Life-Changing Cookbooks: The French Laundry Cookbook

Paste's column on the cookbooks that shape who we are

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At the heart of every marriage are those inside jokes so elaborate and long-standing, so well-nurtured they might as well be pets. For some couples, those jokes manifest in shower-time songs or invented voices for the dog; for others, those jokes enter the bedroom. For my husband and me, one of those jokes lives in our apartment kitchen.

“Hey, Diaper, Chef was straight-up knifed when he couldn’t tie his bird! Get trussin’,” my husband, Thomas, calls from the butcher block. A sheen of sweat glistens on his chin; I can see the muscles in his forearm as he works. Over the Pearl Jam blasting, he’s talking to me.

“Okay, Diaper,” I counter, as I stand, wide-stanced before the cutting board, channeling my inner bro. “You jerkin’ off or kneadin’ agnolotti? Yo, Dipes: you know what TK says, ‘You cannot overknead this dough!’”

TK is Thomas Keller, chef/owner of the acclaimed Yountville restaurant, The French Laundry, and its empire: Per Se, Ad Hoc, Ad Lib, the Bouchons. He’s been recognized with Michelin stars (seven total) and James Beard awards. To foodies, he doesn’t warrant further introduction.

Our Diaper does, though.

Some days a commis, others an escuelerie, “Diaper” is the persona my husband and I have created, an amalgamation of skulking dishwashers and prep cooks we’ve known over our combined two decades of restaurant work, the grunt guys on whom chefs are always harping. Diaper is the dude you don’t meet if you’re a patron whisked behind the scenes for a kitchen tour; he’s the lunk responsible for the grodiest, rangiest tasks—breaking down boxes, filling everyone’s deli with ice water, pulling feet off scallops. “Someone get Diaper! The fish stock needs straining!”

That my husband and I worked in restaurants, despite neither of us attending culinary school, is not so strange as the fact that we’ve worked at three of those restaurants together. Actually, we delight in tallying our shared experiences: we met in college, where we were both creative writing majors, but before that we were two Midwestern children who requested lasagna on birthdays like Garfield. Today, more than pondering over classes we took or professors we knew, we relive restaurants: we giggle at old tableside flubs (“How are your liquids?” asked one bespectacled server), we gossip about former coworkers.

So I like to think our sympathy toward Diaper is unique to our level of culinary engagement. Diaper may be snaggle-toothed, but behind that dude-ical mug, he has ambitions. He’s willing to try. We’ve known dozens of Diapers, dozens of chefs, dozens of the characters that make working in the food industry the arduous, gritty, sexy, sweaty reality it is. Of course, we’ve known, too, the post-shift drinks, the post-shift chicken wings, the post-shift banter and the resulting post-shift crash: of leaving with tips and a rush of frustrated energy, knees and feet aching to stop standing.

But even understanding the behind-the-scenes of the hospitality industry can’t destroy the faith my husband and I put in degustation. If anything, all the Diapers make us love the TK’s more. From the inception of our relationship, when we visited Vancouver for a writing conference and went to restaurants in lieu of readings, my husband and I have been—and I say this reluctantly because the word’s mouth-feel has never been quite right—foodies. It was 2005, and eating 12 courses at Rob Feenie’s restaurant Lumiere became our introduction to Le Bernadin and Charlie Trotter’s: both restaurants appeared as blurbs on Feenie’s book, which would become a fixture in our tiny kitchen (we were the 20-year-olds pestering the semi-rural Illinois grocery, Hy-Vee, for sushi-grade tuna).

That my boyfriend and I, two hopeful college students, should become foodies by the book made sense. Hadn’t books taught us to become writers? Hadn’t reading driven us to try devising something of our own? By Lumiere alone, it would have been easy to reify the restaurant world. But we were lucky: we taught ourselves to cook while we were both serving in a bistro helmed by a CIA-trained chef, where the dishwashers—definitely Diapers—were ex-cons. The coffin was nailed shut a few years after college: I was pursuing an MFA in fiction writing when a proclivity for fine dining combined with a penchant for procrastination-baking led me to stage at Shawn McClain’s Custom House in Chicago. Only there did I really realize that not all people who work in restaurants are gourmands; for some cooks, food is just a career.

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