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Chats / Michael Minnillo of French Laundry
courtesy of Thomas Keller
courtesy of Thomas Keller

Michael Minnillo is the General Manager of The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Known for their exquisite prix-fixe menu served in a charming farmhouse, this California classic is the epitome of fine dining. With Thomas Keller at the helm, they ensure that no single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the entire meal so that the guest experiences a sense of surprise each and every bite. We sat down with Michael to talk about working for Chef Keller, his ideal New York itinerary, his guide to Napa and more.

courtesy of Thomas Keller
courtesy of Thomas Keller

Give us a bit of background. How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?

I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio.  I studied Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, with ambitions to go to law school.  Wanting to take a break from school, I started cooking at my father’s restaurant, The Baricelli Inn, in Cleveland (now closed).  I fell in love with cooking and working the kitchen so I stayed on full time.  Not too long after, I got a job at the French Laundry as a Commis (prep cook) and moved my life out west.  After spending a little over 3 years in the French Laundry kitchen, I moved to the dining room, starting out as a food runner and climbing all the way to Captain.  In 2004, I left Yountville to help open Per Se in NYC, where I stayed for 9 years, until returning the the French Laundry as General Manager in 2012.

michael-fl

So you’ve been with Thomas Keller for quite some time. Tell us more about your journey with Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. How has your team redefined fine dining? 

I have been very fortunate in my time here.  I literally was the cook peeling the potatoes in the back kitchen when I started, and now I’m the General Manager.  The culture here is unlike any other; we all support each other and look out for everyone’s best interest all to benefit the guest.  We make the experience as comfortable as possible, as if the guest are dining in our own home. 

courtesy of Kqed
courtesy of Kqed

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from Chef Keller? 

1. To make people happy, no matter what they want.  We have no ego here. If someone wants a bowl of cereal, we go to the store and serve it to them.  One time when I was in the kitchen, a gentleman wanted 9 courses of spam.  No problem, we served him a menu all spam; we like to make it fun!

michael-fl4

2. Collaboration.  We all work together to find the best ways and also work together when something doesn’t go the way it’s planned.

3. Modesty.  We are all selfless in the work we do.  No one person more important than another. 

courtesy of Thomas Keller
courtesy of Thomas Keller

Tell us more about the massive kitchen renovation.

In November of 2014, we began the French Laundry kitchen renovation.  When we first open the restaurant in 1994, our kitchen was in the Salon (the area we currently receive our guests).  In 1996, we built a kitchen at the rear for of the historic building and connected the 2 buildings with a breezeway.  We have since remodeled that kitchen several times throughout the years, and we were getting ready to do another when we decided to build a new one.  The project is inspired by the Louvre in Paris.  In 1989, I.M. Pei designed the pyramid entrance to the Louvre, giving the classic French architecture, a modern and contemporary feel to it without changing the historic building.  That is what we are doing here in Yountville. The 2 new buildings are very contemporary and modern to contrast the historic French Laundry building. One will house the new kitchen and the other will have a new wine cellar, more restrooms, new office, and a small butcher kitchen. The project is very big in scope, and we could not close the restaurant for that length of time, so we built a temporary kitchen out of 4 shipping containers.  We then moved all the equipment from the old kitchen and placed it in its same layout as in the containers, and this allows us to stay open during the construction.

What values are needed to successfully run one of the best restaurants in the world?

Have a strong team. I am nothing without my team.  They do all the work, come up with the great ideas, and make my job easy. Have a strong sense of comfort. Comfort the staff, the guests and the chef.  Give them all the tools and they will crush it. Just say yes! I try to say yes to any and all requests I get.  A big smile and the word “yes” goes a long way.

michael-fl2

courtesy of Grubstreet
courtesy of Grubstreet
courtesy of Slow Living Radio
courtesy of Slow Living Radio
courtesy of The French Laundry
courtesy of The French Laundry
courtesy of The French Laundry
courtesy of The French Laundry

What is your favorite dish on the French Laundry menu? 

Our menu changes everyday, but one of my favorite dishes that we have severed was the “tongue in cheek:” braised beef cheeks and veal tongue with confit tomato and horseradish crème fraiche… SO GOOD! 

What makes a great concierge? 

Taking care of all the small details, the ones that no one thinks of, leaving no stone unturned. 

If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be and where would you go? 

Have a steak and a cigar with Frank Sinatra at The Surf Club in Miami.

courtesy of ZZ's
courtesy of ZZ’s

Describe your perfect New York City itinerary.

I love the Baccarat Hotel to stay.  I spend most of my time at Per Se when I am in NYC, but when I have some free time, I like to catch up with my old friends on the upper west side at Barciebo and grab dinner at LupaZZ’s Clam Bar has some great cocktails, and PDT has great cocktails, also.

Tell us about a day in the life of Michael outside of the French Laundry.

I spend the morning in the park with my frenchie, Mocha, then play golf and head to the city for dinner and drinks and come home in the morning.

michael-fl4

What are you currently reading?

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

What are 3 places on your dream hit list?

Prague. I have always wanted to go, but have not had the time.

Michel Bras is my dream dinner that I have never eaten at yet!

A round of golf at Augusta National would be incredible!

courtesy of Redd
courtesy of Redd

Michael’s Northern California Guide:

DATE NIGHT:

Manresa

Special Occasion: 

The Restaurant at Meadowood

Casual:

The House of Prime Rib

Italian:

The Swiss Hotel

Japanese: 

Sushi Hana

French: 

Bouchon

Brunch: 

Redd

Steak: 

Press

Hidden gem: 

Swan Oyster Depot

Burger: 

Burgerdog at Silverado and Olympic Club

Dessert: 

Monsieur Benjamin

courtesy of Haute Holidays Travel
courtesy of Haute Holidays Travel
THE PERFECT NAPA WEEKEND:

Stay at the Poetry Inn.  Wake up early for a hot air balloon ride.  Play a round of golf on the North Course and get a massage at Silverado Resort and Spa, go to Colgin Cellars for a wine tasting on Pritchard Hill.  Get a cocktail at Redd Wood, and then dinner at Bouchon.

For reservations at The French Laundry or any other places mentioned in this interview, contact your lifestyle curator.