The high-tech tools of Keller's kitchens

Road Trip 2010: It's not all great ingredients and top-tier cooking at the world famous French Laundry and Per Se restaurants. Thomas Keller, one of America's best chefs, also turns to innovative gadgets.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

The Smoking Gun is one of a series of innovative tools and technologies in use at The French Laundry and Per Se, the famous restaurants of top chef Thomas Keller. Here, we see Per Se sous chef Matt Orlando use the Smoking Gun to apply flavored smoke to a container of cream. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NEW YORK--I'm standing in the middle of America's foodie mecca, and I've found a smoking gun that helps explains its incredible success.

I mean that literally.

This is the kitchen of world-class chef Thomas Keller's Per Se, his Michelin three-star restaurant located on Columbus Circle, and the smoke is flowing freely, rapidly filling up a plastic container and helping to give the cream inside some additional flavor.

I mentioned this was the Smoking Gun, a culinary tool from PolyScience, right?

I've come here to Per Se because a friend told me he'd had a chance to visit the kitchen here and had seen a surprising amount of cutting-edge equipment and innovative culinary gear in use. And since I was soon to be in New York on Road Trip 2010, and I have a small addiction to food porn, it only made sense for me to come see this for myself.

Click here for a full photo gallery on the technology and cutting-edge equipment being used at Thomas Keller's Per Se and French Laundry.

Backstage at America's best restaurants (photos)

See all photos

But Thomas Keller is probably better known for his other Michelin three-star restaurant, The French Laundry, in Yountville, Calif., just a few miles north of the wine and food hotbed of Napa. And since I live not all that far from there, I felt it made additional sense to stop by The French Laundry first, before embarking on my road trip proper, to see how Keller does it not just on one coast, but both.

That's especially true because one of the coolest pieces of technology in use at both restaurants is a videoconferencing system that allows the staff in both kitchens to see what's going on 3,000 miles away, in real-time. They can even control the camera on the other end, moving it left to right or zooming in close, allowing them to see with a great amount of detail what's going on in their sister establishment.

The French Laundry and Per Se frequently exchange staff, both for training reasons, and to give cooks a chance to experience both environments--the classic elegance and historic Napa Valley location of The French Kitchen, and the glitzy, uber-modern hot spot vibe of Per Se. So one of the common uses of the videoconferencing system is for greetings between professionals who are quite often very familiar with each other.

The French Laundry/Per Se videoconferencing system allows cooks in both kitchens to see what's happening in the other in real time. It's even used to taunt, by showing, as seen here, some of The French Laundry's garden fresh vegetables--Per Se doesn't have a vegetable garden. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But there's also a practical purpose too: They can see how a dish is being prepared; they can see what's being cooked for an evening's menu; a fellow at Per Se working garde manager can see how his counterpart in Yountville is doing it; and they can consult with each other about any number of things.

They can also taunt each other, as the Yountville staff sometimes does when it brings in some particularly wonderful looking vegetables from the lovely garden The French Laundry maintains across the road from the restaurant building. Per Se doesn't have a vegetable garden.

If you've ever used a FoodSaver--a popular vacuum-packing system--you might find another one of Keller's favorite systems, known as sous-vide, quite familiar. Starting with an industrial vacuum packer called an Ultravac, the staff at both restaurants--and many others, of course--can bag some sort of food, say a piece of fish that's had some mousse applied to it, or a cepe (a type of mushroom) straight from the garden, and suck all the air out of the bag. This both extends the shelf life of the item, especially with protein-heavy foods, by stopping the oxygenation process, and also lets the staff cook it in a special tank of water.

For a mushroom, that means heating the water to 92 degrees and leaving the cepe in there for a short while. And all without much flavor loss, and certainly with less than if it was to be heated in a pan, said Timothy Hollingsworth, the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry.

And what makes the sous-vide system so effective and efficient for the two kitchens--and why there are six or seven, or possibly more, in both restaurants, is that it also includes another device that can quickly heat the water in the tanks to a precise temperature, circulate the water, and keep it at the consistent temperature.

It's also not always necessary to vacuum seal everything, said Matt Orlando, a sous chef at Per Se.

To prepare a lobster, for example, Keller would poach it in butter, and then make an emulsion of water and butter and mix it in with the crustacean, and let it circulate overnight, Orlando said. Similarly, Keller might confit a piece of lamb in duck fat and canola oil at 59.5 degrees for 45 minutes and come out with the start of a fantastic dish.

Cold fridges and good water
As you can imagine, keeping fresh food at desired temperatures is key in the rarefied air of a Per Se or French Laundry kitchen. And at Per Se, the team can rely on a sophisticated system to ensure that their fridges stay as cold as they're supposed to be.

The technology is called Temp Trak, and it's a system of sensors installed in each fridge, and linked wirelessly to a computer system that allows staffers to see near real-time temperature readings of every cooler. That's a good thing, but what makes it even better is that the software can issue email alarms to key people if a fridge's temperature rises and stays too high--because, say, someone left a door open.

Another nice system is the Fresh Nordaq, which is used at both restaurants to provide patrons with clean, well-filtered water, both still and sparkling, from nothing but what comes out of the tap.

This is good on many levels, explained Gerald San Jose, Per Se's culinary liaison, including the fact that it lets the restaurants avoid importing water from abroad, as they both used to, as well as storing vast numbers of bottles, as was the custom.

The Fresh Nordaq water-filtration system, as seen at Per Se. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The water also comes out crisp and cold, without needing to be refrigerated, and so since adopting the Fresh system, the two restaurants have been able to offer customers ice cold water, without the need for ice.

Naturally, there's more--things like induction burners that can cook rapidly without the need to apply direct heat; geothermal air conditioning (French Laundry) that cools rooms by pulling air from shafts dug twenty feet or more below ground; a fantastic machine called a Paco Jet that allows for extremely smooth made-to-order ice cream; and the programmable Rational oven, a system that allows for cooking everything from pastries to meat at precise temperatures, for exact amounts of time.

And because these are high-end restaurants, there's some technology thrown into the wine cellar too. Keller's establishments bar code their many bottles, and have a computerized inventory system that allows for real-time tracking of what has been ordered, what's still on the shelf and which vintages need to be replenished.

As of this writing, I haven't eaten at either Per Se or French Laundry, so I can't confirm for you firsthand that the dishes are as sublime as I've heard. But I do have a nose, and I can say without question that what these top-notch professionals produce create aromas that themselves are worth serious money.

A rack of fresh tomatoes in a reach-in refrigerator at Per Se. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

All in all, though, these are still kitchens, and what really dominates these high-energy--but amazingly orderly spaces--is the flash of cutting knives, the smells of roasting meats, the colors of garden-fresh tomatoes, and the sizzle of a pan. But it's nice to see that where technology or cutting-edge tools can be applied to make the food better, Keller can't have missed many opportunities.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation, and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.