Visiting The Theater Of The Mouth

<B>Lara Logan</B> Talks To 'French Laundry' Creator Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller's kitchen hums with the work of 1,000 acts of repetition, each performed by a staff of chefs trained to move in tight syncopation to his beat.

Timing is everything: the turn of a spoon, the lick of a flame, and focus. It's the magic that makes a small northern California restaurant called The French Laundry a mecca for people who take their food seriously enough to spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars for the multi-course meals that Keller creates.

But Keller insists on something more; diners give him as much as five hours of their time to appreciate his full-scale culinary production. Correspondent Lara Logan reports.
"We want to be sure that it has that drama to it, that vividness to it, that focus, that cleanliness to it that is going to say something to you," says Keller.

"You compared this experience to a Broadway musical. People don't go to a musical and tell them, 'Shorten this song. Shorten that song,' " says Logan.

"Right, right. You go to a Broadway play, a Broadway musical because you want to enjoy that experience," says Keller. "You want to have the whole experience, because that's the way it's intended."

Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine, still swoons over one of her first bites of Keller's food. "It was savory. It was soft. It was buttery. It was rich. And it had a flavor like nothing that I've ever experienced before," says Reichl. "And when I tasted that, I thought, 'This is one of the most amazing things I've ever had in my mouth.' "

Reichl says Keller is creating performance art, composed of hundreds of unlikely combinations of intricate tastes: "When you get a whole series of these little tastes, you aren't just having a meal. What you're having is an experience. What you're having is theater of the mouth."

It is a carefully orchestrated piece of participatory theater, with Keller at center stage. Before the curtain rises, the chef briefs his cast.

Tonight, he's extolling the virtues of the white truffle, the rare wild mushroom that costs $2,000 a pound. He encourages the waiters to sing its praises. The staff reviews its lines and readies its costumes. These young men and women are hired for having just the right stuff, part of what Keller calls finesse, a word that he's fixed over the entranceway of the kitchen.

"Thomas always says you, kind of, have it or you don't," says Laura Cunningham, who is in charge of service and style in the dining room. She's even gone so far as hiring a ballet dancer to choreograph the movements of her wait staff, down to every last detail. "Their body language, their voice, their eye contact, how they stand. … Their kind of inner passion, their heart … their finesse."

Keller first met Cunningham just over 10 years ago, when she knocked on his door looking for a job shortly before The French Laundry opened for business.

"There's this beautiful woman standing there with her resume, saying, 'Do you need any help?' You know, I was stunned. I don't know what I said. It was probably something stupid and closed the door," says Keller.

What was Cunningham thinking when Keller walked away? "I think I was thinking, 'Jerk,' " recalls Cunningham.

But it wasn't long before she succumbed to his unique charms. During their early days together, did Keller ever cook for Cunningham? "Every night, every night," says Keller. "And we would have dinner upstairs in one of the dining rooms."

"Did you try to seduce her with food?" asks Logan.

"Always, always," says Keller. "What better way to seduce than food and wine?"

The two now live just steps from the restaurant that brought them together.

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