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Top chef has appetite for success

By CNN's Jenny Harrison
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NAPA VALLEY, California (CNN) -- Drive for an hour north of San Francisco following Highway 29 and you will enter the majestic wine country that is Napa Valley.

It is here that chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller opened his landmark restaurant, The French Laundry in 1994, bringing haute cuisine to the Yountville area.

Here, classic French cooking is given the Thomas Keller touch with an infusion of flavors playing with textures and attention to detail.

Keller comes from humble cooking roots.

The youngest of five boys, it was his mother who introduced him to the kitchen -- first washing dishes at the restaurant she managed. Then at 18, filling the vacant chef position.

He says that although he did not have any formal training, he always strived to improve his technique in the kitchen.

"I think a lot of things come from desire -- a really strong desire for what you do," Keller says.

"That's always been with me. I've always wanted to learn more about what I was doing, learn more about cooking, try to do a better job.

"I always try to look at something and see it in a little different way, but at the same time making sure that I respect the tradition and the history of where that specific thing came from."

The starting point for all his creations is fresh ingredients -- if something is not in season then you will not find it on the menu.

Jacbson's Farm, half a mile from The French Laundry, is where Keller and I gather ingredients for a salad. Yes, I am about to cook alongside one of America's finest chefs.

In the business of fine dining, the pairing of wine with food is crucial, so with the cooking lesson behind me, it is time for me to expand my gastronomic experience -- and learn the art of wine tasting.

Keller takes me to some of his Napa favorites, including Long Vineyards, where he tells me that not only is the wine great, but where he loves taking in the scenery at the top of the mountain overlooking Lake Hennessey.

Keller and the vineyard's owner, Bob Long, have been friends since Keller arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, but it was a decade earlier, when he was in New York, that he first came across the wine.

"I said, 'When I get to Napa I've got to meet this man who makes this wonderful Chardonnay and see where it comes from,'"Keller says.

As Bob Long tells me, tasting is very important for a winemaker, but you do not need to be an expert to be able to tell if a wine tastes good.

"When you taste it, if you're a consumer or just a general taster of wine, without trying to evaluate it technically, you want the answer to be yes. If it's not yes it's too bad."

Another of Keller's favorite Napa Valley vineyards is Colgin Cellars, which spreads across 20 acres of amazing vineyards.

Assistant winemaker Allison Tauziet says that the conditions are perfect to give the fruit a nice slow, easy opportunity to ripen and develop flavors leading up to harvest time.

"The soil here is very special. It's very rocky, clay soil, which are the perfect conditions for Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Given that it's an eastern facing slope we get the gentle morning sun rather than the hot afternoon sun," she says.

Keller gives me a quick tutorial in matching food and wine, using a Colgin Syrah variety.

"It's just an extraordinary wine, rich and just full of fruit -- a very intense wine. I can see by its color that it has a paprika quality to it -- there's some spiciness going on there. I really love that style of wine.

"I like lamb with Syrah. The audaciousness of lamb and the spiciness of this wine, I love those qualities together. It's really special."

The wine tasting and organic gardens are all part of creating Keller's signature experience, a standard he is spreading through his other restaurants.

"It's not just about the food, its about the entire experience. It's about the ambiance, it's about the service, it's about the wine, it's about the people that you are with," he says.

CNN's Jenny Harrison gets a cooking lesson from Thomas Keller.


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