Snøhetta and Envelope A+D have released designs for an expansion to Chef Thomas Keller’s renowned fine dining establishment, The French Laundry, in Yountville, Calif. The restaurant—which won the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Restaurant Award” in 2005, and has earned three stars from Michelin every year since 2007—resides in a historic Napa Valley stone cottage that operated as a steam-powered laundry facility in the 1920s. The expansion, designed by Snøhetta and local architects Envelope A+D, in collaboration with kitchen designer Harrison & Koellner, will increase kitchen size by 25 percent, while renovations to the French Laundry courtyard will create a layered entry sequence for guests arriving at the restaurant.
Snøhetta project manager Nicolas Rader explains the expansion as approaching the overall French Laundry experience from two perspectives: That of the guests, from arrival to dining to departure, and that of the back-of-house environment for the chefs. On the arrival end, the design team worked to create a series of outdoor rooms. “You walk on a crushed granite path into an almond grove,” Rader says. “You hear the crunching under your feet and smell the almond trees, then you pass through a very small frame … and that’s when you get your first glimpse of the [French Laundry’s] iconic blue door.”
From the perspective of the chefs, the new kitchen will become what Envelope A+D founder Douglas Burnham describes as a “meditative temple.” From an initial sketch by Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers, AIA, the design team worked with local fabricators Kreysler & Associates—whom Snøhetta has also tapped for the façade of SFMoMA—to develop a sweeping, white fiberglass-reinforced polymer (FRP) ceiling that rises past oven hoods to slit skylights at its apex, following Dykers’ initial metaphor of a crisp, white tablecloth being unfurled across a dining table. The kitchen's walls and workstation surfaces will be made of white Dekton Quartz, which is anti-microbial, and the cast ceiling will feature low-relief ripples that imbue a sense of motion while still meeting health codes for clean surfaces. A horizontal window cut into the corner of the kitchen gives chefs views outward to the garden; as day turns to night, arriving guests can look inward to the activity of the bright kitchen. “The billowing upward is what gives a direction on the movement of the surface, but really it’s more of an organic, meditative temple space that has a ton of light coming in through skylights at the ridge and the corner window,” Burnham says. “You can see all of the chefs and servers coming together at the Pass—a table around which the dance of the kitchen happens.”
To create a textural distinction between the landmarked French Laundry structure’s shingled enclosure and the expansion, the design team developed a glazed façade with an abstracted, organic frit pattern. The corner slice allows views through the kitchen to the historic building beyond it. The new kitchen, which will be complemented by an annex comprising offices, wine cellar, and breakdown kitchen, will allow The French Laundry to keep pace with innovations in cooking technology while maintaining the exacting haute cuisine standards for which it is famous.
Chef Keller cites I.M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid, inaugurated in 1989, and its relationship to the 12th century Louvre Palace, as a partial inspiration for the project. “The French Laundry is being redesigned to be a backdrop worthy of the restaurant's history,” Keller said in a release. “We wanted to find a way to juxtapose the historic and the modern while maintaining the high quality cuisine and service our guests have come to expect from The French Laundry. The new design will be an innovative and functioning space that will allow us to continue to evolve as a restaurant and develop new standards.”
Burnham emphasizes the immersive nature of a visit to the French Laundry as being a core principle of the expansion: “As people are walking in, they’re getting views of both the historic French Laundry and the modern kitchen, with the cut corner,” Burnham says. ”Then they’ll move into the dining room; and later, they’ll be invited into the kitchen. That extended sequence is an important part of the project.”
Another sequence equally important to the expansion is that of its construction. With a projected timeline that might have killed the project with the length of restaurant closure, Envelope A+D devised Temporary Kitchen, an interim solution that placed The French Laundry’s existing kitchen within shipping containers in the one part of the site not involved in the renovation. With Envelope A+D’s prior experience in projects like Proxy, a Hayes Valley accumulation of curated shipping container storefronts, the Temporary Kitchen solution was a natural—and logistical—fit for Chef Keller. The French Laundry has reopened with Temporary Kitchen, which will serve as the primary chef station during construction, until the expansion is completed in late 2015.
This post has been updated.