Any cook who has had the privilege of working at Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin star restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., we can assume possesses some combination of talent, focus and an incendiary passion for food. In chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth’s case, behaving like a stalker didn’t hurt either.
“It’s a pretty funny story,” says Hollingsworth, who was 20 years old when he made the decision to pursue a culinary career. Short on experience, but uninterested in culinary school, he set his sights on learning from the best in the industry.
So Hollingsworth made a reservation at The French Laundry, confirming that Keller would be in the restaurant that day and, after enjoying the most amazing meal he’d had in his life up until that moment, he went into the kitchen, introduced himself and handed over his resume. Hollingsworth then spent the next several weeks following up over the phone.
“Every time I called, they would ask if I’d like to speak to the chef de cuisine at the time instead and I’d always say no. I wanted to speak with Keller and Keller only,” Hollingsworth says. “Thinking about it now, if someone were to call me up and say the same thing I’d think, ‘This person’s crazy.’”
Crazy like a fox, perhaps. In the end, Hollingsworth was offered a job. It would be four years until he learned that he had eventually been called in due to a miscommunication. “Basically, I was hired by accident and I’ve stuck around for 11 years,” he says, laughing. In that time, he’s had ample opportunity to prove his mettle. In 2009, Hollingsworth represented the restaurant and the United States at the Bocuse d’Or competition, eventually placing sixth—the highest level any American has ever achieved.
Was he angry? “Being angry at the judges would be a personality flaw,” he says. “You have to respect the system and the decision. I know the faults that were in my food but I think it was an amazing opportunity and a moment that has shaped me in my career.”
But the emotional and physical stress of the competition did catch up with him afterward. “The following day, I rented a car with my then-girlfriend and we drove to Maison Pic in Valence, France,” says Hollignsworth. “We stayed the night and had dinner in the restaurant in Southern France. It was beautiful and very special for me, because the first chef I’d ever worked for had come from that small town,” he says. “I had La Poularde de Bresse with truffles and a vegetable dish that was pretty spectacular. But most of all I remember that I really wasn’t feeling well. My body was just exhausted. “
Now fully recovered, Hollingsworth’s most recent travels found him on an exchange program at Keller's New York outpost Per Se last month, in which he traded places with Eli Kaimeh for two weeks. I asked Hollingsworth which of the two restaurants was better.
“They’re two very different restaurants operating under the same philosophy,” he says. “Both have strengths and weaknesses. At Per Se, there is so much more room to work, spread out and do your own thing. At French Laundry, because it is smaller it takes a lot more efficiency and communication to work that closely together.”
One particularly fascinating element that both restaurants share are TV screens that feature live-streaming video from the other kitchen. “It’s really about a natural competition,” says Hollingsworth. “‘Can we outdo each other?’ Maybe we’re whole-roasting a duck and we’ll zoom the camera in and say, ‘Hey look at what we did.'”
At the same time, if one of the restaurants has recently received an award the camera is just as likely to pan to a banner printed with the word “Congratulations”.
“We’re showing off as well as giving each other props,” he says. “There’s a kind of brotherly love, if you will.”
On the topic of silver screens, I ask if he’s ever been star struck by any of the bold-faced names that have come to the restaurant. “Certainly having Jessica Alba was pretty amazing,” he says without skipping a beat. “That was a few years back. But that is the one that sticks out the most.
“Keanu Reeves, I actually saw him outside once,” he adds. “Years ago, I was out picking some herbs in the garden and saw him in the driveway. He was looking at a map, trying to figure out how to get back to San Francisco on his motorcycle. So I gave him some directions.”
And what’s next on Hollingsworth’s travel agenda? On Saturday he flew to Korea with Keller and a small team to prepare five dinners and two lunches as part of a private event. One would expect that the cabin crew would be fairly intimidated to serve airline entrees to those guys.
“I’ve never heard of [Keller] picking apart his food,” says Hollingsworth. “The funny thing about him and flying is that he’s a man who works 24/7, and he said, ‘Oh man, these guys are going to start to allow Internet on airplanes. That’s the only time when I really don’t have to work. That’s when I can turn on a movie and relax.’”
Hope he got his wish.