Why was Newsom’s French Laundry moment such a big deal? Our California restaurant critic explains.
This is what I keep thinking about: If Gov. Gavin Newsom had been spotted on the patio of a tiny neighborhood bistro just after urging California residents to stay home last November, we might not be blogging about a recall today.
Instead, Mr. Newsom was seen at The French Laundry, attending the birthday dinner of Sacramento lobbyist Jason Kinney. The images of him hobnobbing with guests, indoors, without a mask on, at one of the country’s most expensive restaurants, were immediately and powerfully symbolic.
The chef Thomas Keller took over the Yountville restaurant in the mid-90s and defined that era’s American fine-dining sensibility, equal parts playful and extravagant. Reservations were (and continue to be) impossible. Dishes such as the silky tuna tartare, held in a tiny, crisp cone, were (and continue to be) widely replicated, though most restaurants simply can’t replicate the atmosphere — the lush gardens, the perfume of fresh black truffles, the perfectly pressed uniforms.
As a line cook in my 20s, I studied the recipes and photographs in The French Laundry cookbook, hoping its knowledge would transfer to me, reading and rereading it so many times that the pages became soft and worn at the edges. But not long before Governor Newsom attended that private party, fueling support for the recall, I wrote about how a meal there felt a bit like sneaking onto an opulent spaceship, orbiting a burning planet. I was uncomfortable with its excess.
The restaurant’s luxurious ingredients, meticulous techniques and impeccable, formal service appeared as a kind of culinary anachronism. The 10-course tasting menu cost about $350 per person, and, during the pandemic, the restaurant started private indoor dining at $850 per person.
It’s no surprise the restaurant has become such an essential part of the recall narrative. Dinner at The French Laundry isn’t so much dinner anymore as it is a status symbol, like macaroni and cheese served in a giant golden egg.