After joining a longtime friend for his father’s 75th birthday dinner at the French Laundry, that couple was on my mind as I spent an hour driving along dark, winding roads from Yountville to Santa Rosa, digesting my caviar, abalone and rabbit while chewing on the question: Was it worth it?
If you have money to burn, why not? If you’re celebrating a milestone birthday or a big anniversary, sure. If you’re Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who’s facing a recall election on Sept. 14 and got a lot of flak for a meal he had at the Michelin three-star restaurant in November, the answer is probably no. But if the governor hadn’t been spotted indulging maskless during a time of hardship, austerity and lockdowns, I’m sure he would’ve told you it was an amazing meal. Because it is.
The establishment from lauded chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller that helped turn Northern California’s Yountville into Wine Disneyland is not the newest, hippest restaurant; it’s been around since 1994. In the fine-dining world, it’s considered one of the premier spots to eat or work. Chefs who are more interested in taking risks and challenging diners to expand their minds through their palates might brand it as dated or passe.
Whatever your politics, or however you feel about a governor celebrating a lobbyist’s birthday there while asking the state’s residents to maintain their distance to prevent the spread of covid, the French Laundry embodies more than Michelin stars and truffle overload. It’s a place where many of the challenges facing California — and the rest of the country — are just barely out of sight but not out of mind. Whether or not Newsom keeps his job, these problems aren’t going away; they’re still on the menu.
Let’s start with the difficulty of snagging a table. If you’re not a government official or a high-priced lobbyist, you’ll have to get in the old-fashioned way. Reservations for the entire month open at 10 a.m. Pacific on the first day of the previous month. So if you want a table for November, set your alarm now and recruit a handful of friends with fast fingers to try to book a table on Oct. 1. Before you’ve charged a cent to your credit card (and yes, diners are charged upfront), the French Laundry has whetted your appetite with anticipation. There’s nothing more delicious than exclusivity.
When you finally arrive and drive right past without noticing — “I expected it to be perched on a mountain,” a tourist tells me — you’re reminded that, often, California wealth is subtle. Like the tech billionaire who shows up to dinner in jeans and flip-flops, or the celebrity who lives in a quaint Venice bungalow, the French Laundry’s exterior is not showy. From the street, the large, dark gray house — the first level covered in ivy and shades drawn, obscuring the faces of whoever is dining inside — is well-appointed but not extravagant. The sign out front is easily blocked when a stretch limo stops by to drop off patrons. The opulence at the French Laundry kicks in once you’re inside: in the food, the wine, the service.
Indoors or out? The vast majority of restaurants that added or expanded their outdoor seating during the pandemic didn’t charge more for it. The French Laundry, however, has long recognized a truth of life in California: Safe air is a valuable commodity. The restaurant charges more to eat outside ($450) than in its comparatively cramped dining room ($350). These days, servers wear discreet V-shaped pins on their lapels, showing that they’re vaccinated, while diners need not show proof of vaccination.
On the August night I visited, the air was clear and the light evening breeze pleasant, about 150 miles from the Dixie Fire, one of the largest in state history. But fire danger and air quality change quickly in California, and the French Laundry’s premium price for outdoor seating highlights that clean air, like fine dining, is a luxury not everyone can afford. California’s low-income residents and people of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution from vehicles. Poorer Californians are less likely to be able to afford portable air purifiers or expensive air-filtration systems, and they’re more likely to have jobs that keep them outdoors and exposed to smoke. Wealthier residents can flee to second homes or vacation rentals when the air gets bad. And the combination of a pandemic and climate change is especially dangerous: A recent study found that exposure to wildfire smoke increases susceptibility to covid-19.
The food. By my first bite at the French Laundry — a smoked salmon mousse cornetto topped with everything bagel seasoning — it was clear this decadent meal would be different from my everyday. This was no Everything but the Bagel seasoning mix from Trader Joe’s that I braved crowds and germs to obtain in the spring of 2020. So much thought, planning and preparation goes into every bite, a tomato utterly surprising in its sweetness, a single leaf of basil exploding in flavor. At times, the attention to detail feels absurd. Do I really need butter from a specific farm in Vermont where chef Thomas Keller has an exclusive relationship with the dairy farmer? No, I do not. But I savored every bite.
Most Californians were not dining at Michelin-starred restaurants during the pandemic; many were not getting enough to eat. A team of UCLA researchers found that, in the first three months of the pandemic, 3 million adults in California lacked sufficient food, a 22 percent increase since before the pandemic. In the past year and a half, food banks in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles have seen need skyrocket, serving double or triple the numbers of people they helped before the pandemic.
This rise in food insecurity is part of the reason Newsom’s dinner at the French Laundry nearly a year ago struck so many as tone-deaf. He apologized afterward, saying: “Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up and walked back, got in my car and drove back to my house.” However, he admits, “we’re all human.”
The recall effort was underway long before Newsom sat down to dinner here. But the meal provided red meat for Republicans opposed to his liberal policies and others who see the governor as elitist and out of touch.
Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, thinks Newsom’s meal at the French Laundry has become an “easy punching bag,” nothing more. “While inequality is out of control in our state and country, I actually feel like the photograph of Newsom eating there is not representative of his policy positions,” many of which, she says, are “aimed at reversing inequality.” Ichikawa points to Newsom’s decision to make undocumented immigrants eligible to receive state stimulus payments and the state’s recent move to provide free school lunches for every public school student, a plan that received bipartisan support.
The experience. Oswald Morgan, a 52-year-old culinary entrepreneur who helped design the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s headquarters cafe in Atlanta, has visited Napa several times. And on most previous trips, he has ruled that the true price of a meal at the French Laundry is measured not just in money but in minutes — and in both senses, it’s a very expensive experience. Dinner can easily run four or five hours. “I’ve never wanted to go to the French Laundry because I didn’t think I wanted to sit through that meal,” Morgan says. “I could see five restaurants in the time I could enjoy a meal at the French Laundry.”
But when Morgan’s wife wanted to go in June, he felt compelled to make it happen. The pandemic had taught him to slow down, and he relished the fact that “that table was mine all night,” unlike other establishments that have placed covid-era time limits on dining. “We retreated to the garden for a nightcap. We had a ball,” Morgan says. “And we probably would have not fully experienced it or appreciated it,” he says, if it weren’t for the pandemic.
Joseph Nunes, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, says that food seems to be where a lot of aspirational luxury spending is going these days, as people are less inclined to splurge on designer clothes or other material goods. “People need food, and perhaps it’s not as egregious as spending on something completely frivolous,” Nunes writes in an email.
At my meal, that luxury came through not just in the decadence but in how tailored it was to each person around the table. When you’re a restricted diner, as I am, you’re used to paying for a full meal and not getting to eat everything that comes with it, or having limited choices. At the French Laundry, dietary restrictions are no problem. Everything that landed on my plate, from that tiny cornetto amuse-bouche to the doughnut holes during the dessert course, was gluten-free. The servers pointed out every time I was getting something different from my dining buddies. Our guest of honor left with a bottle of champagne, engraved just for him.
California has one of the highest measures of income inequality in the country; only five other states have bigger gaps between the wealthiest and low-income families. Much of that disparity comes through in the fancy homes and flashy cars that overshadow those who are hungry and homeless. But it’s also reflected in who can afford the luxury of time — be it a five-hour meal or a two-week vacation, who can outsource their child care, cooking and shopping — and who’s providing those services.
On the night that I visited the French Laundry, the staff was predominantly White. Experts who study the leisure and hospitality industries note that this is typical of the fine-dining world, which leans heavily White and male, while casual and fast-food workers are typically women and people of color. According to a CalMatters assessment of how race intersects with wages among California workers as of January 2020, 56 percent of the state’s low-wage workers (earning $16 an hour or less) were Hispanic; 27 percent were White; 11 percent were Asian; and 6 percent were Black. Among high-wage workers (defined as $28 an hour or more), 51 percent were White; 23 percent were Hispanic; 21 percent were Asian and 5 percent were Black. CalMatters also found that, in the beginning of the pandemic, the low-wage workers hit hardest with job losses were those in leisure and hospitality.
The staff. Snagging a job at the French Laundry is cushy and coveted — the food world’s equivalent of working at Apple or Google. The restaurant didn’t respond to an inquiry about how much it pays workers, but the jobs come with access to medical coverage and a retirement plan, sports leagues, company holiday parties and a nonprofit relief fund of nearly $1 million set aside to assist workers past and present. Jonathan Jacobi, a 41-year-old bartender at Ad Hoc, another Thomas Keller restaurant in Yountville, received some help from that relief fund when he was furloughed for 51 weeks during the pandemic and a significant unforeseen expense popped up. “It made my life much more manageable,” Jacobi says. He has been with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group for four years, which he finds to be a relatively short tenure, noting that his roommate has worked with the company for 19 years.
Not everyone within the company has felt so supported. After Auzerais Bellamy, a Black woman, found it difficult to progress from Keller’s more casual Bouchon Bakery to French Laundry or his Manhattan restaurant Per Se, she left the fine-dining world altogether, striking out on her own as a bakery owner. In 2016, Vannessa Scott-Allen, a former server from Per Se, sued the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, claiming she was wrongfully terminated after she was denied a transfer to French Laundry once it became known she was pregnant. A jury cleared Keller’s restaurant group of wrongdoing. Bellamy and Scott-Allen declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
Lest the French Laundry staffers get too comfortable, there’s a live video feed from the Yountville kitchen to Per Se. Through a company spokeswoman, the French Laundry said this reciprocal video feed aims to foster camaraderie. The live stream may do that for some; it might also make staff feel safer at work, knowing they and their colleagues are being recorded. The camera might also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder to staff members that their performance is being scrutinized.
The cost of a meal. Anita Solis has lived in Yountville, two houses down from the French Laundry, since the 1960s. The town has changed a lot in that time. “When I was a little girl, at one time there were 13 beer bars here,” recalls Solis, who’s now 70. The area was full of prune orchards, and the town itself “wasn’t pretty,” she says. “It’s beautiful now. Everything now is so much cleaner.”
However, she does miss the informality of life in Yountville before the French Laundry moved in and the tourists took over. “Before, there weren’t any town laws. Now if you burp too loud, you might get a fine for it,” Solis jokes. Her family owns Pancha’s, a popular dive bar that’s temporarily closed but remains the oldest Yountville establishment still around. She laments how expensive Yountville has become. “I think the cheapest hamburger here is $24,” she says, adding that if she wants to eat out, she’ll usually go to Napa or the one or two Yountville spots where lunch isn’t $30.
One of those choices had to be imported from Napa: Tacos Garcia, a taco truck that Yountville’s town council approved over a decade ago. On a recent weekday, Shawn Husar, who repairs refrigerators, stopped for lunch at Tacos Garcia — and quickly the conversation turned toward the wine country’s lack of affordability. Husar, 40, like many Californians, wasn’t aware of the Sept. 14 special election to recall Newsom; he isn’t registered with a political party and doesn’t vote. But he does have strong opinions about how expensive the area has become. “When things started catching on fire, I was like: They can burn as much as they want, as long as they get the vineyards,” he says.
Fires have torn through wine country nearly every year since 2017, burning vineyards and homes. It’s not that Husar wishes destruction on anyone. But the way he sees it, the wine industry has made Napa and neighboring Sonoma County (where he lives) unreasonably expensive. Husar has been fortunate enough to be able to buy a home, but when he sees friends stretching to afford $650,000 homes — below the area’s median price — he doubts whether living in California is worth it.
There’s one more disparity that could cost Newsom his governorship: Who votes in this election and who doesn’t, and how much of a say those voters get. California is overwhelmingly Democratic, but Republicans are the ones driving the recall effort and appear more motivated to cast ballots. The state’s last recall election, in 2003, replaced Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Democrats up and down the state haven’t taken this seriously, whereas Republicans have,” Newsom told my colleague Dan Balz in an August interview. “Republicans see this as a historic opportunity.”
Voters have two questions to answer: Should Newsom be recalled from office? And if so, who should replace him? There are 46 candidates on the ballot. A FiveThirtyEight average of polls gives Newsom a slight edge, with 44 percent of voters in favor of his ouster and 52 percent wanting to keep him.
If Newsom is removed from office, whichever candidate receives the most votes will be the next governor. That means a new governor could be elected without receiving a majority of the votes cast. Constitutional scholars point out that this could disenfranchise the recall’s “no” voters, as they don’t have a chance to vote for Newsom on the second question.
It’s the electoral equivalent of one person ordering for the entire table.
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