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At the Redesigned French Laundry, Cooking Is Performance Art

When the revamped space opens this spring, the kitchen will rival the dining room.

SLIDESHOW

The French Laundry, Yountville. Snøhetta and Envelope A+D.

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The ceiling is designed to look like a draped white tablecloth.

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The viewing window allows diners an exclusive look into the kitchen.

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Craig Dykers isn’t a kitchen designer. A principal at the architecture firm Snøhetta, Dykers is collaborating with SFMOMA on its expansion and has worked on massive projects like the 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion. But he wasn’t entirely surprised when chef Thomas Keller asked if he’d be interested in redesigning the French Laundry’s kitchen in honor of its 20th anniversary. “We’re known for interrogating and exploring an idea,” Dykers says. “A lot of our work is a first.”

Keller’s mission for the project was simple: “We’d outgrown our kitchen,” he says. “We couldn’t have the comfort in our work spaces that we wanted, and we wanted to elevate the staff’s sense of pride.” His inspiration for the project—the Louvre—made things more complex. “Obviously, it’s hard to compare the French Laundry with the Louvre,” Keller says, “but they’re both iconic buildings in their respective cities.”

Dykers worked with Keller, kitchen designer Tim Harrison of Harrison & Koellner, Berkeley architecture firm Envelope A+D, and Wright Contracting to expand the kitchen by 25 percent; build offices, a wine cellar, and a butchery; and reframe the courtyard, doubling its size.

Harrison, who has worked on Keller’s restaurants for years, had specific ideas about equipment and design, but Dykers and his colleague Nic Rader had never worked in a restaurant. So they spent a day in aprons at Per Se, Keller’s New York restaurant, watching the frenetic chefs. One obvious pain point was at the so-called pass table, where chefs hand plates to the lead chef, who pushes them across the table to the head of the waitstaff, who then sends them to servers behind him. All the while, workers weave by, moving quickly through the kitchen.

To smooth out that sequence, Dykers’s team gave the French Laundry’s pass table a curved edge, providing chefs room to lean in to make way for those walking behind them. They also angled the ceiling above the table, so that when chefs are looking across the table but talking to the servers behind them, the sound will bounce back, eliminating the need to shout. Snøhetta designed the ceiling to look like a draped white tablecloth, incorporating the kitchen hoods as part of the canopy. 

Materials were also important. Often, professional kitchens are equipped with the same stainless steel tables used in airport security lines, but, says Keller, “we wanted something more comforting, more relaxing.” So instead of stainless steel, they opted to make the work surfaces out of Dekton, a composite material. The worktables are anchored by slender legs designed to lend a sense of lightness.

For diners, glimpsing the kitchen is a huge part of the experience, so Dykers and his team reimagined the way visitors arrive. Now guests will walk along a path bordered by a basalt wall, pass an opening that frames the restaurant's famous blue door, then enter the garden facing the glass-walled kitchen. Green-patterned panes above and below the kitchen’s viewing window mimic the movement that Dykers and Rader observed in Per Se's kitchen. “We saw how wonderfully balletic the use of their hands is,” Dykers says. “It’s like choreography.”

The design of the space—the window onto the blue door, the path through the garden, the glass wall revealing the chefs working—isn’t exactly the Louvre, but, says Keller, “you get a sense of how Dykers interpreted that vision.” The new kitchen will open in the spring, more than three years after Keller first started thinking about it. “We really wanted it done by our 20th anniversary,” he says. “But we’ll celebrate by opening it around our 22nd.”

 

Read more New Rules of Design coverage here.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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