The French Laundry airs its secrets

The French Laundry, the acclaimed restaurant nestled in the hills of California's Napa Valley, is arguably the best restaurant in the country.

It's is a perennial winner of the annual Restaurant Magazine list of the Top 50 Restaurants --winning the top spot twice in the last decade, has a three star Michelin rating and has been praised by just about every major food critic in the country.  Chef and owner Thomas Keller, whose restaurant empire also includes Per Se in New York City and Bouchon in Los Angles,  has won multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation, including Best Chef in America in 1997.

Much has been written about this Yountville, Calif. dining spot, with its famed signature dishes of Oysters and Pearls and Coffee & Doughnuts dessert. It also happens to be one of the toughest reservations to score on the planet.

But was one of the lucky ones and got access to the restaurant’s kitchen, staff and diners to uncover some secrets from inside. You'd be surprised how much you may not know about the place.

For starters there is a way for diners to get a chance to eat at the exclusive restaurant without paying it's A-lister price.

Inger Shiffler, senior wine educator for Robert Mondavi vineyards and longtime resident of Napa Valley, says the $270 per-person price tag is more than she would ever be able to afford for dinner. One day though, her mom surprised her with a phone call telling her she won a local lottery to the restaurant. Turns out the French gem has hosted Yountville night, once a year, for the past 8 years. Locals who live in the town get to submit their name for a chance to enjoy the tasting menu for just $50. That was the price tag for dinner when the restaurant opened in 1994.  It’s a little known secret though to town residents; you have to know where to look.

An ad is placed in the Yountville Sun, once a year, prompting you to submit your name. Guests are randomly selected and get to bring a friend. The French Laundry tells us, “Chef Keller and the staff really look forward to it each year as it is a fun way to nourish their relationship with their neighbors.”

Speaking of local, Keller is as local as it gets. Born in California, he spent many years in Florida and New York.  Another secret:  We found out he lives next door to the restaurant, just a few steps away. When he is in Yountville, he is said to spend almost every day at the restaurant.

Do you want to know why the vegetables taste so fresh?  Secret number three: The property across the street features several acres of produce grown by the restaurant itself. Not many restaurant owners can say they get about 30 percent of their vegetables from their very own soil. Right now you can see the garden’s Nantes carrots, Tokyo turnips, baby fennel, baby leeks and baby radishes show up on diners’ plates.

Of course, not everything can be local, but the restaurant still makes sure to use the freshest ingredients possible. We actually stumped our captain (waiter), Kevin Macway, when we asked about the process of getting fresh seafood to the restaurant, particularly the Maine Diver Scallop. Kevin said he had never been asked that question before, so he did some quick research. Turns out, the restaurant gets their scallops from a small East Coast supplier (a secret we couldn't pry out of them) who believes in the personal touch. The name of the diver who actually harvested the scallop is stamped on the container which contains the scallop. The restaurant receives the scallop within 24 hours of being harvested.

Something else you wouldn’t know unless you stepped foot in the kitchen, is that there is a TV monitor displayed prominently on a center wall. It shows a live feed of The French Laundry’s New York City sister restaurant Per Se. Even though there is a three-hour time difference the staff can always look at the monitor and see someone hard at work --an interesting motivational tool.

The French Laundry is famous for its tomato water, a liquid made out of pureed tomatoes that can be served in a glass or as a soup, or added into a larger dish.  But instead of it being red, it is clear.  We got the secret to its color too: centrifuge. Chefs can simply take something like the juice from canned tomatoes and “spin it” to get crystal clear tomato “water”. Spinning vegetable juices results in a faux consommé, as all of the solids will have spun out.

Here is something else I learned on my visit to The French Laundry: The restaurant’s reputation for culinary excellence is well deserved.  Thanks in part to the stellar service, it is a dining experience that will stay with you, long after the plates are cleared and the check has been paid.