In the early 1900s, the building was a saloon. After prohibition, it became a laundromat. Today, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry is one of the best restaurants in the world, serving $295 fixed price meals in Napa Valley.
Now, the international architecture firm Snøhetta, along with Envelope A+D and Harrison & Koellner, LLC, are leading the restaurant’s first major renovation in 20 years. The core building will remain untouched, but the restaurant will get a new kitchen and revamped garden area–updates, as Keller puts it in the press release, that will ready the business for its next 20 years.
Inspired By The Louvre
The garden’s new outer fence is like a deconstructed home, complete with open-air windows to peek through. Stroll through the garden, and you can pass by the kitchen. What might not be clear in the rendering here is that it’s actually a glass building, inspired by Keller’s affinity for the Louvre’s glass pyramid. On the outside, it’s finished with a hedge-like screenprinted coat of green. Look closely, and you’ll see countless small strokes. Those aren’t leaves, but the paths of each chef’s own hands while cooking, sketched and affixed to the building itself. And on the inside, chefs have 25% more space than before and Dekton quartz antimicrobial counters to keep things clean.
Choreographing A Better Kitchen
While Snøhetta actually had no previous experience designing Michelin-rated kitchens, Thomas Keller tapped the firm for the job because of its urban design work in Times Square, where pedestrians, bikers, and drivers intersect in one surprisingly lovely space. “He wondered if we could bring that [crowd control] into kitchen,” explains Snøhetta Partner Craig Dykers. “Kitchens are crowded and can be intense, but they need to stay crowded, because the intimacy is important to the work. It’s counterintuitive, but the more space you create, the less positive and creative a kitchen is.”
So the firm’s designers embedded themselves in French Laundry’s kitchen, studying cooking workflows and diagramming what Dykers calls “the choreography of the kitchen.” From this observational study, they generated a few small but important interventions.
First, the ceiling. It’s not flat, but a carefully curved, injection-molded concrete, crafted to tackle the problem of kitchen acoustics. Since chefs speak to waiters coming in and out of the kitchen, conversation moves forward, one-way through the room, meaning the chefs in the back can’t always hear the chefs in the front. (It’s that same problem you have in a car, where the people in the back can’t hear the conversation in the front.) But this new ceiling channels sound front-to-back, keeping everyone on the same page.
The second innovation tackles a problem of being, well, too close. “The tables are really close to one another,” Dykers explains. “When chefs are working on one table, and they need to work behind them, they pivot. The problem is, the closer the tables get to one another, [the more] they rub against your butt.” In response, the kitchen will have a 2-inch cusp carved into each table, allowing chefs literal wiggle room.
A third idea comes from Keller himself. In most restaurants, there’s just a door between the cooks and the diners. At French Laundry, waiters will be given their own corridor, a buffer between the active kitchen and the quiet dining room. It’s a place where the wait staff can decompress, even while carrying hot plates to tables.
Low-Tech By Design
If most of these ideas seem decidedly low-tech for one of the best kitchens in the world, know that it’s actually by design.
“Kitchens remain somewhat primitive, and they have to, because the amount of effort in creating meals like at French Laundry, require a constant movement of things,” Dykers says, “If you do too many technical things, or rely on electric motors to open doors, the technical things break down at some point.”
Dykers gave the example of watching chefs climb up and down on footstools to pull pots off of high shelves. Installing pneumatic shelving seemed like a simple solution, until the firm realized, “you can’t fix [a broken shelf] while you’re making a meal.”