A Weekend with Vacheron Constantin, Chef Thomas Keller, and Rolls-Royce
Last weekend, I had the good fortune and great pleasure of attending an extraordinary set of events in Carmel, California thanks to Vacheron Constantin. Coinciding with the prestigious Concours d’Elegance, an annual competitive automotive event for charity, Vacheron and Rolls-Royce teamed up to showcase cars, watches, and watchmaking over several days.
Allow me to set some context for my anticipation for this event. Since the spring, I was immersed in a major competitive proposal at my day job. My team and I worked like crazy – late nights, weekends, and holidays. Our wives threatened divorce (kidding!) while our kids forgot we existed. Thousands of pages completed, we finally delivered our proposal in early August. Immediately afterwards, I received a short note from my friend at Vacheron Constantin gauging my interest in attending an upcoming “exclusive event” with my wife. Following the massive effort we lived through at work, you should have seen my reaction when I received this in the mail…
Who says watch collectors can’t dance?! 🙂
With my once-again happy wife, we left the kids with their grandparents and arrived in California Friday afternoon, in time for the first events on our itineraries: My wife would enjoy a night out with her friend, Ellen Sorensen, Vacheron’s wonderful head of Marketing for North America, and I would be having dinner with my friend, Hugues de Pins, Vacheron’s President of North America, and Chef Thomas Keller.
It would be an intimate, informal dinner at a restaurant chosen by Chef Keller, where the three of us would relax, have fun, and chat about life, watches, and food.
For those unfamiliar with Thomas Keller, he’s the owner of the renowned Per Se and The French Laundry restaurants in New York City and California’s Napa Valley, respectively. Both are 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants, and are among the United States’ finest restaurants. A restaurant owner, author, and chef, Keller is the only American chef with Michelin 3-star ratings for two different restaurants.
Since this was a Vacheron Constantin and Rolls-Royce event, accordingly Hugues pulled up in this…
A Rolls-Royce “Vacheron Constantin” Ghost
To my delight, he handed me the keys asking if I would like to drive to dinner…absolutely!
The dinner with the guys took place at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey – a newly opened, 7000 sq. ft. restaurant within a historic, haunted, and myth-filled filled mansion built in 1833. Hugues and I arrived first. Shortly after, Chef Keller arrived, greeted by Restaurant 1833’s owners, David Bernahl and Rob Weakley, who then provided us with a guided tour. The 1833 date served as a perfectly good reason to bring up watches during our tour. As some of you are well aware, Vacheron entered the United States just one year prior in 1832. Dave and Rob, both watch fans, got a big kick out of this fact.
As we walked through the restaurant, the excitement and respect for Chef Keller shown by the staff was immediately apparent. It was as if the President of the US came for a visit! Clearly, we were walking with a royal member of the exclusive world of haute cuisine.
After our tour, Hugues, Thomas, and I sat down for dinner. We quickly learned much about each other, such as the fact that Hugues is one-quarter American. His grandfather was an American soldier who met his grandmother right after World War II in France. Coincidentally, Hugues’ father wanted to become a professional chef, but was steered instead to become an engineer by his grandfather. Cooking remained his father’s passion, which was passed down to Hugues.
Thomas talked about his family – how his father was a Marine, his mother, a restauranteur, and how important family meals were in his family of 7 (Thomas is one of five boys). He got his start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher. The skills he learned – efficiency, teamwork, and organization – prepared him extremely well to be a chef. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by Keller’s genuine warm, friendly, and down-to-earth nature. In spite of being at the very top of his industry, his humility was remarkable.
On his mind at the moment is the future of haute cuisine and ensuring it thrives for the next generation with the right underpinnings – nourishment, first and foremost. Thomas explained how young the concept of haute, modern French cuisine is in the US – introduced here only 35 years ago primarily by Chef Paul Bocuse. As the current president of the Bocuse d’Or USA team, Thomas is actively involved in grooming future chefs to follow in his footsteps. A firm believer in the importance of mentorship, he honed and developed his skills as a chef through apprenticeships.
Our conversation returned to the subject of watches, particularly haute horlogerie – high-end, luxury timepieces. Thomas, with his passion for watches growing, asked me which brands I like best and why. I explained how I appreciate brands with:
1. a long-term devotion to precision and advancing the state-of-the-art of watchmaking, and
2. original, non-derivative aesthetic designs
Explaining what makes high-end brands like Vacheron Constantin so highly esteemed in the minds of collectors led me to take a stab on the parallels between haute horlogerie and haute cuisine. I tried defining the elements of a great meal:
* Start with the freshest, top quality ingredients
* Prepare and/or cook these ingredients just right using the correct amount and balance of seasonings
* Apply the same level of meticulous attention to all courses, and all side dishes of each course
* Focus on presentation – the artful layout of each course on a plate, bowl, or dish
* Pair each course with the appropriate fine wine, chosen by an expert sommelier
From start-to-finish, excellence is pursued at every detail in order to make the experience of the meal last a lifetime.
Likewise, in a high-end, luxury watch:
* Starting with the visible exterior components, the case, bracelet or strap, dial, and hands, materials chosen are of the highest quality. All surfaces are finely finished by hand, with brushed or mirror polishing. All edges are bevelled and smoothed out. These external elements are carefully designed holistically, ensuring symmetry, balance, proper proportions, and wearing comfort.
* Then the movement that lies inside. It’s the finishing within a movement that truly separates haute horlogerie brands from the rest. Whereas the exterior components of a typical watch comprise 20 to 40 parts, mechanical movements are made of up of hundreds of parts. Haute horlogerie brands finely hand finish all these parts, even down to the smallest screws and their slots, which are beveled and polished. Vacheron Constantin stands out in this regard as it is one of very few luxury brands that finely finishes even the unseen undersides of movement parts.
From top-to-bottom, a high-end watch, like a great meal, can approach perfection. This is one of the reasons why some of us are so enthusiastic and passionate about watches.
Next, our conversation turned to the future of watches. Will the next generation continue to wear wristwatches, and will they appreciate luxury watches? Remember Chef Keller’s commitment to mentorship to preserve culinary excellence mentioned above? We all agreed…it is up to people like us – collectors, watch enthusiasts, watch journalists, and brands – to continue to mentor and guide new people, educating them on the fascinating, timeless, and wonderful world of mechanical watches.
Nearly four hours after arriving, our wonderful meal and conversation came to an end. In the wise words of Hugues, it was a great dinner “which I will certainly remember in my good old days.”
We had a packed agenda Saturday – the final day of our short trip. Since it was my wife’s first trip to Carmel, I wanted to show her the spectacular ocean views along the Pacific Coast Highway. We woke up very early, and were on the road by sunrise. I was on a mission! Some of the spectacular views…
In the early afternoon, we arrived at the “Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Villa”, where visitors could test drive a large selection of Rolls-Royces and see an incredible selection of Vacheron Constantin watches on display. The villa is a private residence in Teháma, Carmel. Part of an exclusive development founded by Clint Eastwood, the spectacular villa is within a 2000-acre gated community with an associated golf course.
The backyard, which overlooks Carmel Bay
The all-new Phantom Coupé Aviator, which just debuted at Pebble Beach
The Phantom’s interior – note the “Power Reserve” indicator!
Entering the villa, display cases with Vacheron watches greeted visitors and Vacheron decorative items were found throughout the living room.
The Vacheron New York Boutique’s full-time watchmaker was performing watchmaking demonstrations. He was assembling and disassembling two Vacheron in-house calibers, the manual-winding caliber 1400 and the self-wind caliber 2450.
The self-winding caliber 2450
A collection of Vacheron’s movements… I want this!
The display cases in which five of Vacheron’s collections were well represented.
Quai de l’Ile
A closer look at a couple of blockbusters:
Patrimony Traditionelle Cal. 2253 – Collection Excellence Platine with perpetual calendar, equation of time, sunrise/sunset, and tourbillon
Patrimony Traditionelle Cal. 2755 with perpetual calendar, tourbillon, and minute repeater
Overseas Dual Time
Patrimony Traditionnelle Chronograph
This year’s new Les Univers Infinis Fish Watch
My wallet’s worst nightmare…an exquisite Kalla Haute Couture à pampilles on the wrist of my wife
On the wrist of Hugues de Pins – a Patrimony Contemporaine Perpetual Calendar
The Main Event – Dinner by Thomas Keller
We left and returned to the villa later in the evening for a cocktail and dinner crafted by Chef Keller and his team of approximately 20 chefs from The French Laundry. Sixty guests were in attendance, including important Vacheron Constantin collectors and Rolls-Royce customers. We were so fortunate with the weather – sunny and pleasant throughout the day and night. The cocktail and start of dinner were timed perfectly – right around a spectacular sunset over Carmel Bay.
Chef Keller overseeing his staff as he entertains a guest
The table settings with The French Laundry’s signature clothes pin
As the guests were seated for dinner, David Archibald, President of Rolls-Royce North America opened with a short speech, explaining the similarities between Rolls-Royce, Vacheron Constantin, and Chef Keller’s haute cuisine – hand craftsmanship, attention to detail, and know-how obtained through years of experience.
David Archibald, President of Rolls-Royce North America
He smartly related Rolls-Royce’s motto,
“Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it doesn’t exist, design it.” -Sir Henry Royce
to Vacheron Constantin’s:
“Do better if possible, and that is always possible.” -François Constantin
At my table, with mostly Vacheron collectors, we all glanced at one another expressing how we resonated with Mr. Archibald’s comparison.
Hugues next said a few words, kindly thanking guests for attending and also explaining the philosophy and sensibilities of the Vacheron Constantin brand…
Finally, Chef Keller presented the chef’s tasting menu specially prepared for the event. Each course reflected the spirit of Vacheron and Rolls Royce and, notably, the title of each course in the menu below.
The French Laundry Six Course Chef Tasting Menu
I won’t bore you with shots of every course, however the “anglage” course is a great example of how Keller applied anglage (beveling) to this dish – check out the carrot in the center – each edge is beveled!
“Anglage” by Keller
The meal was superb in every way, as expected. We met a few great people/collectors too – Tim (timerider) and GaryG, among others.
As we were leaving dinner, saying our good-byes, this was the dramatic scene in the kitchen – dry ice melting in the sink caused the “smoke”.
Keller and de Pins at the end of the event
I was so impressed by the respect and admiration shown by Rolls-Royce, a large automobile manufacturer, to Vacheron Constantin, a relatively small watch brand. Likewise, the admiration shown by both Vacheron and Rolls-Royce to Chef Keller and his team was fascinating. They’re all linked by a common denominator – excellence – and each is able to stand back, admire, and enjoy the other’s craft. It was absolutely fascinating to observe this mutual respect first hand.
Watches by Vacheron Constantin…automobiles by Rolls-Royce…dinner with and by Thomas Keller…all in idyllic Carmel, California. It was a world class experience we’ll never forget.
Sincerest thanks to Hugues de Pins, Ellen Sorensen, and Rachel Konikiewicz of Vacheron Constantin, Chef Thomas Keller, David Bernahl and Rob Weakley of Restaurant 1833, and the great people of Rolls-Royce.
I hope you enjoyed!
See also Vacheron Constantin Forum An Extraordinary Weekend with Vacheron Constantin, Chef Thomas Keller, and Rolls-Royce