Timothy Hollingsworth, chef de cuisine of the French Laundry since summer 2009, has been participating in the first-ever chef de cuisine exchange program between his home restaurant and the other three-Michelin-star jewel in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) crown, New York City’s Per Se. Hollingsworth possesses some of the deepest institutional knowledge of TKRG, having moved up the ladder from commis (prep cook) to chef de cuisine, all at the French Laundry, and also serving as part of the opening team of Per Se. With a few days left in his stay (he’ll be here through Tuesday, Feb. 28, while Eli Kaimeh is serving as CDC out West), we sat down with Hollingsworth the other morning in Per Se’s Salon, to ask him about his time here, and catch up on issues large and small:
TOQUELAND: There’s always been some cross-pollination among the restaurants in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, such as periodic manager retreats, but is this chef-de-cuisine switch new?
HOLLINGSWORTH: This is the first time we’ve done it. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. But because of staffing and how busy each restaurant was, it just never panned out. But, finally, we were at a point where we felt comfortable enough that maybe we could move on it. It’s a very natural thing because three out of the five sous chefs here, I worked with at the French Laundry. So I know them. I have a personal relationship with them. It’s the same systems. It’s a very easy transition.
TOQUELAND: You were part of the team that came east from the French Laundry to open Per Se about 10 years ago.
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, as far as kitchen is concerned, I was the only CDP [chef de partie] to transfer here, then go back to the French Laundry.
TOQUELAND: Do you notice changes or evolutions here? Things that are different since Per Se first opened?
HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s evolving. You see it evolving. You see the differences between Jonathan [Benno, now at Lincoln] as the chef de cuisine and now Eli [Kaimeh] as the chef de cuisine. And the managers. And we’re always pushing ourselves to take things to the next level, so, yeah; it’s evolved immensely since I was first out here.
TOQUELAND: But those changes probably aren’t that apparent to guests of the restaurant. Perfect isn’t a word that gets tossed around the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG). [As readers may know, Keller opened his The French Laundry Cookbook with the now-iconic assertion that there's no such thing as perfect food; the paragraph is featured on plaques in both the French Laundry and Per Se kitchens.] But most people who have dined here would say it’s been pretty perfect pretty much from the go, since you were already operating at such a high level. So to them, the changes might not be perceptible. Can you give an example of what a significant change is to the team here?
HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s the little changes. It’s hard to state a specific example because little changes are made every single day. You’re constantly thinking of what we at TKRG have defined as The Green Tape Moment: For years and years and years, we labeled everything in the kitchen with green tape and we tore the tape, and put it on a Lexan [durable plastic container], or used it to tape a tablecloth to the pass. We tore it. And then one day somebody picked up the scissors and cut the tape. And then, another day, somebody sees somebody cut the tape and acknowledges that and says, "This is what we’re going to do from now on; we’re going to cut the green tape." And now, if anybody were to rip the green tape it would be like. ..
TOQUELAND: Nails on a chalkboard?
HOLLINGSWORTH: Yeah, exactly.