laundry meal that you are are likely tiring of at this point was something called White Truffle Float.  I was a bit confused by the notion of truffles in dessert.  The confusion quickly turned to awe when I tried it.  Somehow, someway, when placed in a dessert the white truffle metamorphosizes into something else.  Something closer to deep nutty flavors with a complexity the average tree fruit only dreams of.  It was quite simply the best dessert I have ever had.  I remember wondering if I would ever have it again.

Enter the truffle.  When I saw the size of the truffle I had managed to get I knew that I had to try to recreate the dessert.  I knew that if I could do it justice my guests would be in for a treat.  A recent addition to the cookbook collection (yes, I admit to having a problem) is Eleven Madison Avenue.  It is an impressive and interesting book but to be honest I got it for one reason.  It contains a recipe for white truffle ice cream!  Another recent cookbook Heston Blumenthal at Home (it was a gift I swear!) instructs the crazy home cook to use dry ice when making ice creams that contain eggs.  Of course I to try, right?  A word of warning, the reaction can be dramatic though the results are stunningly smooth ice cream in approximately 60 seconds.  I first tried this late in the evening after everybody had gone to bed.  I could barely stop laughing which meant I had to make a second ice cream, caramel in this case, just so I could do it with spectators.

When the time came I spooned some caramel from the Milk cookbook into some glasses, added a scoop of caramel ice cream and then two scoops of white truffle ice cream, some Virgil’s Creme Soda, and then topped it off with shaved truffle.  Not as good as The French Laundry but awfully darn good!  Part way through the course came my favorite quote of the evening: “Josh, you made me feel like a kid again!”  For an avid cook, with more than a bit of the hospitality gene, this is as good as it gets.  A course with the ability to transport.  Awesome!

After the last of the desserts disappeared the after dinner drinks found there way to the table including a birthday gift 40 year old Graham’s Tawny Port.  With the cooking chores behind me I relaxed into this amazing beverage savoring what was the finest meal I had ever made for the best dinner party we had ever thrown.  I couldn’t quite believe I had pulled it off, seven courses, excellent wine pairings, 11 happy diners.  What a way to celebrate!

Now what should I do for the next big one…



Filed under Cookbooks, Cooking, Food, Napa, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller

It’s my party and I can blog if I want to (Part 2)

This is part two of my Turning Old Birthday Party.  If you haven’t read part one you might want to start there or even with the Turning Old intro.

Several years ago I was in a small restaurant in Bologna where I had Ragu Bolognese.  The restaurant looked old enough that Galileo may have frequented it.  The ragu was a revelation.  I was pretty sure they were practicing witchcraft in the kitchen.  How else could something so simple and humble be so good?  As a result ragu is something I am always returning to at home and at restaurants though the latter usually meets with disappointment compared to the memory.  Because of my fondness for this dish I decided it had to be part of the party.  I wanted something a bit more elegant so I thought I would wrap it inside a ravioli.  Of course I couldn’t do a regular ragu so I made duck confit and then used the confit in place of pork/beef and substituted fennel for celery because it just sounded like a superior match to duck and looked so good at the farmers’ market.

The pasta dough was parsley, black pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano from The Glorious Pasta of Italy cookbook by Domenica Marchetti.  I admit it took a lot longer to fill these than I had anticipated!  I made a duck consommé to serve them in, an homage to another Emilia-Romagna classic: tortellini en brodo.  I topped the ravioli with a little Parmigiano and a splash of special 50 year old balsamic purchased on that same trip to Italy.  I clearly need to figure out how to make this kind of dish look a little better but the flavor was everything I was hoping for and I don’t think I saw a bowl with a drop of leftover consomme.  I paired this with the 2009 La Pommeraie Benovia Chardonnay because when I made a test ravioli the week before I was struck by the sweetness of the duck and I wanted to complement it.

A year ago we were lucky enough to dine at The French Laundry near my birthday.  This is Thomas Keller’s three Michelin star restaurant in Napa wine country.  It was white truffle season and we had two courses that included this very special ingredient.  It was the first time I ever had white truffles and I was blown away.  It is simply like nothing else in this world and I can still close my eyes and return to that revelatory moment.  Because I enjoyed the truffle courses so much I very much wanted to share this experience with my guests to whatever ability I had.  Through a very special contact I was able to procure the truffle pictured above.  I let the table take a whiff  of this special ingredient that had traveled so far before serving, a step I recommend.

Yet another photo of yours truly (surely a record), truffle in hand, adding as much truffle slices as I could before people stopped me.

I’m somewhat proud to say that this recipe was the only one actually taken straight from a cookbook.  In this case The French Laundry Cookbook.  The nice thing is the directions call for par-cooking the risotto and then finishing it quickly right before serving which is great because risotto typically takes so long to prepare.  I paired this with a 2006 Hirsch Vineyard William Selyem Pinot Noir.  A sublime match to a sublime dish.  Truly everyone should experience white truffle risotto once in their lives.  Please add this to your list or, as a good friend at work said, get me to invite you over for me to make it for you ;).

For the final savory course I opted for braised short ribs.  Braised short ribs are something I look forward to making when the weather turns “cold” in California.  I wanted to serve braised ribs but I wanted to do them in a special way.  Enter a sous vide.  I’ve been torturing myself over getting or not getting a sous vide for at least a year.  Turning old was as good an excuse as I was going to get to take the plunge so I did.  David Chang calls for braising short ribs for 48 hours sous vide in his Momofuku cookbook.  The trick is that you can braise them at a medium-rare temperature (60-61 C).  The long cooking tenderizes the meat but rather than melting into tiny pieces as braises usually does it has the “firmness” of a ribeye steak.  At least that was the theory though I felt like I was rolling the dice trying this for the first time for the big dinner.

I usually use a recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques so I took the flavors from that recipe and paired it with the new technique.  I decided to sous vide the heck out of the plate so I paired the beef with potatoes sous vide in duck fat and young red onions sous vide with herbs and olive oil.  All three were browned right before serving and then plated with some horseradish creme fraiche, pickled mustard seeds (these were a surprise hit!) and some peppercress which was assuredly not just for show.  It is delicious with a horseradishy bite.  This was paired with a 2005 Alexander Valley Silver Oak Cabernet.  All in all it was a very successful plate.  The short ribs are very different than what you are used to but this was the favorite dish of at least one of our guests which, if you don’t mind, is saying something :).

One more entry coming…


Filed under Cooking, Family, Food, Sous vide, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller, Wine

It’s my party and I can blog if I want to (Part 1)

Whenever we have people over for dinner I usually get too busy to take photos for the blog.  Even though this was my most ambitious dinner ever I was determined to make sure I got decent photos of the dishes so I set up some equipment in the kitchen.  This way I just had to grab the camera and take a quick shot or two right before serving.  We also had some other people running around taking photos which meant we have some great memories of the evening!

We started with a selection of cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco including a cool Italian water-buffalo cheese called Castica, oysters on the half shell, and vintage Champagne (2002 Bollinger Grande Année and 2000 Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Nicolas-Francois).

Here is something you don’t see much on the blog: a photo of me in action.  The first real course was a salad.  It is a gussied up version of a simple salad I have served a few times.  I learned of combining black olives and oranges a while back from Mark Bittman.  It seemed like a strange idea when I first heard it but the combo is wonderful, especially if you sprinkle a little freshly ground fennel seed on top to seal the deal.

In this case I also steeped some bay, thyme, peppercorns, and fennel seed in olive oil and mixed it with the olives the day before to season them.  Finally I paired it with a small frisee salad dressed with a sherry vinegar vinaigrette and topped with some thinly sliced radishes.  This was paired with a Lazy Creek Riesling from Anderson Valley.

Ten years ago I had another big birthday and I served lobster.  I thought it would be fun to return to it.  Thomas Keller has a pretty killer way to do this in The French Laundry cookbook.  You pour boiling water over the lobsters and “steep” them for only a few minutes.  Just enough to free the meat from the shell but not enough to cook meat.  This lets you make stock with the shells which is a really cool perk.

Saint Thomas then calls for finishing the lobster in a nice beurre blanc soak.  This is perfect for a dinner party because you finish the lobster in a matter of minutes and it is perfectly cooked.  Also, you can freeze the leftover butter and use it for things like crab cakes!


Two photos of me in the same entry is a new record.  The chefs coat from a couple who came to the party.  I have to say wearing it made me feel pretentious but my wife insisted so what could I do.  I also have no idea why somebody thought I needed pens in the pocket but I was a bit busy!

Here is the final dish: lobster poached in butter with melted leeks, golden beet puree, and chive oil.  Clearly I still need to work on plating but trust me when I say it was pretty darn good.  If you have never tried beets with lobster they are quite nice together, give it a whirl!  The wine pairing for this was a 2000 Paul Pernot Båtard-Montrachet which was my knockout wine of the evening and why I simply had to do the lobster course.  Wow, what a wine!

To be continued…


Filed under Cookbooks, Cooking, Food, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller, Wine

A Grand Adventure

So right off the bat I will admit that I am a bit unusual when it comes to food.  Not long after I moved to California 16 years ago, I started a dinner club with some coworkers and embarked on a culinary journey that continues to this day.  Back in those days the members of the club pushed each other to improve through increasingly elaborate meals that reached fruition with a garden party for 50 friends that was talked about, literally, for years.  It was during this period that I started reading cookbooks cover to cover like normal people read novels.  Since I was living in the bay area The French Laundry was always a mythical restaurant, and when the cookbook came out I devoured it and dreamed of one day getting to dine there.  In September 2000 Emily and I first dined at The French Laundry with some or our cooking cohorts.  It was an beautiful September afternoon in Yountville and we got to eat out on the patio.  The meal was spectacular and we had the good fortune of being able to go into the kitchen and meet Thomas Keller in person.

(Photo Credit: Peter Graffagnino)

It was a very special day for us and the signed and framed menu of that meal is still proudly displayed on the wall of our kitchen.  Over the years my cooking has improved a great deal and I have added even more Thomas Keller cookbooks to my shelf and more of his recipes to my repertoire.  It would be fair to say I find Chef Keller inspiring.  Emily and I have dined at all of his (local) restaurants multiple times and this past December were able to return to the French Laundry with some good friends for an even more spectacular evening in white truffle season!  It was quite simply, a perfect evening in all respects.

White Truffle Float  (More Photos…)

One of our group has a rather special relationship with The French Laundry.  It was through her that I learned that they allow a few people to work in the kitchen in special culinary experiences.  Suffice it so say, I was extremely jealous.  So imagine my surprise when I got a text asking me if I wanted to take her place in the Bouchon kitchen this coming week.  A last minute illness of her babysitter was going to prevent her from going and she was wondering if I could take her place.  By some incredible stroke of luck (and because of my wonderful wife!) it turned out I could!  I figured this was finally the thing to get me to start writing online so that people could follow my adventure…



Filed under Bouchon, Cooking, Food, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller

Day One: Morning

Woke up bright and early on the first day.  I was nervous (had been for days) and really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  I got ready and took the short walk to meet “my handler” at the Bouchon Bakery at 8:00.  Just as I crossed the street my phone rang.  Perfect timing!  We grabbed something to eat and some coffee and then sat down at the famous zinc bar in the restaurant to talk about things.  I have to say he immediately put me at ease as we discussed the schedule though now I wasn’t going to meet the chef until the end of the day so that was still hanging over my head.

He took me on a quick tour of the Bouchon kitchen explaining things as we went.  I picked up my first cooking tip as I saw a cook using a nice squirt bottle to hit some mushrooms with some oil.  Much better than what I usually do with my olive oil bottle!  We stopped in cold storage which was a revelation.  Everything arranged perfectly!  I’d never seen chickens trussed like that before.  All kinds of prep plus house made charcuteries aging in the back.  Amazing!  Then we had a quick tour through the bakery.  The bakery had a much quieter vibe than in the Bouchon kitchen and that kitchen wasn’t even in full swing yet.  We then wound our way up the street and went through the kitchen of TFL.  We only buzzed through but it was clear that there was a very different system of garde management and then I saw a guy painstakingly trimming an oyster with a small pair of scissors.  Wow!  We spent a few minutes chatting with some of the chefs as they were tying up the foie torchons and I have to say everybody was extremely welcoming.  Cool start to my kitchen experience.

Then we went out the side door and across the street to the garden.  Now we do have a garden in our backyard and I do enjoy getting out there but I will admit I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of the garden experience.  Boy was I wrong!  We took a quick tour of the gardens and was happy I knew most of the plants (he seemed to be quizzing me 😉 ).  I had seen the garden from the road before but seeing them up close was more than a bit interesting.  Everything is perfect and incredibly regular.  We went into the greenhouse and it was more of the same.  Every flat that they had going was excessively consistent and thriving in a way I could only dream of.  He then had me plant some trays for micro greens.  I can’t believe how much I learned about how to prep the soil and plant the seeds.  Next was some more detailed planting of lettuce and again I was amazed at how precise it all was.  In the case of the lettuce pelleted seeds are used to ensure that only one seed is in each starter.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing!  Here’s some of my trays:

I got a ton of tips about soil management and where to get the best seeds.  He even promised to give me a cutting of an edible succulent I was drooling over.  We took a trip over to a local orchard that supplies some of the fruit they use, tasted some edible flowers including arugula(!) and then had a TFL staff lunch together outside with some of the gardeners.  I couldn’t believe how welcoming and open he was with all he knew.  He honestly wanted me to learn how to be a better gardener.  I had a fantastic time and I hadn’t really even started in the kitchen yet!



Filed under Bouchon, Cooking, Food, The French Laundry

Day Four

I arrived at the bakery at 8:00.  Chef K was there along with a guy they affectionally call “dough boy.”  He had been there since 4.  The baking part of the bakery produces all of the breads sold in the bakery as well as a bunch of the bread used by a number of the local restaurants.  They also produce the rolls for the French Laundry.  In other words, they are incredibly busy.  I thought I knew about working hard as a cook but the interesting thing about baking is that all the dough is on a clock and virtually the entire day has been mapped out to the point where you really don’t have much time to come up for air.

The first real task of the day was prepping some small loaves for proofing.  The steps sound pretty easy.  Fold the bottom third up then the top third down.  Then fold the new top down to the bottom and seal with the heel of your hand in such a way that you create tension in the top of the bread.  If you watch a baker’s hands perform this task they are a blur of motion and it looks easy but if you apply your own clumsy hands to the process you soon learn you have a long way to go.

I didn’t really have time to write notes down during the day and a lot of it has now blurred together.  I know I worked on Brioche loaves that required a rather intricate braid which is not so easy to get the hang of.  We also worked on pretzels and, of course, hundreds of baguettes.  The nice thing about the baguettes is that I half knew what I was doing by this point!  There were also sour baguettes which required a special tapered end that should have been easy but wasn’t.  I learned an awful lot about how to work with dough and how to take care in all aspects of what I was doing.  A spilled tray of bread or rolls can turn the entire day into a tailspin.  Care is definitely called for.

At one point in the afternoon Chef K took me into the oven room.  The bakery has a massive four deck oven that has to be ten feet deep and two loads wide.  I tried to do everything I could to help by grabbing the next board of baguettes and moving things out of the way as best as I could figure but it was obvious that Chef K knew how to do it all by herself.  Wow.  The goal is to fill the entire oven before the first load is finished baking.  The loaves are placed on to a conveyor belt like apparatus, scored, and shoved into the oven something like twenty loaves at a time.  After she had me watch she let me try to score a few loaves.  Given the way the loaves come out you would expect large gashes but instead six surgical slashes mostly “vertical” and in the center third of the loaf are all that are called for.  Trust me, this is much easier said than done.  Later it was on to the epi loaf which I got to try as well.  This involves expert use of a pair of scissors and a soft touch of the fingers.  I had neither.  By the fifth time it wasn’t a tragedy anymore but my internal desires to exceed expectations were definitely put to the test!

One of the things I worked on throughout the day was one of the French Laundry rolls almost from start to finish.  Rolls start as large pieces of dough which are rolled out and put on these special plates that then go into this jukebox sized machine.  A large lever gets pulled down and cuts the dough into evenly sized pieces.  If you release the lever part way up the machine “jiggles” and if you have done your job correctly the pieces get rolled into nice balls.  They actually let me work this contraption which I was definitely intimated by but I had resolved to seize the day and try it all and by golly I did it!

Tiny cubes of butter are then pressed into the bottoms of the rolls and then they need to be rolled just right so the dough covers up the butter.  Next comes the scoring.  You confidently slice four scores horizontally in just the right places on each ball.  Then you spin the tray 180 degrees and repeat with the four new scores overlapping just right.  Then comes the first egg wash.  Where the wash is applied to just the top of the roll and isn’t allowed to flow into the cracks.

Three egg washes are applied in various states of the bun.  When you are doing something like this the uninitiated tends to try and be careful.  They need to be perfect after all!  Chef M watched me briefly and encouraged me to find a second gear which, it turns out, I have!  After the final wash comes a pinch of salt in the center.  The results are amazing.

At the end of my day Chef M called over to me.  He had a large tower of rolls on a cart and was headed to the ovens.  “It’s time to bake the rolls for The French Laundry, one of the ten best restaurants in the world, no pressure!”  No pressure indeed as he handed me a razor blade to help score the rolls as they head into the oven!  Scoring the rolls not only makes them beautiful but can influence their final shape as they expand in the oven.  Chef M explained how he was working on different kinds of rolls for TFL and we talked about the upcoming Bouchon Bakery cookbook and my own home endeavors to make bread.  I have never gotten quite the “oven spring” I have hoped for and he recommended a Super Soaker for flooding the oven with steam in the overly dry home oven.  Of course the deck oven has a button for it!

Would you believe these are the rejects?  I can assure you, they still taste amazing!  That time, crafting the perfect rolls with a master baker, was definitely a highlight of my week.  I will not soon forget it.  After that I started to pack up.  I needed to get back to the hotel to wash up before my family arrived for dinner.  Chef M pointed to a large bag on the bench and said don’t forget your stuff.  “Oh, that’s not mine I said naively, the baguette is but I don’t know who the bag belongs to.”  “No, that’s yours too” was his reply…

The family ate like kings and queens for a week from this bag.  Wow, I’ve never sampled so many treats from the bakery.  Each one better than the last!


Filed under Bouchon, Cooking, Food, The French Laundry