Dear French Laundry

It began with a good-natured letter to the French Laundry restaurant in Yountville.

Mateo and I had just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary and we made every attempt to honor our special occasion by dining at the French Laundry. Despite following the reservation protocol of booking two months in advance (only to get on the waitlist for several days), calling almost daily, even showing up on the day of with my hand-written sign hoping that we would come off the wait-list, we were unsuccessful in getting in.

We still had a fabulous and memorable anniversary celebration in the wine country. Once home, I sent a letter to the restaurant with a clip from my last blog-posting. Some expected that I would receive a call back from the renowned ‘temple of all things delicious’, but I wasn’t sure. Several days after putting my letter in the mail, however, I received a call from the general manager at the French Laundry!

He acknowledged our plight and asked if he could assist us in securing a reservation and before I knew it, I was agreeing to dinner at the end of the week. Babysitting lined up seamlessly. The heavens were aligning and we found ourselves giddy with excitement over our fast-approaching reservations.

On Friday evening we drove up to Yountville. Exhausted after a long week, we were running on the fuel of excitement and anticipation. Our reservation was for 9:15pm, so we did our best to conserve our energy and appetites.

We arrived early at the restaurant and sat in their lovely, enclosed garden until our table was ready. A host offered us complimentary glasses of French Laundry blend “Champagne” in honor of our anniversary and we sipped in the perfectly manicured garden, surrounded by flowers, candlelight, and others awaiting their special experience.

Once we sat down, much like our wedding day, time stood still and Mateo and I kept saying “We’re really here!” The service was first-rate, impeccable, and the food was, as I call it “chef-on-a-plate!” Artful, decadent, heavenly, and fit for a king and queen. We dined on lobster, caviar, oysters, foie gras (no issues here!) served with three types of exotic salts, a hen egg, pork belly, lamb, morels, handmade truffles produced by the restaurant’s own chocolatier, and “coffee and donuts”…all truly transcendent.

Toward the end of our four-hour dining experience, I explained to our host that we had made an attempt to dine there the weekend prior. I showed him the photo of me and the sign outside the restaurant and he was tickled, and gladly co-conspired to get a photo-op after our dinner.

At 1am, tired and well-sated, after feasting until the seams in our stomachs began to burst, we were led into the kitchen. Now, I was really in heaven! We met the executive chef (not Thomas Keller that evening), a visiting chef from Per Se in New York, and the supporting cast. They were sitting around on stools discussing the menu for the next week, sipping from cold cans of Budweiser (I kid you not!), all graciously taking turns signing our personalized menu. We snapped our photos, expressed our gratitude, and said our farewells.

Now, I have my opinions about the cost of the occasion, the inaccessibility of the restaurant to the common-man, and all the hype surrounding the place. Still, we had the time of our lives! We felt special, treated, and a little royal. I can now check “Must eat at the French Laundry” off my life-list. I am simply filled with the satisfaction of having had an amazing dining experience with the love of my life, in celebration of fifteen magical years.

On Days Like This

On dreary days like this when the sun is struggling to assert itself and the family is off on one of those ‘let mom rest’ outings, I am left alone with my feelings and the growing desire to cook something.

As I was sitting on the couch this morning, when it was drizzling outside and the kids were running around the house in their pajamas, I turned to one of my cookbooks (ad hoc at home by Thomas Keller), to a page with a gorgeous photo of bread pudding with bananas. Yes! I would make this today. Perfect.

My mom has been very much on my mind as of late. I can tell this by my need to make comfort food. I equate my mom with comfort food, and find I need it that much more when the loss of her is sitting heavy on my heart.

My mother was one of those souls who made this planet a better place to live. She was a true mensch. So revered by her friends was my mom, that my siblings and I sometimes wondered who they were talking about when she was described in such saintly terms. We were familiar with the many angles of her spectrum of light. What I’m left remembering though is the woman who loved me the most in the world (loving each of her kids ‘the most’, as mothers should); the woman who welcomed everyone at her table; the woman who told me that she wanted to be more like me if she had her life to live over (imagine that); the woman who would march for all right causes and fought all of the good fights.

She passed away four years ago, surrounded by loving family members singing folk songs, songs of protest, reading poetry, saying loving words through drenching tears, holding hands, embracing, holding each other up.

At first, it felt like I had lost my compass. I hadn’t realized just how much my mom anchored me to my life. It took time, but eventually I became my own compass, my own anchor. I have stepped up and become some of the mom that she was, as well as the mom that I would naturally become, given my unique take on the world. As my mom did with me, I cook with my children, I get impatient with them, and I tell them often that I love them. I laugh much more with Caleb and Sadie, and consciously infuse silliness, play, and physical affection into my parenting approach, much more than my mom did. It wasn’t so much her style.

From the moment I saw that photo of the bread pudding, I obsessed about making some with my kiddos. It would lift my spirits and give me an excuse to enjoy some time in the kitchen with them, while it filled up with sweet smells of melting chocolate and custard soaked bread. I was – as I usually am – intimidated by Keller’s recipes (needless to say, he’s not a full-time working mom with two young children), but I figured I could put my spin on it and add some dark chocolate chunks, which were missing from his version. I would also caramelize the bananas in butter and brown sugar, a departure from Keller’s instructions. How could I not?

While the family was out, I took a lone walk to the store and shopped for the bread pudding ingredients. Back at home, I prepared the custard, toasted the challah, and then combined the bread and custard so they could start soaking. A smile came to my face as I danced around my quiet kitchen doing my thing. I was already feeling better. Once Caleb and Sadie returned, we completed the recipe together. Caleb carefully sliced bananas with a sharp knife (while I breathed deeply and watched carefully as he followed the ‘tuck your fingers in like claws’ technique that I taught him).

The bread pudding was calling to us from the oven and we couldn’t wait for it to be ready for eating. This was a therapeutic recipe for me and I could feel my heart lightening and my smile growing as the pudding came out of the oven looking golden, bubbly, and gorgeous.

What better way to honor the woman who taught me how to cook and to love food as much as I do, than to make something she would have enjoyed immensely. The bread pudding was divine, and the addition of caramelized bananas and melted chocolate was off-the-hook good. I would make this again and again, when in need of comfort.

I love you Ma. ‘Wish you would pick up the phone when I call.

Bread Pudding with Caramelized Bananas and Chocolate Chunks

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