It’s my birthday today. The most profound day of the last year was three weeks ago. Here are my reflections.
I walked up to the French Laundry to see the venue —this restaurant is often cited as the best restaurant in America. Lunch service was coming to an end and I saw the chefs walking out of the kitchen. I said, ‘Can I walk with you?’ Of course, I could. I thought they were going to the Laundry farm to harvest the produce for the next shift but they were headed to the bench where they hold their staff meetings…
They didn’t know who I was, where I was from. They never questioned my purpose or intentions. Somehow they had the right intuition to let me immerse myself in their creative process and have an out-of-the-body experience that will stay with me my entire life. I was in such a daze that I did not move for two hours – I just listened, focused on the joy that manifested itself in a thousand goose bumps, and let myself be inspired.
I never thought I was capable of such intense feelings. I was so content with life that I could vanish in that moment without any resistance.
We visited the Benziger Estate in Petaluma, California with my parents and members of my extended family. I care a lot about wine but that Sunday was more about spending time with my parents than turning the day into a culinary adventure for me. So, we did as they pleased.
I had just come back from cooking in Mumbai for two months. San Fransisco was my last stop before coming back to the East Coast to attend the Culinary. Prior to meeting my parents, who were visiting from Istanbul, I’d been in Bangkok, Pondicherry, Chennai, Mumbai, Istanbul, Amsterdam and New York. And all of this was in the interest of exploring food!
We left the Benziger Estate that sunny Northern California morning and my uncle decided he wanted to go to Napa after all. That was a pleasant surprise because I didn’t expect that my old relatives would be so inclined to have a busy schedule on a lazy Sunday.
We crossed the mountain through windy roads with the smell of fluffy, friendly and ethereal mimosas. Mimosas are my favorite flower. They’re beautiful, delicate and highly ephemeral. The season in Istanbul lasts a couple weeks in the beginning of March.
Prior to the embrace of the mimosa smell, I tasted a superb Pinot Noir with characteristic Burgundy flavors and a strong base of truffles. It was fascinating.
I was already on cloud nine by the time we arrived in Yountville. Searching for parking spots, we first drove by Ad Hoc, then Bouchon and last but not least The French Laundry. We parked and I went on a reconnesaince mission with my parents.
Those are the circumstances under which I met the French Laundry team and had one of the most profound experiences of my life.
Their meeting was well structured and followed the flow of the menu for the next day’s specials. The chef de partie was running the meeting, taking detailed notes on a piece of paper that linked all the newly designed menu items to an ordering sheet. There was some chatter at the table but I haven’t heard a single word from the eight young chefs that wasn’t about food. The chefs pitched their elaborate ideas for each section of the menu with variations on specific components of their dish. The concepts were respectfully broken down, analyzed, and reconstructed as a team with the big picture of the options for the evening in mind. The discussion was not just logical and mathematical but it was also poetic, which was reflected through everyone’s passion and the deep intellectual curiosity they displayed throughout the process.
When they stood up, they each walked over and shook my hand. Even though not much was spoken, they knew why I was there. I felt at home.
An hour later, I walked into Ad Hoc to have dinner at the bar. The menu was Irish themed as it was St. Patrick’s day. Everything was excellent but the stuffed quail was heavenly. There were no blemishes, no rips, no tears on the deboning work. The stuffing was well seasoned and balanced with bacon and corn bread. The cooking on the quail was at textbook perfection with beautiful brown skin and a pink inside. I paired my meal with a Russian River Golden Ale, a beer that has character but does not dominate your palate.
Just when I thought my life was complete, the crescendo culminated in a visit to the kitchen after I said thank you to the gentleman behind the bar and mentioned that I was about to start at the Culinary in New York. He was quick to invite me to the kitchen and give me a walk through.
In Ruhlman’s book Becoming a Chef as well as Achatz’s Life on the Line, I’d read great things about the Laundry kitchen. The Ad Hoc kitchen reflected this image as well: Efficient; clean; well-lit; full of great people, passionate about their work and a smile on their faces moving around their station with a conscious sense of urgency. Everything in the walk-ins –multiple walk-ins managed at different temperatures—was clearly labeled with neat and legible writing. The kitchen was impeccable in the middle of service when three quarters of the tables had guests.
I’ve been at the Culinary for two weeks now. That day in Yountville –what I felt, observed and tasted—has become a calibration point. Every time I mince shallots, strain the stock we make in class, listen to a lecture on catering, I think about the camaraderie, the openness and the uninhibited creativity of the Laundry team or the order that inspired a sense of excellence in the Ad Hoc kitchen. The zeal they shared for their profession, their professionalism and their uncompromising adherence to perfection will propel me through life at the Culinary.
I’ve been through very cynical times in my life. I was stuck up, opinionated and cared about the wrong things. The two years that led to my arrival at the Culinary culminated in this moment in Yountville. On a bench, right next to the French Laundry farm, I found myself reformed, enlightened and present in the moment more than ever.
I was ready.