The Washington Post

Window into Calif.

How the French Laundry restaurant embodies the Golden State.


yountville, calif. — Standing outside the French Laundry on a warm August night, a couple from Florida tells me they canceled their reservatio­n because they couldn’t stomach the price tag: $350 per person. That’s before wine. Instead they went with Bouchon Bistro, a sister restaurant down the street, where two can dine quite nicely for around $200 total.

After joining a longtime friend for his father’s 75th birthday dinner at the French Laundry, that couple was on my mind as I spent an hour driving along dark, winding roads from Yountville to Santa Rosa, digesting my caviar, abalone and rabbit while chewing on the question: Was it worth it?

If you have money to burn, why not? If you’re celebratin­g a milestone birthday or a big anniversar­y, sure. If you’re Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who was set to face a recall election on Sept. 14 and got a lot of flak for a meal he had at the Michelin three-star restaurant in November, the answer is probably no. But if the governor hadn’t been spotted indulging maskless during a time of hardship, austerity and lockdowns, I’m sure he would’ve told you it was an amazing meal. Because it is.

The establishm­ent from lauded chef and restaurate­ur Thomas Keller that helped turn Northern California’s Yountville into Wine Disneyland is not the newest, hippest restaurant; it’s been around since 1994. In the fine-dining world, it’s considered one of the premier spots to eat or work at. Chefs who are more interested in taking risks and challengin­g diners to expand their minds through their palates might brand it as dated or passe.

Whatever your politics, or however you feel about a governor celebratin­g a lobbyist’s birthday there while asking the state’s residents to maintain their distance to prevent the spread of covid, the French Laundry embodies more than Michelin stars and truffle overload. It’s a place where many of the challenges facing California —

and the rest of the country — are just barely out of sight but not out of mind. Whether or not Newsom keeps his job, these problems aren’t going away; they’re still on the menu.

Let’s start with the difficulty of snagging a table. If you’re not a government official or a highpriced lobbyist, you’ll have to get in the old-fashioned way. Reservatio­ns for the entire month open at 10 a.m. Pacific time on the first day of the previous month. So if you want a table for November, set your alarm now and recruit a handful of friends with fast fingers to try to book a table on Oct. 1. Before you’ve charged a cent to your credit card (and yes, diners are charged upfront), the French Laundry has whetted your appetite with anticipati­on. There’s nothing more delicious than exclusivit­y.

When you finally arrive and drive right past without noticing — “I expected it to be perched on a mountain,” a tourist tells me — you’re reminded that, often, California wealth is subtle. Like the tech billionair­e who shows up to dinner in jeans and flip-flops, or the celebrity who lives in a quaint Venice bungalow, the French Laundry’s exterior is not showy. From the street, the large, dark gray house — the first level covered in ivy and shades drawn, obscuring the faces of whoever is dining inside — is well-appointed but not extravagan­t. The sign out front is easily blocked when a stretch limo stops by to drop off patrons. The opulence at the French Laundry kicks in once you’re inside: in the food, the wine, the service.

Indoors or out? The vast majority of restaurant­s that added or expanded their outdoor seating during the pandemic didn’t charge more for it. The French Laundry, however, has long recognized a truth of life in California: Safe air is a valuable commodity. The restaurant charges more to eat outside ($450) than in its comparativ­ely cramped dining room ($350). These days, servers wear discreet V-shaped pins on their lapels, showing that they’re vaccinated, while diners need not show proof of vaccinatio­n.

On the August night I visited, the air was clear and the light evening breeze pleasant, about 150 miles from the Dixie Fire, one of the largest in state history. But fire danger and air quality change quickly in California, and the French Laundry’s premium price for outdoor seating highlights that clean air, like fine dining, is a luxury not everyone can afford. California’s low-income residents and people of color are disproport­ionately exposed to pollution from vehicles. Poorer California­ns are less likely to be able to afford portable air purifiers or expensive air-filtration systems, and they’re more likely to have jobs that keep them outdoors and exposed to smoke. Wealthier residents can flee to second homes or vacation rentals when the air gets bad. And the combinatio­n of a pandemic and climate change is especially dangerous: A recent study found that exposure to wildfire smoke increases susceptibi­lity to covid19.

The food. By my first bite at the French Laundry — a smoked salmon mousse cornetto topped with everything bagel seasoning — it was clear this decadent meal would be different from my everyday. This was no Everything but the Bagel seasoning mix from Trader Joe’s that I braved crowds and germs to obtain in the spring of 2020. So much thought, planning and preparatio­n goes into every bite, a tomato utterly surprising in its sweetness, a single leaf of basil exploding in flavor. At times, the attention to detail feels absurd. Do I really need butter from a specific farm in Vermont where Keller has an exclusive relationsh­ip with the dairy farmer? No, I do not. But I savored every bite.

Most California­ns were not dining at Michelin-starred restaurant­s during the pandemic; many were not getting enough to eat. A team of UCLA researcher­s found that, in the first three months of the pandemic, 3 million adults in California lacked sufficient food, a 22 percent increase since before the pandemic. In the past year and a half, food banks in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles have seen need skyrocket, serving double or triple the numbers of people they helped before the pandemic.

This rise in food insecurity is part of the reason Newsom’s dinner at the French Laundry nearly a year ago struck so many as tone-deaf. He apologized afterward, saying: “Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up and walked back, got in my car and drove back to my house.”

However, he admits, “we’re all human.”

The recall effort was underway long before Newsom sat down to dinner here. But the meal provided red meat for Republican­s opposed to his liberal policies and others who see the governor as elitist and out of touch.

Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, thinks Newsom’s meal at the French Laundry has become an “easy punching bag,” nothing more. “While inequality is out of control in our state and country, I actually feel like the photograph of Newsom eating there is not representa­tive of his policy positions,” many of which, she says, are “aimed at reversing inequality.” Ichikawa points to Newsom’s decision to make undocument­ed immigrants eligible to receive state stimulus payments and the state’s recent move to provide free school lunches for every public school student, a plan that received bipartisan support.

The experience. Oswald Morgan, a 52-year-old culinary entreprene­ur who helped design the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarte­rs cafe in Atlanta, has visited Napa several times. And on most previous trips, he has ruled that the true price of a meal at the French Laundry is measured not just in money but in minutes — and in both senses, it’s a very expensive experience. Dinner can easily run four or five hours. “I’ve never wanted to go to the French Laundry because I didn’t think I wanted to sit through that meal,” Morgan says. “I could see five restaurant­s in the time I could enjoy a meal at the French Laundry.”

But when Morgan’s wife wanted to go in June, he felt compelled to make it happen. The pandemic had taught him to slow down, and he relished the fact that “that table was mine all night,” unlike other establishm­ents that have placed covid-era time limits on dining. “We retreated to the garden for a nightcap. We had a ball,” Morgan says. “And we probably would have not fully experience­d it or appreciate­d it,” he says, if it weren’t for the pandemic.

Joseph Nunes, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, says that food seems to be where a lot of aspiration­al luxury spending is going these days, as people are less inclined to splurge on designer clothes or other material goods. “People need food, and perhaps it’s not as egregious as spending on something completely frivolous,” Nunes writes in an email.

At my meal, that luxury came through not just in the decadence but in how tailored it was to each person around the table. When you’re a restricted diner, as I am, you’re used to paying for a full meal and not getting to eat everything that comes with it, or having limited choices. At the French Laundry, dietary restrictio­ns are no problem. Everything that landed on my plate, from that tiny cornetto amuse-bouche to the doughnut holes during the dessert course, was gluten-free. The servers pointed out every time I was getting something different from my dining buddies. Our guest of honor left with a bottle of champagne, engraved just for him.

California has one of the highest measures of income inequality in the country; only five other states have bigger gaps between the wealthiest and low-income families. Much of that disparity comes through in the fancy homes and flashy cars that overshadow those who are hungry and homeless. But it’s also reflected in who can afford the luxury of time — be it a five-hour meal or a two-week vacation, who can outsource their child care, cooking and shopping — and who’s providing those services.

On the night that I visited the French Laundry, the staff was predominan­tly White. Experts who study the leisure and hospitalit­y industries note that this is typical of the fine-dining world, which leans heavily White and male, while casual and fast-food workers are typically women and people of color. According to a Calmatters assessment of how race intersects with wages among California workers as of January 2020, 56 percent of the state’s low-wage workers (earning $16 an hour or less) were Hispanic; 27 percent were White; 11 percent were Asian; and 6 percent were Black. Among high-wage workers (defined as $28 an hour or more), 51 percent were White; 23 percent were Hispanic; 21 percent were Asian and 5 percent were Black. Calmatters also found that, in the beginning of the pandemic, the low-wage workers hit hardest with job losses were those in leisure and hospitalit­y.

The staff. Snagging a job at the French Laundry is cushy and coveted — the food world’s equivalent of working at Apple or Google. The restaurant didn’t respond to an inquiry about how much it pays workers, but the jobs come with access to medical coverage and a retirement plan, sports leagues, company holiday parties and a nonprofit relief fund of nearly $1 million set aside to assist workers past and present. Jonathan Jacobi, a 41year-old bartender at Ad Hoc, another Thomas Keller restaurant in Yountville, received some help from that relief fund when he was furloughed for 51 weeks during the pandemic and a significan­t unforeseen expense popped up. “It made my life much more manageable,” Jacobi says. He has been with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group for four years, which he finds to be a relatively short tenure, noting that his roommate has worked with the company for 19 years.

Not everyone within the company has felt so supported. After Auzerais Bellamy, a Black woman, found it difficult to progress from Keller’s more casual Bouchon Bakery to French Laundry or his Manhattan restaurant Per Se, she left the fine-dining world altogether, striking out on her own as a bakery owner. In 2016, Vannessa Scott-allen, a former server from Per Se, sued the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, claiming she was wrongfully terminated after she was denied a transfer to French Laundry once it became known she was pregnant. A jury cleared Keller’s restaurant group of wrongdoing. Bellamy and ScottAllen declined requests to be interviewe­d for this story.

Lest the French Laundry staffers get too comfortabl­e, there’s a live video feed from the Yountville kitchen to Per Se. Through a company spokeswoma­n, the French Laundry said this reciprocal video feed aims to foster camaraderi­e. The live stream may do that for some; it might also make staff feel safer at work, knowing they and their colleagues are being recorded. The camera might also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder to staff members that their performanc­e is being scrutinize­d.

The cost of a meal. Anita Solis has lived in Yountville, two houses down from the French Laundry, since the 1960s. The town has changed a lot in that time. “When I was a little girl, at one time there were 13 beer bars here,” recalls Solis, who’s now 70. The area was full of prune orchards, and the town itself “wasn’t pretty,” she says. “It’s beautiful now. Everything now is so much cleaner.”

However, she does miss the informalit­y of life in Yountville before the French Laundry moved in and the tourists took over. “Before, there weren’t any town laws. Now if you burp too loud, you might get a fine for it,” Solis jokes. Her family owns Pancha’s, a popular dive bar that’s temporaril­y closed but remains the oldest Yountville establishm­ent still around. She laments how expensive Yountville has become. “I think the cheapest hamburger here is $24,” she says, adding that if she wants to eat out, she’ll usually go to Napa or the one or two Yountville spots where lunch isn’t $30.

One of those choices had to be imported from Napa: Tacos Garcia, a taco truck that Yountville’s town council approved over a decade ago. On a recent weekday, Shawn Husar, who repairs refrigerat­ors, stopped for lunch at Tacos Garcia — and quickly the conversati­on turned toward the wine country’s lack of affordabil­ity. Husar, 40, like many California­ns, wasn’t aware of the Sept. 14 special election to recall Newsom; he isn’t registered with a political party and doesn’t vote. But he does have strong opinions about how expensive the area has become. “When things started catching on fire, I was like: They can burn as much as they want, as long as they get the vineyards,” he says.

Fires have torn through wine country nearly every year since 2017, burning vineyards and homes. It’s not that Husar wishes destructio­n on anyone. But the way he sees it, the wine industry has made Napa and neighborin­g Sonoma County (where he lives) unreasonab­ly expensive. Husar has been fortunate enough to be able to buy a home, but when he sees friends stretching to afford $650,000 homes — below the area’s median price — he doubts whether living in California is worth it.

There’s one more disparity that was poised to cost Newsom his governorsh­ip: Who would vote and who wouldn’t, and how much of a say those voters get. California is overwhelmi­ngly Democratic, but Republican­s have been driving the recall effort and appeared more motivated to cast ballots. The state’s last recall election, in 2003, replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzene­gger. “Democrats up and down the state haven’t taken this seriously, whereas Republican­s have,” Newsom told my colleague Dan Balz in an August interview. “Republican­s see this as a historic opportunit­y.”

Voters had two questions to answer: Should Newsom be recalled from office? And if so, who should replace him? There were 46 candidates on the ballot. A Fivethirty­eight average of polls gave Newsom a slight edge, with 44 percent of voters in favor of his ouster and 52 percent wanting to keep him.

If Newsom is removed from office, whichever candidate received the most votes will be the next governor. That means a new governor could be elected without receiving a majority of votes cast. Constituti­onal scholars point out that this could disenfranc­hise the recall’s “no” voters, as they wouldn’t have had a chance to vote for Newsom on the second question.

It’s the electoral equivalent of one person ordering for the entire table.

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 ?? ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Employees at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., make preparatio­ns in the kitchen in March 2017. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was criticized for a meal he had at the Michelin three-star restaurant, which charges $350 per person before wine.
ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS Employees at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., make preparatio­ns in the kitchen in March 2017. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was criticized for a meal he had at the Michelin three-star restaurant, which charges $350 per person before wine.
 ?? JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES ?? The exterior of the French Laundry in December 2020. The restaurant from chef and restaurate­ur Thomas Keller is considered one of the premier spots to eat or work at within the fine-dining world.
JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES The exterior of the French Laundry in December 2020. The restaurant from chef and restaurate­ur Thomas Keller is considered one of the premier spots to eat or work at within the fine-dining world.
 ?? RINGO H.W. CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Newsom at a news conference in Universal City, Calif., in June. He had a slight edge in the recall, Fivethirty­eight polls showed.
RINGO H.W. CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS Newsom at a news conference in Universal City, Calif., in June. He had a slight edge in the recall, Fivethirty­eight polls showed.
 ?? ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A view of the kitchen at the French Laundry during dinner service in March 2017.
ERIC RISBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS A view of the kitchen at the French Laundry during dinner service in March 2017.

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