The French Laundry Celebrates Two Decades of Superlative Dining

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Napa Valley’s—and arguably the country’s—most storied dining venue, the French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller craved an intimate evening of fine food over the July 4th holiday. But the restaurant has such a multitude of devotees that Keller deemed the building too small for a proper fete. So with dramatic flair, he obtained a permit to close down Washington Street and created the most high-end block party imaginable—bookended by the restaurant and its idyllic rolling green gardens.

“It evolved from an inviting-all-your-friends, potluck moment to ‘let’s do Champagne and caviar . . . and a hot-dog stand,’’’ said the event planner Todd Fiscus, of Todd Events. “The juxtaposition of Thomas Keller and his team’s version of what is in a hot-dog stand was pretty fantastic. So you got a bag of chips, of course, but then he had also made by hand bratwurst and hot dogs.”

Dill pickle–flavored popcorn served in old-fashioned blue-and-white paper cups, deviled farm-fresh eggs, handmade mini dogs on fine pretzel bread: It was indeed a dreamy spread of summertime U.S. favorites. But guests had to save room, too, for custom pots of Sterling caviar, grilled cheese made with black truffles, Kumamoto oysters on the half shell, and classics such as Keller’s famous salmon cornets.

“It was an intimate party with 500 people,” Keller said, comprising “our friends, our family, guests we have long-term relationships with, so a lot of hugs, a few tears, and great memories. It was a very casual, relaxing, and fun event, with really great music—and really great food.”

Guests included Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, chef Daniel Boulud, and the famed interior designer Adam Tihany, as well as Hollywood and vineyard luminaries such as Francis Ford Coppola, among many other celebrity fans. When Keller took the microphone at 9 pm, the crowd fell utterly silent. He expressed genuine thanks to everyone from the original owners, Don and Sally Schmitt, to the generations of chefs who have come through his kitchens (an alumni party for chefs and employees of the French Laundry was planned for the following Monday), to his brand director (and fiancée) Laura Cunningham.

“So many memories have happened in this restaurant that have shaped so many careers, including my own, in this small building on the corner of Washington and Creek,” Keller told the crowd. “I want to thank all of you—we invited you into our restaurant, and we have hopefully given you good memories. What happened along the way is that all of you, our guests, have made our time here just as memorable. Thank you very much.”

Then a surprise tribute video was played, featuring Boulud comically narrating a homage that included cameos by Adam Sandler, Eric Ripert, the kitchen staff of Per Se, Ryan Seacrest, Charlie Rose, Jacques Pépin, and the Simpsons version of Keller himself.

Later in the evening, the Hudson Project took the stage again so revelers could dance into the night. But the beautiful feast kept coming in the form of scrumptious desserts, such as macaroons and the French Laundry’s signature coffee and doughnuts, lighting up palates as the stars lit the crisp Napa night. (www.frenchlaundry.com)

Photograph by Deborah Jones
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