Laura Cunningham, brand director of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. (Photo: Andrew Southam )
At a great restaurant, the things you don’t notice make all the difference. The way you’re greeted when you arrive, the design of your menu, the way your plates are cleared, the farewell when you are finished.
Laura Cunningham is the master of those details.
Who, you ask? Exactly. Cunningham has been hugely influential in luxury restaurants circles, yet she has been content to stay in the background. As director of branding of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, she quietly helps steer one of the most admired organizations in the food world. Her fingerprints are all over two of its world-class establishments — The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York.
Friends and industry leaders alike are quick to remark on her modest nature. “She has style and grace, and her culinary acumen is off the charts, but you would never know it given how humble she is,” said Brooke Wall, founder of The Wall Group, which represents top talent in the fashion industry, from makeup artists to production designers.
“Laura has built a remarkable career, with rare humility and selflessness, as the silent producer, director, and choreographer whose magic not only brings out the excellence in all who work in her restaurants, but also soothes the senses of those who dine there,” said Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group.
She has had a brilliant life in food despite her less-than-momentous start. At 15, she got her first restaurant job at the Meadowood resort in St. Helena, Calif., where she grew up. “I was the bus girl for the person who today is the longest tenured captain at The French Laundry. He said I was awful,” she noted, laughing.
Chef Thomas Keller and Laura Cunningham pose for Mark Seliger’s Instagram portrait at Vanity Fair’s 2015 Oscar Party. Photo: Kate Cunningham.
Then, while attending college at the University of California, Berkeley, she got a job as a cocktail waitress in San Francisco as a way to pay off $2,000 in parking tickets she unknowingly racked up. (The car was in her father’s name—he was not amused.) She quickly earned the money she needed and learned the bar culture was not for her. The terrible uniform she had to wear didn’t help. “I feel for cocktail waitresses,” she said.
At school, she studied Italian, literature, and history. “I had this dream of moving to Italy and doing something in the art or design world,” she said. After college, she fell into a job with two pivotal figures, Chef Jonathan Waxman, who today runs the much-loved West Village fixture Barbuto, and Stephen Singer, a wine expert and the ex-husband of Alice Waters. She handled a variety of tasks for them at Table 29, the restaurant they opened in Napa Valley in 1991. “I did a lot of organization of the business, which I didn’t know I had a knack for,” she said. It was also her introduction to fine wine, thanks to Singer, who she described as “probably one of the most amazing sommeliers of his time.” She started taking classes about wine to further her education and appreciation.
After the restaurant closed in 1994, she heard through the grapevine that someone named Thomas Keller from New York was taking over The French Laundry, a charming local eatery owned by Don and Sally Schmitt, the parents of some childhood friends. Keller had also purchased the Schmitt’s home, as they were relocating to an apple orchard. In need of a job, Cunningham printed out her resume, walked up to Keller’s front door, and knocked. He opened the door a crack and said he wasn’t hiring as his team was already in place. Cunningham, with nothing to lose, pushed her resume through the narrow opening and went on her way.
Keller called three weeks later with a special project. A few weeks after that, impressed with her diligence, he hired her as an assistant manager. “You’ll have your work cut out for you,” he warned. The chef could have been speaking for himself. The French Laundry was set to re-open in six weeks with a miniscule budget and he had much to prove. His last restaurant, Rakel in New York, had failed to survive the city’s financial woes of the late 80s, despite critical acclaim.
The first night was not a sign of the greatness to come. “We only had 45 guests and it took seven hours to serve them,” she remembered. “It was really frightening. I thought, ‘This is never going to work.’ But slowly and surely it did.” She credited Keller’s ability to reinvent quickly. “He’s all about if it’s not working, let’s fix it.”
Before the first year was over, Cunningham had become manager. She knew what the other employees were thinking: “This girl is going to try to manage this restaurant at her age?” She was up for the challenge and threw herself into the job, taking business classes to get up to speed.
Now, 20 years later, “this girl” plays a role in every area of the restaurant group—except the kitchen. (In addition to The French Laundry and Per Se, the group includes all Bouchon bistro, bakery, and café locations in Yountville, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, and New York, plus Yountville’s Ad Hoc, Addendum, and Ad Lib.) On her plate? Overseeing all marketing, philanthropic, and partnership activity; working with the in-house creative teams and design agencies; establishing service standards; and helping plan the future. It’s hard to sum up her many contributions in a tidy sound bite.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Cunningham’s job is her partnership with Chef Keller. In a storybook twist, the two started dating during the early French Laundry days and were engaged in 2008. With a shared commitment to excellence, an eagle eye for detail, and their keen understanding of hospitality, they serve as sounding boards for each other. They are a low-key but striking power couple, and she is easily the most stylish woman in the world of food. They are not out and about that often, but when they do go somewhere together, they bring a shot of glamour to an industry that isn’t terribly glamorous.
The two were on the same page from the start, but it took time to find their groove. “We definitely went head to head because our departments were so opposite,” she said. “He thought I was compassionate to a fault, I thought he was a horrible listener.” They’ve learned over the years to leave any H.R. dramas back at the office, not be such workaholics (meaning no more 20-hour work days), and live a little healthier. Gone are the days of eating cheese and drinking three glasses of wine at 1 in the morning, as Keller described it. “Can’t do that anymore,” he said.
For all they’ve achieved, from the countless awards to their beautiful restaurants to the many alumni they’ve mentored, neither is ready to slow down. “It’s been amazing to see what we can do,” said Cunningham. “I’m ready to do more.”
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