Monday, June 21, 2010

The Road to The French Laundry

I love to watch people observe experts in their craft, to see them glow with appreciation at nuances the rest of us miss. Last June, my joy in watching Chef Matt exclaim over the work of his fellow chef-artists evolved into a secret plan to get him to the epicenter of foodie perfection: The French Laundry.

"The Laundry", in Yountville, California, is home to some of the most gorgeous food in America. I listened to Matt mention this restaurant with a syrupy admiration that is shared by anyone who has ever worn a chef coat, and I knew that we must eat there. But two daunting barricades, one that I was expecting and one that I was not, threatened to spoil my well-laid plans.

The one I expected was the price. For two people to eat a single meal at The French Laundry, including the nine-course tasting menu and wine, it costs about $700. That is two months' worth of groceries, for one meal.

When I recovered from the physical sickness that arose at the discovery of such a ludicrous price tag, I put my head down and started saving. I pinched money out of every corner of our budget, set aside tax-return money, and pleaded with my family to give me money instead of gifts for my birthday.

The barricade I did not expect was the difficulty of actually securing a reservation. I had already bought the plane tickets, reserved the hotel, and told Matt about his impending adventure, before I set out to reserve a table. To my dismay, I discovered that I had about as much a chance of getting a table as I would guessing a perfect March Madness bracket.

The restaurant has 17 tables and only accepts reservations for three and a half hours each night. To reserve one of these coveted seats, you must call the reservation line the precise second it opens, two months to the calendar date in advance, and hit redial dozens of times, in hopes that a brief pause in the barrage of calls will open a sliver of possibility for your call's acceptance.

On April 23, I recruited 10 people to dial the reservation line at exactly 12:00:00 CST, and redial and redial and redial. At 12:02, my mother-in-law e-mailed: "I'm in and on hold!" By the time she spoke with an actual person at 12:14, June 23 was booked.

But The French Laundry was not lost to us. Matt stalked, and secured the one and only two-top they release each day. We could both barely breathe the rest of the day.

It feels a bit ridiculous: $700 and several weeks of stress beforehand (what if we don't get a reservation?!) for one dinner. But the sense of absurdity is quickly diminished by the thought of watching my chef's eyes widen and his lavish praise unable to manifest into the right words at the first bite of such peerless food. It will be the defining moment in his culinary education, and I can't wait to see it.

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