He spends every day in the Napa Valley village of Yountville, so the display of color couldn’t have been a big shock. But there was Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener for the famed French Laundry restaurant, standing beside the frisée and celeriac as he snapped a cellphone photo of a full-size rainbow that hung over the far side of his three-acre garden.
“I wonder which end is hiding the pot of gold?” he mused to whomever might listen.
As near as I could tell, he already had the proverbial gold in his pocket. For a man who loves to dig his fingers in the dirt, could there be a better place?
Keefer works for Thomas Keller, the longtime executive chef of what is probably the most famous restaurant in America. Keller opened The French Laundry in 1994 after renovating a 19th-century steam laundry. By 1997, the James Beard Foundation had named Keller and his restaurant the best in the United States. It’s still at the top of many lists.
The nine-course French Laundry tasting menu today costs $325 to $400 per person, not including wine pairings that might easily add another $150 or more to the price. For a true “foodie,” it’s worth it. No chef in my experience has mastered the subtleties of flavors like Keller and the men and women he has trained.
In 1998, Keller opened a more moderately priced French bistro and bakery, Bouchon, in Yountville. He soon expanded that concept to New York and Las Vegas. “Per se,” offering French Laundry-style tasting menus, took New York by storm in 2004, and “ad hoc” expanded his Yountville offerings to gourmet burgers in 2006.
Farm to table
The French Laundry didn’t invent the farm-to-table concept of dining — the godmother of local sourcing is generally considered to be Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse — but much of its renown can be attributed to Keller’s expertise with vegetables.
And there’s no better way to assure quality control than to grow those vegetables yourself.
Here’s where Aaron Keefer comes in. He oversees the team of gardeners who grow and harvest virtually all of the veggies served at Keller’s Yountville restaurants — The French Laundry, Bouchon and ad hoc. Several times each day, Keefer told me, he consults with his kitchens to determine their meal requirements. The chefs tell him what they’d like; Keefer tells them what’s fresh.
“They get most excited about anything new, whether it is the first strawberry in the spring, the first tomato of summer, or a patch of potatoes just harvested,” he told an interviewer.
Keefer said he considers vegetables much like fish. “You have to eat them soon after catching them,” he said in a 2013 interview for Williams-Sonoma. “That flavor starts even before you source the seeds. The composition of the soil, the seed genetics, the environment where the product is grown, all come together to bring you the flavor of that vegetable. Simply put, fresher is better.”
A plot map of The French Laundry Garden stands beside Washington Avenue, almost directly across the street from its namesake restaurant.
In winter, the map shows the location of nine types of cabbage and kale, as well as multiple varieties of lettuce and other leafy vegetables (escarole, radicchio, endive, collats, onions, turnips, beets, kohlrabi and celeriac … and broccoli, cauliflower, sunchokes, peas, green garlic, leeks, even strawberries. A “hoop house” greenhouse grows spinach, arugula, bok choi, celery, fennel, watercress and microgreens.
In different times of year, there are dozens of varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, hard squash and eggplant. Herbs of all types, essential in any kitchen, are grown year-round. There are more taste teasers in this garden than in a peak-season farmers’ market.
One of the many charms of The French Laundry Garden is its accessibility. Indeed, it is like a public park No walls or electric fences exist to keep intruders out. At any time of day, but especially on bluebird mornings, you can see strollers, joggers and even dog walkers enjoying the tranquility of the garden.
Keefer, by the way, is himself a chef. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, where he grew up, and where both of his grandfathers were farmers. One grew corn and wheat; the other had a berry farm. Heritage, no doubt, was part of what drew Keefer from the kitchen to the garden.