Q: Timothy Hollingsworth (one of your chefs at the Laundry) just won top honors at the US semifinals of Bocuse d'Or, one the most important culinary contests, and will go on to January's international finals in Lyon, France. How tough is it for American chefs to compete on a French stage?
A: French cuisine, internationally, is considered haute cuisine and the base of fine dining, but there's a lot of opportunity for interpretation—whether it's an American, Japanese, or Scandinavian point of view. The judges are looking for that nationalistic approach. It doesn't have to be French if you're from Sweden. We'll at least come back a stronger team than when we left.
Q: You've had several talented protégés. Whom are you especially proud of?
A: Eric Ziebold in Washington, D.C., at CityZen, and Grant Achatz in Chicago, at Alinea. And then there's Jonathan Benno here at Per Se and Corey Lee at the French Laundry. The sous chefs that run these restaurants are extraordinary.
Q: What do you have in the works?
A: I'm just trying to make sure that our restaurants are running the way they should be. You come to a restaurant for a bit of relief. In today's market—with the economy—we want to make sure we're giving them all the relief that we can.
Q: You made a name for yourself before the Food Network craze and the rise of the celebrity chef. Why are people so interested in chefs as personalities now?
A: People have become much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what they're eating. Restaurants have also become a center of entertainment, whether it's with your friends or family. They're a place of refuge—for forgetting about what's going on outside. And there's the media, which plays a huge part in anybody's fame.
Q: What cooking shows do you watch?
A: [Laughs] I wish I had time. Either I'm working, reading, or sleeping—but never enough reading or sleeping, mostly work. Ryan Wenzel