Listen to the Show on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me (July 18, 2014)
Twenty years ago, chef Thomas Keller bought a little restaurant in Napa Valley called The French Laundry and transformed it into one of the finest restaurants in the country. He’s inspired countless other chefs, consulted on the film Ratatouille, opened other award-winning restaurants, and convinced people to pay $100 for a corn pudding appetizer.
We’ve invited Keller to play a game called “Light starch, on hangers please, and I’ll need it Wednesday.” Keller has done pretty well running a business called The French Laundry, but how many clothes has he cleaned? We’ll ask him three questions about actual laundry.
Copyright 2014 NPR.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we like to ask people who do amazing things to try their hand at something rather mundane. Twenty years ago exactly, Chef Thomas Keller bought a little restaurant in Napa, California called the French Laundry and transformed it into the finest restaurant in the country. He’s inspired countless other chefs. He consulted on the film “Ratatouille.” He opened other award-winning restaurants and convinced people to pay $100 for a corn pudding appetizer. Thomas Keller, welcome to WAIT WAIT …DON’T TELL ME.
THOMAS KELLER: It’s good to be here. Thank you.
KELLER: But, wait.
SAGAL: But wait, what?
KELLER: Wait. We have something for you. There you go.
BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: Wow.
ROY BLOUNT JR: Oh, man. Look at that
BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT: For the folks at home, the entire audience is getting food.
SAGAL: While the other guys…
BLOUNT JR: You started out with one loaf and one fish and look at this.
BLOUNT JR: It’s amazing.
SAGAL: While we’re getting everything handed out to the panelists, what do we have here?
KELLER: You are holding the coronet of Atlantic salmon…
KELLER: With creme fraiche and sweet onions, sweet red onions inside. And so basically what it is for all intensive purpose – it’s a cracker with sour cream and salmon.
SAGAL: And I should say that what this looks like is a tiny little ice cream cone.
GOLDTHWAIT: Can I get jimmies on this?
BLOUNT JR: It’s awfully good.
SAGAL: Oh, my god.
KELLER: Does it taste like what I just described? A cracker with sour cream and salmon, right?
BLOUNT JR: The salmon is delightful.
GOLDTHWAIT: I have to say though, like, they’re really tiny.
SAGAL: OK, but this is actually a great way – thank you, by the way.
KELLER: Oh, you’re welcome. A little refresher. You guys needed something.
SAGAL: We did.
KELLER: You were starting to die down a little bit.
SAGAL: We were flagging. I’m sure with a morsel of food that big we can go another four or five minutes.
SAGAL: I have a couple of questions for you. First of all, is that something you serve at your restaurant?
KELLER: We service it to every guest that comes to our restaurant, yes. We have served it to every guest that comes to the restaurant for the past 20 years.
KELLER: Yes, and if you add Per Se to that, that’s 11 years. So that’s 31 years of serving the coronet.
SAGAL: Per Se is your award-winning restaurant in New York.
KELLER: In New York, correct.
SAGAL: Right, OK. Now, I want to – because this is actually wonderful, even though the audience couldn’t see or…
KELLER: I’m sorry.
SAGAL: …I pity them – taste it. This is – is this, would you say, typical of your approach to food – it is basically a little ice cream cone made of salmon, cream, cracker, you even made little chive jimmies. And this is all to make a tiny little bite of food and we’re not even to the stuff you charge people for.
KELLER: But it’s one of the most important parts of the meal.
KELLER: And why?
KELLER: I knew you were going to ask why – because it’s a way of opening up. Somebody comes to the restaurant, they’re at the French Laundry or they’re at Per Se, and, you know, sometimes those kind of restaurants can be a little intimidating, right. And so we want to kind of break the ice. And what better way to break the ice then to give them something that looks like an ice cream cone. If you don’t smile at that, then you have no sense of humor whatsoever.
KELLER: Right. And so not only does it make them smile, right, breaks down that intimidation, but then they eat it and because it has reference points because it taste like something they’ve had before – a cracker with sour cream and salmon – they like it.
SAGAL: I want to back up a little bit. So you bought this restaurant, it was a preexistent restaurant, the French Laundry.
SAGAL: In Napa, California, about 20 years ago.
KELLER: That’s right.
SAGAL: And at that time, I’m sure, it was more of a traditional restaurant – you ordered some food, the food came, you ate it, you left. But you brought this approach to food where it’s more of a theatrical production. You go in and, if I understand correctly, you pay a lot of money, but it’s fixed – what it is – and you just bring out a secession of dishes.
SAGAL: And each of them are like that, they’re brilliant little composed, extraordinary little sculptural things.
KELLER: Well, you know, we try to base our food on the law of diminishing return, right.
KELLER: The more you have of something, the less you like it. So we want to give you just enough that when you’ve had that last bite, you go, god, I wish I had a little more. And then you say, no, you can’t have anymore.
KELLER: And then we bring out the next dish because at that moment when you’ve had that last bite and you say you want a little more, that’s the moment when it’s been a perfect experience for that food. And the next dish comes out and we hope to achieve the same thing, so by the time you’ve gone through this 10, 11, 12 or 13 courses, of course your appetite has been satisfied. You’ve had a great express over a three-hour period, a three-and-a-half-hour period depending on how many people you’re with. So the one thing I always recommend is come to the French Laundry or Per Se with somebody you like.
KELLER: Because if you come with somebody you don’t like, you’re going to be in big trouble.
SAGAL: Because you’re spending a lot of time with them. Aren’t you then – you’re inviting people to spend hundreds of dollars to come in and spend hours just getting tiny bites of things that leave them just wanting a little bit more, and you work so hard at this, aren’t you approaching your ideal of getting people to come spend all day, give you thousands of dollars and get nothing?
SAGAL: And leave happy.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: You said that people are sometimes intimidated when they come – what was the most intimidated that you’ve ever been in serving someone?
KELLER: You know, I think we got a little nervous when Julia Child walked in. And she walked in the back door and into the kitchen and walked over to the chef de partie on the meat and wanted to know what he was doing. And she just kind of cruised around the kitchen. But after you get to know them and – you know, they just want to have good food.
GOLDTHWAIT: Did you eventually get locks for that backdoor?
BLOUNT JR: Why do you call it the French Laundry?
KELLER: I didn’t call it the French Laundry. I bought the restaurant. It was open in 1977 and it was called – the building was called the French Laundry because actually there was a French laundry at one time in its history. And so it just stayed.
GOLDTHWAIT: So wait, the French were washing their clothes?
SAGAL: I was heard in an interview with Steven Spielberg where he said whenever he sees somebody else’s movie, he has to sit there with a stone face because if he grimaces or looks bored everybody will be talking about, oh, my God, Steven Spielberg doesn’t like it.
SAGAL: Have you ever been in a restaurant or at a friend’s house for a meal and it’s been awful and you say to yourself I cannot say a word, I cannot indicate anything, I have to clean my plate ’cause otherwise people will talk about how Thomas Keller didn’t like it?
KELLER: But not in somebody’s home because most people always cook something that they’re comfortable with.
KELLER: And if they’re comfortable it, they usually do a good job. When you go out to dinner sometimes to some young chefs, you know, and they want to impress you, right. You’re, you know, Thomas Keller or – and they’re coming to your restaurant they want to make sure that they, you know, pull out all the stops. And sometimes it can be a little bit problematic, you know. Sometimes the portions are a little bit too big and, you know, you had 20 of them and it’s like, you know, OK.
SAGAL: Have you ever, like, put food in your napkin and hid it?
SAGAL: Have you ever, like, put your head back and tried to swallow like a bird getting down a big bug.
KELLER: No, no. It’s never been – it’s never been quite that bad.
SAGAL: OK. Glad to hear.
SAGAL: And we’re free Thursday if you want to come over.
SAGAL: Thomas Keller, we are delighted you’re here, not just because you brought us food, but, Thomas Keller, we’ve invited you here to play a game we’re calling…
KURTIS: “Light starch, on hangers please, and I’ll need it Wednesday.”
SAGAL: You’ve done pretty well running this business called the French Laundry, but how many clothes have you cleaned? That’s what we figured. Very few. So we’re going to ask you three questions about actual laundries. Get two correct, you’ll win our prize for one of our listeners – Carl’s voice on their home voicemail. Bill, who is Chef Keller playing for?
KURTIS: Amanda Peck of San Francisco, California.
SAGAL: Ready to play, chef?
KELLER: I’m ready.
SAGAL: All right. Here’s your first question – sometimes it’s a good idea to not launder your clothes. To not wonder close so you can make use of which of these – A, the brief safe, a place to store your cash and valuables that looks like a pair of dirty underwear so no burglar would ever touch it.
SAGAL: B, the CIA headquarter’s new entry system identifies you by swabbing your shirt for your unique BO or stink print. Or C, you want to where a Banana Republic’s new American Oxford that comes pre-stained with barbecue sauce so you can’t ruin it.
SAGAL: One of these exists.
KELLER: I would say A.
SAGAL: You’re going to go A, the brief safe.
KELLER: The brief safe.
SAGAL: You are correct.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Can you buy this thing?
SAGAL: We looked at pictures in the internet, it is failsafe, nobody will ever touch this.
SAGAL: That’s very good. Laundromats can be exciting places. Which of these is a real headline from the Montana Standard back in 2005 – A, Klan leader fails to separate, announces pink robes are in this year. B, leprechaun robs Front Street laundry. C, man trapped in laundry machine says, quote, it wasn’t bad until the spin cycle.
KELLER: So you have the spin cycle, you have the leprechaun and you have the Klan member.
SAGAL: Right. Actual headline in the Montana Standard.
SAGAL: You’re going to go for A, Klan leader?
SAGAL: No, it was actually leprechaun. This was on St. Patrick’s Day. The robber was wearing a fake black beard, mustache, black plastic derby hat and green kilt. Said the clerk in Butte, Montana – Butte gets pretty crazy on St. Patrick’s Day.
SAGAL: All right. We have three courses, we’ve had two. You have one to go. If you get this one right, you’ll win a prize. Some people really, really, really care about their laundries in which of these cases – A, at the end of each week of filming, the cast of the film “Captain America” all washed their customs on star Chris Evans’ washboard abs.
SAGAL: B, Lady Gaga created her own mystique seven spice detergent formula for washing her meat dress.
SAGAL: Or C, First Lady Bess Truman insisted on mailing her clothes back to Kansas City from Washington for washing.
KELLER: I would say C.
SAGAL: You’d go for C?
SAGAL: This is true.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Bill, how did Thomas Keller do on our quiz?
KURTIS: He got 2 out of 3, that’s a winner in my book.
SAGAL: Thomas Keller is a chef, a restaurateur, the author of many cookbooks. You can eat his foot at the French Laundry near San Francisco and Per Se in New York or also in Las Vegas, but good luck getting a reservation. Thomas Keller, thank you so much for joining us. What a pleasure to talk to you, chef.
KELLER: Thank you.
SAGAL: Chef Keller, ladies and gentlemen.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.