Listen in to discover the skills and disciplines Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller gained while washing dishes in the kitchen where his mother worked and how those lessons carried him forward into a culinary profession that fostered many award-winning restaurants including The French Laundry. Chef Thomas Keller’s leadership in the kitchen along with his unique ability to create renowned experiences for all who dine in his restaurants offer many applicable tips you can directly apply to your own leadership journey!
(We use an audio transcription service so please disregard any errors below.)
Daniel Harkavy (00:00):
Well, here I am sitting in the headquarters of the Thomas Keller restaurant group with Chef Thomas. We’ve spent the last several hours together and it’s been absolutely enjoyable. Chef, it’s great to spend time with.
Chef Thomas Keller (00:13):
Yeah. Likewise. Thank you. It’s nice to have you here in Yountville on really such a beautiful day and it really helped. It helped ease a lot of the, kind of the coming together. No doubt talking about these things.
Daniel Harkavy (00:25):
Yeah, no doubt. Well, it’s a pleasure being here and it’s fantastic to see what you’ve built along with your fantastic team here in Yountville. It’s pretty epic. So I folks, I had the privilege of enjoying one of their culinary experiences at lunch and this evening, my wife Sherry, and I will get to experience another. So this is tough work today. This is hard, hard work, whatever. Yeah, no, whatever.
Daniel Harkavy (00:50):
All right. So Chef, at Building Champions, we say better humans make for better leaders. And I always like to connect with my guests on the human side. So tell us maybe three to five things about you on the human side that will help us to understand who you are.
Chef Thomas Keller (01:06):
Yeah, that’s, that’s a complicated one. And I think that’s probably the first thing I would say about myself as, you know, a bit complicated. At the same time, you know my father, both my father and my mother gave me great tools of motivation, my mother, a sense of awareness. So, you know, I’m extremely aware of the world around me, which has allowed me in several occasions to really think about things differently. And you know, it manifests itself in some of the food that our guests have enjoyed over the years, you know, a work ethic that, you know, we continue to, to persevere to do better every day, right? It’s not, as, there’s not one day where you’ve, where you’ve arrived and you’ve reached your destination or reached the pinnacle of your profession. But every day you can find ways of making something better and it could be as simple as shining your shoes a little more rigidly.
Chef Thomas Keller (02:01):
So awareness, work ethic were, were things that my mother gave me, my father, the sense of perseverance, put one foot in front of the other, continue to walk every day and sooner or later you’ll get there. Yeah. And, and I, I find that so true because, you know, what’s the alternative giving up you give up and then you just never arrive. So those are some of the things that I think are, were given to me by my parents. And I’m very thankful for that. There’s a level of in me personally, you know, a level of curiosity that has allowed me again to think of things in some ways, a little differently than others have, you know, being an American helps that where, you know, I have, I’ve embraced the idea of French cuisine as the foundation of what we do yet.
Chef Thomas Keller (02:51):
Being an American allows me to modify, you know, some of those classic traditional formulations or do them a little differently, which is, which has really been a lot of fun and opened up a lot of doors for us to explore other, other ways, to do other things differently that may have been classically French in terms of the, the composition of the trainings or the flavor profiles. I’ve been extremely lucky. And, and I say that because a mentor of mine said, luck comes to those who work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And, and so that was a, that was an influence for me, you know, being able to understand that yes, luck is important, but the more, the, the, the broader that net is cast. In other words, you know, the more opportunity you’re gonna have to, to find that luck.
Chef Thomas Keller (03:35):
And it’s important to, to continue to work hard, to continue to, to, to make the effort, continue to commit yourself. So there’s that commitment. Desire, I think it was a big part of who I am. People talk about passion all the time, but passion for me, ebbs and flows, and that you can’t really be consistent on passion. Passion is, is something that we love. We all love that, but we also know that, you know, the first asparagus that shows up at the back door and the beginning of spring, you know, you’re really excited and passionate about that asparagus, but, you know, two months later when you’ve seen it every day, you know, that passion, you know, kind of ebbs a little bit. So what, what drives you to make sure that you’re treating that asparagus it’s desire? So I have this strong desire in me to, to continue to, to work hard so that whatever we’re doing is consistently at a level that we expect, not necessarily guests, but that we expect.
Chef Thomas Keller (04:28):
So there’s a sense of, you know, in me this, the sense of this, this, the struggle between, you know, taking time for myself or taking time for my, my, my team or, or my guests. And I feel it’s in times in my life, you know, with, with the number of restaurants that I have, I feel a little bit neglectful, right? That I’m not spending time with with that team in New York or that team in Las Vegas or Miami, they come to work for Thomas Keller. And there’s a certain expectation that, you know, they get to work for Thomas Keller, whether that’s true or not, you know, it, it is for me. And so there’s, you know, I don’t want to say every day, but there are days where I feel I’m neglecting people because I’m not there with them. But then that same, that same feeling can come from not going to work here when I’m home at the French Laundry, you know, just taking a day off and not being there for whomever may be there that night, that I should be saying hello to, or would want to say hello to, or they’re expecting me to say hello to them.
Chef Thomas Keller (05:27):
So there there’s that. So, you know, my life is complicated. There’s a certainly level of sophistication in what we do. We are an elite, you know, I’m an elite person, but I’m not an elitist. You know, what we do, what I do is considered, you know, elite. It’s not that everybody can do that. But at the same time, you know, we embrace, we embrace everybody and we want to make sure everybody has that same sense of comfort and recognition and that same warmth of welcome that we, that we’ve liked. So, as you can tell, just by what the question you’ve asked me is to explain who I am. You can say, you can see by my explanation that it’s, it’s complicated. And so I probably, if I had to come up with one word to describe me, it would be complicated.
Daniel Harkavy (06:15):
Hmm. You know, when we were speaking earlier, we talked about complicated and sophisticated and empathetic and compassionate. And you know, as we spent the afternoon together, I’ve seen all of it coming together in the beautiful gift of who you are. Let’s focus on the professional side here, I’m sitting with a culinary icon, a fantastic leader, and an epic coach. You are a coach. Tell the listeners a little bit about your professional journey, because I know there were some failures when you were younger. And my hope is that even in this story, for those that might be listening to us that are behind us in age, they find some inspiration from your story. So give me some of the highs and the lows.
Chef Thomas Keller (07:00):
Yeah. I mean, the moment where I learned a great deal without realizing at the time about what I was going to do and what made me really good as a cook, cause that’s really what I wanted to do as a profession I wanted to cook. And that’s different from being a chef or being a leader or being a restaurant tour. Sure. Certainly in the modern definition, because remember when I started cooking, you know, in America, there was no, there was no really well-known American chefs. The idea of a chef owning a restaurant was only beginning to take hold in France. Right? So this was, this was an infancy, the, the R the, this profession, remember that, and think it was 1968 when the labor department changed our title from domestic help to a profession. Right. So up until 1976 or 1968, if you were a cook, you were classified in the bracket of domestic help, even though you were maybe working in one of the greatest restaurants in America at the time.
Chef Thomas Keller (08:01):
So I’ve watched our profession from birth on, and I have a different perspective of what it is. And certainly there were no celebrities. There were no chefs that own restaurants, you know, there would never be a chef doing any kind of interview at the time. So it’s, it’s fascinating, but I think one of those pivotal moments for me was standing in front of a dishwasher. You know, my mother was a single parent. I was the youngest of five boys, my brother, Joseph, and I spent many, many evenings at the restaurant that she ran. She didn’t own a restaurant. She only managed them, but because she worked at nights and because we were of a, of an age where, you know, my, my older brothers were capable or not capable of taking care of us or protecting us, let’s say that at home.
Chef Thomas Keller (08:49):
We found ourselves, you know, in her office doing our homework and then me in front of a dishwasher and Joseph peeling vegetables, he really wanted to be a cook at a very young age. For me, it was just, you know, it was, it was a place to be. And years later I realized six disciplines that I learned standing in front of that dishwasher and became aware of as I started to start to think about what I did, you know, who I was, what made me different from others. And those six disciplines were number one was organization. You know, cause as a dishwasher, you have to be incredibly organized so that those who are coming into your environment can be organized as well. So, you know, setting up a template, you know, on the dish station, drain board with with the bread plate here or, or an entree plate there, or a salad plate where the silverware went, where the glasses went, that was organization.
Chef Thomas Keller (09:34):
So learning how to be extremely organized so that you can be number the second one so that you can be efficient and efficient in your movements. So you’re not trying to sort through all these different size plates so that you can get a number of them to rack, you know, in the dish rack correctly. Right? So efficiency became the second discipline, which was really important. If you’re organized, then you can be efficient. Then the idea feedback, critical feedback, which is so, so, so important to us. And we almost all of us, regardless of what generation you come from, don’t necessarily like to be criticized, but we all have to remember that criticism, at least the proper criticism, whether it’s given to you by somebody else, or you actually realize it from something that you’ve done, you get feedback from what you from, from the result of what you’ve done is probably the most important learning tool that is out there.
Chef Thomas Keller (10:24):
So the critical feedback came when, if, you know, if I was organized, I was efficient, but I didn’t rinse the plates correctly. And they went into this washer 45 seconds later when the door opened, if they weren’t clean, I know I didn’t do my job correctly. That’s the kind of critical feedback. And if they were clean, then it was good. I moved on. So that was organization efficiency, critical feedback, the idea of rituals doing the same thing at the same time every day, which is really important for a lot of us, especially, you know, if you’re, if you’re in a systematic place as a kitchen or in a dining room, in a restaurant. So ritual is really important. And then D and a dishwasher who, you know, you had to empty the dish machine. At specific times, you had to sweep the floor. You took the garbage out, all these different things you did at specific times of the day, they became your rituals for that day.
Chef Thomas Keller (11:09):
The fifth discipline was repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, how do you get good at something? Repetition. So I enjoyed doing those things over and over and over and over again. And as a cook, you know, or as any profession, you know, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? practice, practice, practice. And we all realize that that the practice of repeating something makes you really good. So repetition was something that I enjoyed. I realized that the final discipline was understanding the impact of teamwork that, you know, even though I was probably the youngest person in the kitchen, and, you know, as a Porter or as a dishwasher, you’re looked upon as, you know, somebody that’s not equal to any other position in the restaurant. But you think about that as a team member, right? You affect everything that to the restaurant, if the bartender doesn’t have glasses, can’t make a drink.
Chef Thomas Keller (11:56):
If the, if the servers don’t have silverware, they can’t set the tables that the cooks don’t have plates, they can’t plate the food. So you are an integral part of that process of being successful in the effort of that entire team to give our guests a pleasurable experience. So those are some of the things that I learned at a very young age, you know, that helped me become who I became, which was a really good cook. And so that was, that was something that, you know, I was forever grateful for. And many times you don’t realize, you know, what you’re learning until much later when you’re able to actually analyze it and apply it. Yeah. So in the beginning of my career, that was what I did. And from there, you know, it was about travel, right, for me, you know, I couldn’t play baseball.
Chef Thomas Keller (12:37):
I found that same kind of energy in a kitchen working with other, with other cooks who had five or six different people in the kitchen with different disciplines, right. Working different stations. But for one purpose, the goal was to give our guests a great experience and much like a baseball team. There are, they’re all on fields in different positions, but they’re all working for to win the game. So we always wanted to win the game and, and it afforded me this opportunity to travel around. I’m making it a job anywhere cooking. Right. So I did a lot of traveling to the Northeast. It wasn’t until 1977, July, 1977. And I’m working for a French chef. My third mentor who became my third mentor, Roland Hinan. How old were you then? I was 22. Okay. and I was cooking. I was, I was making staff meal so that my responsibility was cook for the staff.
Chef Thomas Keller (13:23):
It was, it was a private beach club in Rhode Island. And so a lot of the younger staff lived there and my responsibility to cook them lunch and dinner. And he was very impressed by the fact that the staff wasn’t complaining anymore about the quality of food that the staff cook was making the families. And and he, he came to me one day and he said, you know, Thomas, do you know my cooks cook? You know, and I said, I said, chef, I, you know, I, I dunno, I bumbled on some answer. And he said, we cooked to nurture people. And it was expressing to me, is that, you know, the, the staff or anybody, you know, the process of cooking for somebody is to nurture them. And that was the day I decided to become a chef because I felt that I was a nurturer.
Chef Thomas Keller (14:06):
You know, I forgot to mention that at the beginning or talk to you about the day. But I felt, I felt that was something that I could really do. Something that resonated with me, something that, you know, touched me emotionally. And I felt this is something that I want to do. And from that day on, I decided to become a chef. And because I worked for a French chef at the time who enlightened me and who actually set me on a path of a career choice you know, the French cuisine was the cuisine that I chose. And then from that point on, it was just running as fast as I could, you know, to learn as much as I could to experience as much as I could to be worked for as many French chefs as I could in hopes of one day to open my own restaurant.
Chef Thomas Keller (14:45):
And that happened at a very early age. I think it was probably 1979, 1980 myself and two friends opened a restaurant in west Palm beach that failed within a year. And it failed because none of us had any idea what the hell we were doing. And that really exposed me to this meaningful criticism, meaningful feedback is that you better be prepared, you know, to do what you’re doing. It’s not, it’s not just thinking that this is an appropriate location. It’s not just thinking that this is an appropriate menu, or this is appropriate service type or anything. I had no idea. I had no idea. I was totally ill prepared of opening a restaurant. I could cook, but I couldn’t run a kitchen. I couldn’t run a restaurant. And that failure led me on to continuing to work and learn more and more working for more chefs, working for chefs.
Chef Thomas Keller (15:33):
And then working on my own as a chef in a small restaurant back and forth, you know, it was kind of this ladder going up, back and forth until I got to a point in 1983, where I had the opportunity to go to France. And that became my Harvard, if you will. That became my graduate school spending two years in France, working in different restaurants and really honing in on the details. And I was very fortunate because I was considered a stodgier or an observer, right. And I would spend at least 30 days up to 90 days in the seven different restaurants I worked in helping in any way that they deemed necessary, whatever the chef wanted me to do. I did, but I, I was already pretty proficient in cooking. I understood a lot about French cuisines, so I wasn’t there to learn the fundamentals.
Chef Thomas Keller (16:18):
As many other young statues were there. I was already now 24, 25 years old had been cooking already for professionally for three years, mostly in French restaurants. So what I learned in France was the finesse and finesse is such an important word, right? It says that artistry of execution, right, is the little things that you do that make something better. And I understood how to make a stock kind of start to do all these fundamental things. And I was able to really, really focus in on the idea of, of finesse and that artisanship. And that was an important moment when I came back from France moved back to New York city, became the first American chef to run one of the great LA lo restaurants. At the time, there was a lot reserve. There were the, there was the laundry.
Chef Thomas Keller (17:04):
I was a chef at LA reserve. There was, you know, the Caravel, the code Basque, all those great law on the restaurants at the time, the only one that’s still exists is the Grenouille. But it was, I was, you know, I was extremely proud. But at the same time I was arrogant. I was a little bit self-centered. I was very selfish and I got fired. Right. I thought, oh my God, how could I get fired? Right. I I’m, I’m this young, great American chef running this great French restaurant. Right. But, you know, I learned that, you know, I would have fired myself. Was it the effect on people? That was just my attitude, you know, my sense of my, my, my sense of, of, of worth you know my arrogance, right. I’d just come back from France.
Chef Thomas Keller (17:50):
I was like the only person in America that knew how to work with Foie gras. It was just introduced to freshwater. I was just introduced to America. So I was like, you know, I know how to do that. And yeah, I wasn’t the, I certainly wasn’t the person I am today. But it was, again, you know, one of those moments where you go, okay, you reflect on that, you realize what you did, right. And you say, okay, I’m going to modify my behavior and be different. And that’s when you get this true sense of modesty, right? That’s true sense of understanding of who you are, what you are. And again, reminding myself that I needed to be part of the team, again, going back to my six disciplines from there, I became, I became a partner with Serge revel. We opened a restaurant in New York city where I thought I was going to be for the rest of my life.
Chef Thomas Keller (18:31):
But then there, there are things that happen, right. The 1989 was the stock market crash. And, you know, we were in an area which was, you know, relying on a lot of wall street clientele, a lot of the advertising agencies that were moving downtown at the time, and things just shut down for us. I had the choice of either staying there and turning the restaurant into a more casual restaurant of REL had a very popular restaurant in New York city where I worked here as, before called rebels. And we renamed it to cafe Raquel, but I had made a decision that fine dining right. Was, was really what I wanted to explore. That was kind of be my destiny was fine dining. And so we went, we amicably parted ways. I moved to Los Angeles and took a job as a executive chef, which was very bizarre for me in checkers hotel.
Chef Thomas Keller (19:18):
And it just didn’t work again, the whole idea of not being part of the kitchen and the way I thought a chef should be part of the kitchen. And I spent more time than executive meetings, or, you know, I mean all these different things. And so, you know, we, we, we parted ways and I was like, now I’m in Los Angeles. I lost my restaurant in New York City and I don’t know what I’m going to do. And I’m 37, 38 years old. And I came to Napa Valley and discovered the French Laundry and fell in love with the French Laundry and pursued that. And as my last kind of my last chance, this was my, you know, this was my, my, my strike three. If I didn’t get the French on it and it made it successful, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, or certainly with my career.
Chef Thomas Keller (20:04):
I mean, that’s a whole story in and of itself and, and pursuing the French laundry and how we acquired that through the help mentorship of, of so many people, but just to leave you with this. And it’s a very important statement because I always tell people my biggest asset during that almost 19 months of trying to raise money for the French Laundry, my biggest asset was, was my ignorance. Had I known, had somebody told me, you know, the first day I decided to buy the French Laundry that you were going to have to do this, this, this, this, this, this, and this. I looked at them and said, this is crazy. I have no idea. I would have no idea how to do any of that. So it was probably way out of my reach and would have given up in the beginning.
Chef Thomas Keller (20:47):
But the fact that I, I didn’t know any of that and the sense of persistence, right? This persistence that my father gave me this idea, just keep moving forward. One step at a time. And, and the little, the little successes, you know, the everyday little success that you have, you know, keep propelling you forward, you know, and you get to the big ones and you go, okay, well, I, I I’ve overcome that one. I can, I can do that. Changes your belief paradigm. I can do this, I can do this and that persistence and belief in, in that you can do anything as long as you keep trying. And I sit here today as a chef who accomplished more than I’d ever dreamed of more than I ever thought I could. You know, I, I thank my mother. I think my father and my brother and all those individuals who helped me along the way and the mistakes that I made in the realization of those mistakes.
Daniel Harkavy (21:33):
All right. Well, you know, today’s a special day. So congratulations to you folks, because today Thomas and his team are celebrating 28 years of figuring it out and creating countless experiences for people here in Yountville, as well as around the country and, and beyond, because you’ve stuck with it. And you have such a conviction around excellence, which is you know, it’s evidence. So I think of just the last few minutes of you sharing a little bit about yourself on the personal side, as well as on the professional side. And there’s some things that jump out to me that I think are worth writing down and really thinking about. And, and one of them is I love the fact that as a young man, you learned six disciplines around a dishwasher, and those disciplines can carry forward in life and have for you in many areas of life, the rhythm, the ritual, you know, we talked about life planning earlier, life planning and the impact it has on self-leadership.
Daniel Harkavy (22:35):
And decision-making, I believe that when we’re really clear on the rhythms and the rituals and the disciplines that enable us to be who we want to be in the areas of our life, when we develop those habits, it just brings a sense of peace and calm, and we can perform well without having to overthink it. So you learn that at a very young, young age, I think about the fact that that persistence gene in you. Yeah, a mid thirties, you started this. And so many people after one failure or two failures would have stopped and you kept going. So that real passion, I think of your blend of being gold standard, trained, I mean, gold standard. When you think of being the best in the kitchen, a chef, while you’re French trained, it doesn’t get better. But then you take the experience here from the states and you bring innovation and creativity, which is something that people around the world, they see America, and they see that innovation, that entrepreneur spirit let’s try.
Daniel Harkavy (23:41):
And that’s something that we’re known for and you blended those two and you’ve created something amazing. So the risk taking as well as a deep appreciation for standard and for preciseness and measurement and in timing and in all of it, and that conviction of excellence in everything that you do really great stuff. Thank you. So, you know, one of those disciplines that you learned at the dishwasher was team, you’re a huge team guy in over the last year and a half in our conversations. We’ve spent some time talking about you and your role with team and the teams that you lead today today, if I’m correct, you and your teammates have built two Michelin three-star restaurants. Talk to us a little bit about your role as a leader with the team. How do you build teammates to where we’ve been sitting together for hours today and there, your teams are running restaurants that are creating experiences across the country.
Chef Thomas Keller (24:41):
Yeah, I mean, and let me say this, I mean, you know, I am extremely grateful and feel overwhelmingly blessed to have not just the teams at French laundry, which is a three-star Michelin restaurant in per se, which is a three-star Michelin restaurant, but all of our other restaurants as well. I mean, the, these young people and, you know, I consider them all young because I’m older than every one of them. I think I’m the oldest one in the group. They, they strive every day, you know, to achieve a quality of food and service that represents and exemplifies not just, not just our restaurant group, but what American could do. Right. In, in, in, in, in the hospitality profession, the restaurant profession, that’s really profound because as I said, you know, our profession, as we understand it today is only 40 some years old, really, when you start to think about the modern right.
Chef Thomas Keller (25:35):
Modern times, and they talking about, you know, tennis as the modern era, right. Well, you look at the modern era of cuisine and it began, you know, in the, in the seventies, right. The early seventies. So it was, it was again, timing, right? You look at timing, right. And how, when were you born, you know, that group of individuals, you know, the 1955, that area, when Steve jobs was born and, and Michael Dell and all those guys, and they created, what is the, you know, what is today the, the tech world, if you look at BV and previous to them, you look at the Rockefellers and the JP Morgans of that, then, then the industrial revolution, the impact that they had on it. Well, you look at my generation, you see the impact that it’s had on head on, on the culinary profession, in our country.
Chef Thomas Keller (26:17):
And it’s really profound that I’m really proud to have been there in the beginning and watch it grow and be part of that. But you know, as it relates to team, it’s fascinating because, you know, I talked about baseball a little while ago and, and you know, it is, you know, I, I consider this a sports franchise and, you know, as you grow through your team, right, you start out, you know, as somebody who is a beginner, right. You’re learning those who are, who are teaching you and mentoring you and training you. And then you get good at what you do because of what they do for you. Right? You are good. I mean, you’re capable, you’re listening, you’re reacting, you’re exemplifying what you’re being told and what you’re being taught. So the moment that they trust, what you’re going to do is correct.
Chef Thomas Keller (27:01):
And then you move on, right? You move, you continue to progress. You get promoted throughout the course of your career. The better you do, the more promotions you get, the faster those promotions are. But I always, I always caution young culinarians, you know, to be patient, be patient with their time in the specific station that they’re in, you know, enjoy the moment. Because remember we, we became cooks because we liked the, the act of cooking, you know, putting that fish in the sauté pan, making the annual out, they, you know, rolling it out and, and, and using that, that pasta cutter to form those little perfect shapes of annual entertainment. It’s so those things are, I, I, they may sound mundane to you, but they’re so gratifying to be able to produce food in a way that is inspiring and just, and just beautiful. I mean, nature, you’re touching, you’re, you’re, you’re playing, you’re modifying nature every day.
Chef Thomas Keller (27:55):
You’re taking your green bean and, and, and cooking it to the precise moment of done this. You know, you’re seasoning it with just the right amount of salt. Then you’re able to just put a duck butter on there, and you taste the screen bean, which nature gave you, you know, four hours earlier. And it’s like, you know, it’s just, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a revelation in, in, in flavor and texture, if you do it right. And that’s just a beautiful thing and something that you never, ever, ever get tired of. So patience is really important, especially for young people, because we all want to be, be promoted. We all want to move faster than, than is good for us. Right. So enjoy the moment that you’re in.
Daniel Harkavy (28:32):
All right. Now I’m going to stop you because something just happened that no one is going to be able to see, like, or feel like I did. So patience is a big one. Yeah. And here you are, if if it’s okay, 65, yeah. Passion, you have so much passion for the art and the science and the creation for what you do. And I think that is such a a key ingredient. It’s a core factor for how You’ve done, what you’ve done. It’s the green bean that just came out of the, you know, just came off the stock four hours ago. Just yeah, it’s just beautiful.
Chef Thomas Keller (29:10):
I, you know, nature is beautiful and, you know, our job is not to screw it up you know, and just to make it better by, by manipulating in one way or another, you know, slightly whatever. But it’s, it’s important to realize that, you know, we are dealing with nature and every moment we are able to nurture ourselves who, through the act of what we do through the, the connection with our, with our colleagues, you know, that we’re working with. I mean, it’s all nurturing. It just doesn’t come from consumption of food. It comes from the interaction we have with each other. We nurture each other in so many different ways. And that’s an important part of what, what motivates me. Right. So patience is important, right? We talked about patients all the time, take your time. Cause once you’re promoted, you know, the further you’re promoted in the kitchen, the further you’re taking away from what you wanted to do when you became a professional, which is cook, right.
Chef Thomas Keller (29:58):
And so really enjoy the moments, enjoy those times, you know, don’t ever rush yourself. Yes, I can always go back to the line. I can always sauté a piece of fish if I want, but I’m never going to have those moments that I had when I was a 24 year old or 25 year old cooking on the fish station with, you know, four or five other chef parties around the stove, doing what they’re doing. You can’t go back. You can’t replicate that. You can actually, you know, you could have fun doing it once in a while, but it’s not the same. So, so be patient. But one of the most important things that we do and this is, this is the, the, the, the basis of why, why you don’t have to be in the kitchen right now, why I’m sitting with you having this conversation is there are three really important elements, functions, they’re important duties or responsibilities that we have to ourselves.
Chef Thomas Keller (30:47):
And first is hiring right. Hiring the right, right person. Right. That’s really, really important. And when I was a younger cook, I mean, you were hired because the chef needed you, right. He didn’t really interview you. He may not have checked your references. He may not even seen your, your CV. You know, I’m not even sure if I had a CV when I was, when I was a young person, I just knocked on the door and asking for a job. I cooked over there. I can cook here too. Okay. For hired. And so you, you know, you were just hired kind of arbitrarily because they needed somebody. And then the training was like two weeks. Right. And who is leaving, you know you hired to cook fish, the guy who was leaving the fish station, he had two weeks with you to teach how to cook the fish.
Chef Thomas Keller (31:26):
And then he, he left and you were like, okay, what do I do now? Where’s my training. Right. And then mentorship, what was that? I mean, who, who had ever heard of the word mentorship in a professional kitchen, you know, in the seventies, eighties, or even early nineties. I mean, mentorship, just as that been something that has come along lately, this idea of mentoring people. And I understood mentorship because, you know, Roland Henin, you know, made me aware of it. You know, he was, he made me aware that mentorship was really important in 1977. And he became that person for me. And I realized, I realized then that my brother Joseph was my mentor and my mother was my mentor. Right. But I didn’t have those ideas before. So hiring the people correctly. So once you hire a person, then you’re a hundred percent committed to the person you’re not 75% or 80% committed.
Chef Thomas Keller (32:12):
You have to be a hundred percent absolutely committed to that person, which means you have to be a hundred percent committed to training him. And training is not two weeks, right. Training goes on for whatever. I mean, it goes on for, for really, for years in our restaurants and every restaurant and every profession, I believe, you know, training is always part of what we do, what we do, both in learning and both what we do in helping others. And I always use the analogy, you know, when, when, when you’re a parent and you have a youngster, who’s learning how to swim, you know, the mother always has the floaties on their arms. Right. So that they don’t drown. Right. And I’m sure a mother didn’t say, you know, you have two weeks to learn how to swim. I’m gonna take the floaties off. And when you drown, that’s your fault.
Chef Thomas Keller (32:51):
Right. You know, those floaties stay on probably two months after the kids don’t know how to swim anyway. Right. So there’s always this precaution that we take now in making sure that our team is trained. And do we do it perfectly every time? No, there are still those moments when we have to accelerate things, we always have to deal with what is relevant and what the needs are. But training has to be something that we’re always thinking about, especially in our restaurants, especially at places like the French laundry and per se, where the menus change every day and the seasons change every day as well. We think about seasonality as spring, summer, fall, and winter. No, you know, the fava bean has a season of maybe five weeks, you know, and that’s it, you know, so we have to understand that each vegetable or each ingredient has a seasonality of its own.
Chef Thomas Keller (33:34):
So we’ve hired the right person, right. We’ve committed a hundred percent to them. We’ve committed to training them ongoing, and then we mentor them. Right? So those three things are really important. Mentorship has to do with your career, but also has to do with who you are as a person, right. Helping you understand your place in the restaurant, helping you understand your responsibilities, not just in what we expect you to do, but overall, and how are you going to become a better person? How are you going to be the leader that you need to be? So if you do those three things correctly, if you hire the right person and you train them correctly and you mentor them, what happens, what happens is that person becomes better than you. Yeah. Cause if he’s not better than you than you’ve done a job. Right. And so I stand here today, right? I mean, I sit here today as one of the, probably the most recognized, one of the most recognized chefs in America, but David Breedon our chef who was in the French laundry and Chad Pagoli or chef de cuisine at per se are better than I am. Why are they better than I am? Because they’ve had, they had better training. They have better mentorship. They have better tools. They have better opportunities. They have better everything. And that’s what we do. And that’s what should be done for every generation.
Daniel Harkavy (34:42):
So big. And at some point, you and I will have to talk about the the community benefit that we just started SetPath, you know, all around mentoring and transferring hope and belief into others, which is what you’ve, you’ve built a career on. And as I get to walk around here restaurant, you know, going from restaurant to restaurant with you, there are people who have been impacted by your standards and how you see business and life they’ve been with you for decades. And that is probably one of the things I know that you’re most proud of is how you have, you’ve seen them grow. Talk to us, you know, this, this is in the spirit of team, family lunch. You mentioned family lunch earlier.
Chef Thomas Keller (35:22):
Yeah. So yeah, we, we call it basically a staff meal. And when I, you know, when I was, you know, my first job when I became, when I embrace this as a career, I was, I was the staff cook. I was the family chef, right. Fan I prepared family meals. So we call it family meal because we are like a family. I mean, we spend so much time together, you know, in a kitchen, in a restaurant and family meals are really, really, really important moment in, in, in that time. So we get to, we get to take a break each station in the restaurant prepares part of the meal, right? So if it’s a proteins, either the, the pasta near the fish have makes the protein or the saucy, the meat chef makes the protein, one of those two. So it’s either fish or meat.
Chef Thomas Keller (36:02):
[Inaudible] Always does the vegetable garment. Jay makes a salad, right? So we have a vegetable and a starch, right? That’s entre, Mente, the vegetable cooks has the vegetables, a vegetable and a starch protein salad. And then the pastry department always makes a dessert for us. And then there’s a beverage made by the, by the dining room team. And we have a buddy system. So, you know, we have 40 people working in the restaurant. We don’t want to have 40 people lined up, cause that’s going to take a half an hour, you know, from the time the last person, till the last person gets his dinner and we only have a half an hour for dinner or lunch. So what we do is, you know, th the kitchen team makes the dinner. Every person in the kitchen staff, every position has a buddy that’s in the dining room staff.
Chef Thomas Keller (36:44):
So the, so the dining room person goes through the line and makes dinner for himself and his buddy, one of the cooks. So it was the buddy. So you create this, you establish this bond between the kitchen and the dining room. Right. And that’s, and that’s an important thing. Right. Then they get to know each other, you know, Tina yeah. One team instead of front and back. Well, yeah, that I, that the words are really, really, really important words are so important. And I never understood this idea of front of the house and back of the house. It’s like, what does that mean? Yeah. It’s such a derogatory feeling to be back of the house. Like, I don’t want to be in back of the house. Right? Yeah. You start to, you know, relate that to a home, right? Like we talk about family meal, like it’s a home, well, in your home, you don’t have a front of the house.
Chef Thomas Keller (37:27):
And back of the house, you have a kitchen, you have a dining room. And that’s what we have. We have a kitchen in the dining room. They’re not, you know, they used to talk about, there’s always, there was always that, that description of the, of the dishwashing area as as the pit. Yeah. The dish pit. And it’s like, that’s not a pit. That’s like, these people are really important people, you know, and we eat, and that’s the, that’s the Porter station. That’s the dishwashing area. That’s we have to respect that. We have to respect them. We can’t run our restaurant without them. Why would we, why would we call that a pit? It’s just such a, such a awful thing to think about right. Or rag. We don’t have rags in the kitchen. We have towels right there, towels. Right. It’s our words.
Chef Thomas Keller (38:06):
Sometimes we call them baseballs because they’re, you know, you know, you want to clean, you know, you want to, you know, remember when the empire throws a clean ball out how white it is, but, you know, we, we, we do that in the, in the restaurant during the service, because you need to have a clean towel. Right. You know, at some point, and your towel is too dirty. And then, you know, you asked for a new baseball, right. So they get a fresh white towel, you know, so these things are, are part of our culture and very important words to be able to use and to understand the meanings of them. I mean, Greece, I mean, the idea of Greece is just, I mean, that’s just, that just drives me up the wall. It’s like we, as human beings do not consume Greece. Right. You know, Greece is used in the mechanics, right. In industry, we eat, we consume fats and oils. That’s what we consume. It’s not Greece mean. So, you know, these are things that we need to think about and how we, how we teach, you know, the younger generations to be able to be respectful to, to their profession. It’s their profession. And that’s an important tool as
Daniel Harkavy (39:05):
Well. So leaders, as you’re listening to this, I’m sitting across from you know, a Michelin three-star award winning restaurant tour, chef, not just once, but twice with hundreds on his team and teams in many different restaurants and businesses. And I, I hope you’re picking up on this. You’re just picking up on this, this commitment to excellence, this commitment, to detail, this breaking of bread together, and one team coming together. He himself is at these family meals, these family lunches together. And there’s just something that is so critical for us to pick up on our words, matter how we show up matters, how we treat folks in all roles in the organization matters. Every role is critical. Every role is important and how you communicate as the leader sets the tone for the rest of the organization. So if you have problems two or three levels down in the organization where people are not being treated with the respect that you would like to see in your culture, oftentimes it’s because they’re hearing it at the top.
Daniel Harkavy (40:16):
And we set the, we set the tone, we set the standard for culture. And I think there’s just so much with what you’ve shared. You know, our relationship started really right at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s when you and I first met. And that was a difficult time for you, an incredibly difficult time for you. I look at your industry and the hospitality industry during this pandemic was hit so hard. Here we sit in July of 2021, there were lines at the restaurant, your reservation book is fold, hiring great people. Now is the challenge and building talented capacity. Has anything changed for you as a leader in the last year and a half?
Chef Thomas Keller (41:02):
Well, I mean, that’s, you know, there there’ve been so many changes, right? And in this last year and a half, you know, we, we responded, we reacted to situations. And I think one thing that I’m really proud of is restaurant tours and chefs pivot all the time. It wasn’t something that we’ve never been confronted with before. I mean, vegan walks in the restaurant, you don’t know who they’re are vegan. They say, I’m a vegan, can you cook for me? You, you hadn’t planned to cook a vegan dinner that night, but you do it. I mean, cause it’s not hard. Right. You figure it out. You know, we’re always, we’re always open and available for a challenge. You bet. Those are some of the times for us in our profession where we get the opportunity to really shine and to really kind of blow somebody away.
Chef Thomas Keller (41:53):
Right. Wow. That was the most amazing vegan meal I’ve ever had. I didn’t, you know, I didn’t expect that. Well, you know, it’s easy to cook vegetables, you know, with, you know, we, we understand these things and to be able to do that for somebody that doesn’t really expect it is what we did during the pandemic. Right. I mean, we one of the saddest moments in my career was Monday, March 20th 1920 first, I think it was when we had to lay off or furlough over over a thousand people, brutal. You know, I mean, I called a few myself, but mostly, you know, it was done electronically or through, you know, depending on the person through to our HR department. But that was really hard. I remember him and, and, and, you know, families, I mean, you know, this was, this was, nobody did anything wrong, right.
Chef Thomas Keller (42:40):
It just happened that it happened so quickly that we were, everybody was ill prepared for it. And we had to come together, you know, as a team and say, okay, how are we going to support these individuals? Who, who, who are just, who are just their jobs, just taken from their livelihoods were taken away. How do you, how do you support them? And we did, we did so many different things, you know, for our, for our community here, you know, and help, help helping feed people. You know, I mean, just to give them a sustenance, we weren’t trying to, you know, we, weren’t trying to create, you know, gourmet meals to take home. We were just making meatloaf and and, and, and, and, and, and, you know, coleslaw, but they had a salad and things like that that people would buy for, you know, less than $20 right.
Chef Thomas Keller (43:19):
Meal for, for, for two or three people. And just so they can have something to eat. And that was an important, that was our, that was our mission, you know, starting a little food pantry talking to all of our suppliers, you know, we’re so generous, you know all the restaurants they closed, so they were generous because they wanted it to be, but also because they had to be right, they had all this food that they had to somehow, you know, distribute right. And they distributed it to all the chefs and restaurant tours around the country that distributed this food very, very quickly and very effectively and very efficiently for these small communities in the outfit was, was one of them. You know, we tackled the idea of, of how do we support our team with insurance, making sure that their insurances were intact.
Chef Thomas Keller (44:01):
So they didn’t have to worry about, you know, getting sick or hurting themselves or their, their child needing some kind of medical attention, you know, making sure their insurances were tacked. We started, we, we, we began a restaurant relief fund. You know, we raised over a million dollars, you know, through very generous people who had come to our restaurants, right. Who wanted to help our profession. And we distributed that money, you know, to over 700 people, you know, throughout the year who needed, whether it was their electricity bill or whatever they needed to support, and they weren’t taking advantage of it. They would send you their electric bill is $37 and 10 cents. And that’s all the money they wanted that week. And, you know, trying to help them. We, we worked with, you know, with the administration and modifying PPP, you know, we were successful in that.
Chef Thomas Keller (44:46):
We worked on, you know, the insurance companies and bringing them to the table to be responsible for business and reps and insurance. We did as much as we could in so many different ways to make sure that our profession, our communities, our state and our country had an opportunity to see, even in the beginning that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and that there was hope. And that, that was the most important thing. And it kept us working, kept us focused kept us motivated. And, and those things were really good, but our profession is one that pivots really, really well. I think where we really, really saw, you know, the, the sadness for me was, was in the smallest of the small restaurants, you know, that the newly assimilated immigrants, right? The, the, the small Mexican or Indian or Chinese restaurant on Broadway and, you know, 49th street, you know, just closed their doors because they didn’t have the, where for all to figure out how to apply that, right.
Chef Thomas Keller (45:40):
Or how to even apply for PPP or things like that. Then that was really a struggle. So things changed for us, but, but at the same time, the desire for people to be together in a social environment, celebrating never wavered no, as in the past. And this is, this is where I think we don’t understand history or don’t look back at history enough. I mean, for the past 400 years, there’ve been restaurants, right? And there have been extreme catastrophes in situations, world wars, pandemics, I mean, stock market crashes. And none of those have affected the, the restaurant profession, the idea of coming together to, to break bread, to celebrate, just to be together as a family, as loved ones, as friends around a table, then that’s always the most important thing to remember this, the fact that it’s a three-star restaurant is one thing, but the most important thing for me is that you’re coming together, enjoying each other, right?
Chef Thomas Keller (46:45):
It’s not about the food or the wine. It’s about who you’re with. And in a restaurant setting, the quality of restaurant is irrelevant to the fact that you are together with your friends, with your family, with your loved ones, enjoying that moment. And that’s what, that’s what restaurants, you know, afford, afford people to do. And they are, they are the, the cornerstone of our communities. I mean, every community, every restaurant in every community becomes a gathering place for that community. It’s part of the fabric it’s woven into the fabric of every community in America. I thought the world. Yeah,
Daniel Harkavy (47:16):
Well, I, I could not agree more. I look at some of our most favorite memories as family with friends. It’s always enjoying the experience and the eating wonderful food. And yeah, I think you’re spot on. So I’m going to ask you two more questions and then we will we’ll bring this to close. These two are, are more on the personal side and I always like listeners to understand that there is, there’s a cost that comes along with leadership and when you get to your level of success, there’s some amazing blessings and there’s some challenges. So how has your career impacted your personal life and what have you learned along the way that you’re comfortable sharing?
Chef Thomas Keller (48:04):
Well, yeah. I mean, you know, I think the positives are, are pretty obvious. I’ve done some extraordinary things, but I think from a personal point of view and it’s a trade off. Right. And so where, you know, you start to think about, you know, your life and your career, certainly as you become older and you start to think, where, where would I have made? Where would I have changed? What would I have done differently? And I always say, you know, there’s nothing I would have done differently. Because if I had, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Right. I mean, that, that I feel confident is a true statement at the same time. Because of my commitment because of my, my, my total focus on, on our teams and our guests, I’ve, I’ve neglected myself in many ways. And it’s only recently that I’ve started to think about, okay, how can I take care of myself better?
Chef Thomas Keller (49:01):
And it’s not like you know, not like it don’t take care of myself from a health point of view. I mean, I sleep the appropriate amount of hours, you know, very good diet. I exercise all those things, right. That I need to do to maintain my physical health, but what’s your emotional health like? Right. and then that’s the most important thing. So doing all the things that I’ve done without compromise has led me to feel like I’ve neglected myself a little bit. So w you know, if I think about what I want to do in the future, and this is, this is a real crossroads, is how do you move beyond what you’ve done so well for so long has become part of your, yourself part of your soul, part of your, you know, your, every beating moment. How do you move beyond that without feeling like now you’re neglecting them.
Chef Thomas Keller (49:48):
Right. Right. And there’s that sense of neglect that sense of, of departure, right? Which is, which is, so it creates so much fear in certainly in me. But I realized that I’ve done such a great job forming these teams. I have a hundred percent confidence in that if I did go away that they would work even harder than they do today to maintain the standards and the reputation that has been part of our restaurants and being our anniversary reminded everybody today, again, that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before, you know, and the foundation of the French laundry and every other restaurant that’s in our restaurant group that came after that is on that foundation of those 12 individuals that came to that restaurant and started that restaurant and started propelling it forward and created that foundation. And everybody, everybody, including those here today are adding to that foundation, adding to that strength and has become such a, such a strong, strong, strong restaurant that, you know, I feel comfortable and confident that if I can pull myself away, right. That’s, that’s my demon that the restaurants would, would be fine. Yep.
Daniel Harkavy (51:06):
Well, thank you for sharing. You know, there is definitely a trade off and, or a whole bunch of trade-offs that come along with growing something like you’ve, you’ve, you’ve grown and you’re not alone doing what I have had the privilege of doing for the last two and a half decades and, and connecting with men and women who lead, who innovate, who build when you get into your fifties and sixties and seventies, you know, you’ll, you’ll come to these moments where you’re, you’re faced with reflection and then are there regrets and, and are those regrets so large that they Rob you of the joy of the now. And like we spoke earlier, prior to the podcast, you know, you taking care of yourself and, and beginning to build some net worth in the areas in your life, beyond this identity of who you are as a chef, but going and, and being able to, to build net worth in those accounts, I am sure will bring even more joy to
Chef Thomas Keller (52:08):
You. I think so, too. We remember there’s always, there’s always two people. There’s Thomas Keller and there’s Thomas Keller right there. They’re two distinctly different people I had. So I do play that role as, as the chef has, as you pointed out, you know, as a celebrity, but, you know, celebrity is given to you by others, right. It can be taken away from you by others. So you have to find your own comfort in what you do. And I’ve certainly found that comfort of what I do professionally. I need to work a little more on the personal side.
Daniel Harkavy (52:36):
Yep. Well, I look forward to hearing how that goes and I look forward to reading your life plan when it’s done. So Thomas there’s just all sorts of gems for our listeners. There are strong themes of innovation, of risk-taking of passion, of attention, to detail, every little detail. One of your highest convictions or values is team. It’s all about the team. And there are frameworks. The way your mind works is you create frameworks and rules for perfection and excellence and, and they serve you well, and they’re transferable. So when you come up with your six of these or your three of those, you know, that is transferable, and that allows those that are following you to what it is that they need to embrace in order to continue on this journey of excellence and creating these moments and experiences in communities that you’ve poured your heart and soul into for, for years. So, so many great leadership insights. So there are any final thoughts that you have on leadership for those that are listening to us and in the summer months of 2021. Yeah,
Chef Thomas Keller (53:49):
I think that, you know, there’s one of the things that I just want to bring out because we get confused between influence and inspiration in so many different ways. I mean, we always talk about being inspired by others. You know, to me, I don’t necessarily think we’re inspired by others as much as we’re influenced by others and influence is not a bad thing. I mean, you know, we all want to be influenced by, by great people and trying to follow in their pathway or trying to use them as examples. Inspiration is something that I think is totally different. Inspiration is, is a very rare thing, at least to me and my definition of it. And, and it could happen at any moment. And I think the most important thing that we have to do to embrace that was moments when inspiration possibly could be, you know, in front of us is a true sense of awareness of the world around you, because anything at any moment in time and you’ve walked through through the park or in your life can inspire you.
Chef Thomas Keller (54:42):
Yeah. And that, that is something that I think is important. If we can be more aware of the world around us, be open to inspiration, not thinking that influence, not reading a book or flipping through, you know, I mean, you know, people flip through my cookbooks and say, wow, this is really inspiring. You know, I I’m, I’m influencing you in many ways in very positive ways, but I don’t necessarily think it’s inspiring. I think inspiration is something that is so rare. And I think I’ve been inspired maybe two or three times in my entire life. And it’s because I’ve been aware of things around me and have embraced the idea that I, that I, that I realize from seeing something that I’ve never seen before in something that may be so mundane as a leaf falling from a tree.
Daniel Harkavy (55:31):
So inspiration being divine inspiration coming from being aware, you know, I see. And I don’t know if you would agree with me and we’ll bring it to a close on this, but I would think that one of the reasons why finding inspiration is so challenging is because we all are so distracted, we all move so fast. We’re all focused on a shiny little object that is continually telling us where we should be and what we should be doing. So we’re following, following, following instead of walking at a pace that allows us to be aware,
Chef Thomas Keller (56:05):
This is true. Yeah. Yeah. When you, when, when you’re aware, you know, and you’re inspired, you know, it turns inspiration, turns to interpretation, you’re interpreting something that inspires you into something that’s meaningful to you. Right. And then of course, everything evolves. So, you know, awareness, you know, is awareness, inspiration, interpretation, evolution. Those are four key words that we talk about in our restaurants, right on,
Daniel Harkavy (56:30):
Well, my friend, it has been as always just fascinating and very enjoyable to hang out with you and talk leadership and to learn more about you and your journey all sorts of nuggets of inspiration, as well as insights for those that are listening. So I want to thank you. Thank you for your investment of time into questioning leadership.
Chef Thomas Keller (56:53):
Yep. You’re welcome. Has been a pleasure being with you and know, look forward to more time in the future. Excellent. Thank you. Thank you.
In This Episode