David Rayner shares his experience in E,d+bK's Thursday series - "Be my guest - my most memorable meal" - of a decadent 18 course degustation at the legendary The French Laundry in Nappa Valley, California.
David's career has taken him from London, Sydney and now to Noosa. He worked at London’s most well known restaurants including Kensington Place and Launceston Place. In Sydney, David helped establish and transform some of Sydney’s leading eateries including The Brooklyn, The Edge and Lucciola of Balmain. His final stint in Sydney was to lead the start up team at Vault Restaurant where they were awarded a hat in the 2000 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
David was approached by Jim Berardo to initiate an innovative cuisine for the newly opened berardos restaurant and bar on Hastings Street, Noosa. After four years David decided it was time to establish River House Restaurant which established itself as one of Queensland’s finest restaurants.
In May 2009, David and his partner Belinda Frew, sold River House Restaurant and are setting up their next venture in Noosaville. Thomas Corner (eatery) should be open for business in August 2010.
My most memorable dining experience
My passion in life revolves around eating; drinking and cooking so when asked to write about my best meal ever memories of amazing experiences come flooding to mind. How do I select just one? I have decided to base my selection on the best dining experience that supports my philosophy of food. The one that wins hands down in this case is Thomas Keller’s restaurant, The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. He believes “there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving towards perfection becomes clear, to make people happy. That’s what cooking is all about” *
The joy of cooking comes when people are obviously enjoying what you have done for them. There is no point cooking the most complicated dish that has taken prep over several days to find that the flavour is not enjoyed. I love to cook what people love to it. Saying this, it doesn’t mean food is not to be respected. Food must be cooked to maximalise its potential, let the flavour shine.
Thomas Keller respects every ingredient in his dishes. He changes his menu daily to ensure the product is at its best. He has his own garden where he grows his own produce. He has been doing this for many years, many years before other chefs caught on to this. He has local growers that grow specifically for him. He tells them what he needs and they ensure the quality meets his high standards. The attention to detail is evident. Not just in the food quality but in everything that is done at the French Laundry. I admire this. If you are going to do something ensure it is done to the best of your ability.
A combination of these elements led me to my dining experience at the French Laundry, exceeding my high expectations and making it my most memorable dining experience.
On arrival, guests stroll to the dining room via a cute English style cobble pathway. The stage had been set for a long lunch. Seated inside, I was presented with a menu full of choices, all of which were degustation style.
I opted for the main degustation menu consisting of nine courses which, in fact, ended up being 18 courses. My partner opted for the vegetarian option thinking nine courses, including beef, may be a tad heavy and rich. Nine courses, let alone 18 courses, sounds excessive but each dish was so beautifully balanced and some were only a mere mouthful, so it did not weigh me down. In fact, each time a new course appeared I felt like a small child waiting to open their presents that Santa had left.
To start we were greeted with the famous salmon cone, with salmon tartare crème fraiche and unpasteurised salmon eggs. Being familiar with this dish it was like seeing someone famous and enjoying the moment to its max. It was very indulgent and I loved that I was sitting in one of the world’s best restaurant eating my first course using my hands.
The waiters slipped passed but appeared right on time. They made us feel we were the only ones in the entire room despite there not being a spare chair in the room.
The courses included-
· Cauliflower pannacotta with beluga caviar
· Sautéed foie gras with Jacobsen’s farm crab apple and honey syrup
· Fricassee of lobster with beech mushrooms, garden carrots and lobster broth
· Pork and black truffle sausage on puy lentils
· Roasted cobia with borlotti beans, yellow beans, green thyme oil
· Rib eye of lamb ratatouille of vegetables, potato cake, lamb reduction
· Roquefort ricotta cheese gnocchi, walnut oil emulsion
· Tomato water sorbet, melon and watermelon sauce, in preparation of dessert to follow
· Raspberry terrine with yoghurt cream and miniature beet leaves
In between courses we were asked if we would be interested in learning about the different salts used in the kitchen. A plate with six different salts arrived and the waiter patiently explained the properties of each and told us which salt was used with each course. It was fascinating. In what seemed to be as much time as we liked, the waiter answered all our questions. He knew the answers immediately and the depth of the waiter’s knowledge was impressive.
Matching of food to wine by the staff was done with ease. Taking into account customer’s tastes and balancing the dish, they never missed a beat. One of the greatest matches was the foie gras matched up with a glass of sauterne. Having the option of salted and unsalted butter on the table reinforced the importance of pleasing the customer. The different butters were automatically presented on the table.
Dining is not just about the food but also about pleasing the customer. The French Laundry certainly left me feeling pleased.
* "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller, page 2.