Two decades ago, chef Thomas Keller took over a building known as the French Laundry in Yountville, a town in California's famed Napa Valley.
Over the next 20 years, Keller turned the historic building, which once housed a French steam laundry, into one of the world's finest restaurants. His blend of American cuisine and French cooking techniques earned his eatery recognition from the respected Michelin Guide, the foremost source of gourmet restaurant reviews. (The French Laundry has three stars, the highest possible score.)
With these accolades and dinner prices that approach $300 per person, the current kitchen setup at the French Laundry might seem unusual: The chefs at French Laundry do their work in a temporary kitchen made out of four cargo containers.
The story behind this unusual setup started with Keller's decision to give the French Laundry a new kitchen. The building that now houses the restaurant is more than a century old. It began its life as a saloon and was home to other businesses as well, including the cleaning service that inspired the current name. The main building is protected by historic preservation rules, but Keller decided to celebrate his venue's 20th birthday with a new state-of-the-art kitchen adjacent to the restaurant.
The original plan was to close the restaurant for about three months for renovations. However, the construction schedule was pushed back, forcing the restaurant to either find an alternative place to cook or remain closed until late 2015.
The new permanent kitchen's designers, from the architectural firm Snohetta, suggested a temporary shipping container space. This would allow the restaurant to keep serving its $295 dinners during construction.
The idea of a "cargo kitchen" might be a bit misleading. You may be thinking this is a dank, windowless space where cooks work under bare light bulb, but that's not the reality. The temporary kitchen is more akin to the creative container homes and retail spaces that are becoming so common around the world. The four containers used for the kitchen were cut and modified. The finished product has the same layout as the restaurant's old food prep space. Actually, the old kitchen and the temporary one are remarkably similar.
The cargo kitchen has dimension that are almost identical to the French Laundry's old space. The layout is the same, and even the pans and other cooking utensils are hung or stowed in the same locations. To the food prep pros who work there, the temporary kitchen is exactly the same as the old brick-and-mortar space — proving that there's some truth behind the concept that fine dining chefs are obsessive-compulsive in their need for everything in the kitchens to be "just so."
People who come to Yountville will notice one difference, however. Windows were cut in the side of the containers so that passers-by can see inside the kitchen while the chefs are at work.
The temporary setup, which produced its first dishes in mid-April, has had no effect on the French Laundry's popularity. To get a table, you still have to book two months in advance. There are only 62 seats, so spaces fill up fast. Some tables can be booked online through OpenTable, but getting reservations on the Internet or over the phone takes a fair bit of luck. Savvy dinners who plan to visit Napa Valley can sometimes book a table through their hotel's concierge service.
Demand will not slow down anytime soon. Meanwhile, work continues on Keller's new state-of-the-art kitchen, which is slated to be open later this year. Until then, the French Laundry's container kitchen will remain one of the most notable examples of cargo architecture in the U.S., and certainly one of the only container kitchens on Earth to have three Michelin stars.
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