Alan Brown’s food and travel blog, day 12: The CIA Greystone and The French Laundry

10 July, 2014 by
Hospitality Business

CIA barrel room. Wine makers hall of fame events facility.

Another day dawned in food and wine lovers paradise. And I became slightly more edgy as the day wore on. Tonight was to be the seminal point of the trip for me. Dinner at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. A restaurant I’ve been wanting to visit for over a decade. But what if after all this magnificent food I am disappointed?

CIA barrel room. Wine makers hall of fame events facility.

CIA barrel room. Wine makers hall of fame events facility.

But first an appointment with chef lecturer Tom Wong at the CIA’s Greystone facility in St Helena. A culinary school built in an old wine chateau on the side of a mountain. No place to expand, and being a cheaper option in this part of the world than a normal build, the 10 year plan is to burrow further into the old wine cellar area in the side of the mountain. If the results are anything like what they have achieved so far in this facility I’m putting it in my diary to return for a look see in 10 years.

A thorough tour later and with ‘her’ salivating at the dream of studying in such an environment, Chef Wong reminded us that despite the facility the satisfaction for all us educators remained the same, coming from the privilege of working with those students who show up every now and again to, as Chef Wong put it, ‘rock your world’ and go on to do great culinary things.

Wood oven in CIA outdoor cooking classroom

Wood oven in CIA outdoor cooking classroom

Chef Wong also succinctly described the culinary development that we had been experiencing since we arrived. A rejection of what he said had been coined a ‘Fed Ex’ cuisine approach whereby chefs had used whatever ingredients they liked, couriering them in as required, to the ‘farm to fork’ ethic of using local ingredients and building direct relationships with farmers. A complex and evolving dynamic. He also put into words the concept behind our ‘beet thinnings’ experience in Seattle. That it went beyond seasonality, of only using ingredients at their height of ripeness. That the use of ingredients encompassed the entire growing cycle from start to finish, at any point along this cycle identifying which part of the plant could be used. Hence the use of sunflower shoots, beet thinnings and so on. The move ‘back’ to cooking with fire was also a part of this culinary evolution. We like chef Wong will be watching to see where it all goes, whether it becomes a fully developed culinary style.


Aside from the exceptional facilities including an open plan kitchen environment with several classes of different levels and aspects of the programme all going on at once in different areas the school has their own farm to fork programme which students undertake as elective degree level papers. A working produce farm as well as a pig farm! The more I see these initiatives the more I wonder about what we could be doing back home…

Fast forward a few hours, armoured in shirt, jacket and borrowed tie I entered the world of Chef Keller. Entering The French Laundry is like entering a place of worship…with reverence and hush. But then the food starts arriving…my earlier neuroses are laid to rest…I have entered my version of culinary heaven and ecstasy, no words are going to adequately describe it…

…at this point who cares about the mortgage!


“A respect for food is a respect for life, for what we do and who we are”

Thomas Keller