TIME Food & Drink

15 Lessons from 20 Years of the French Laundry

Thomas Keller at The French Laundry
Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in 2004 Hoberman Collection—UIG/Getty Images

Chefs remember the wisdom they gained working for Thomas Keller

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Thomas Keller’s legendary Napa restaurant, The French Laundry, Food & Wine’s Kate Krader and Chelsea Morse have collected reminiscences and lessons from some of the chefs who worship him. Here are a few of his teachings.

Tasting Vinegar

In the early days of The French Laundry, Thomas made his own red wine vinegar. One afternoon, he was tasting it to make sure it was ready for bottling and release. I watched as he dipped a sugar cube into a bowl of vinegar and then sucked on it. When I asked what he was doing, he said, pretty matter-of-factly, “That’s how you should taste vinegar”—the sweetness of the sugar softens the vinegar’s edge. It was the first time I’d seen someone taste vinegar, much less use that method, so I tried it. And it worked. —Eric Ziebold, Cityzen, Washington, DC

Searing Fish

At The Laundry, I learned to wait until a pan is very hot before adding oil—it should be so hot that a little white smoke comes off the oil when you pour it in. The smoke means you are ready to sear and will get a nice crust on fish. I saw this technique when I worked on the garde-manger station, watching chef Keller train the new fish cooks. I learned to always pay attention to what others were being taught: Sometimes great lessons aren’t directed specifically at you. —Timothy Hollingsworth, Restaurant at the Broad (opening 2015), Los Angeles

Understanding Hospitality

On the last day of my stage, Chef told me to hand him my apron. I thought I was in trouble. He folded it perfectly and then escorted me to his office, where a place setting was arranged at his desk for dinner. The food was perfect, but more than that, the sense of hospitality was overwhelming. I have hesitated to go back to eat at TFL since then because this was one of the most important meals of my life—one that can never be topped. —Michael Voltaggio, ink., Los Angeles

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