A Conversation with Chef Thomas Keller
Dô-Quyen had a conversation with Chef Keller, to hear his thoughts on topics ranging from whom he would like to invite to dinner to whether he would expand his restaurant empire. The seasoned chef was sincere, direct and had a dry sense of humor. Here are highlights from our interview with Chef Keller.
DQ: You spent some time in France after you became a chef. Please describe how that experience had influenced your cuisine.
TK: My time spent in France was really about appreciating the culture and the society. It was about the affection and love for food, and fine ingredients, and the famers, and the camaraderie among the chefs. Certainly, there were cooking elements involved, but it was more the organization and understanding of restaurants. I was curious about why the great restaurants were in fact great restaurants, and the attention to detail that the chefs all paid to it. I discovered that it was due to the understanding of the relationship between the chefs with their staff, with their suppliers and the relationship with their guests. I think that was really something that resonated with me, and was a big part of moving forward for me.
DQ: Could you please describe the evolution of the American cuisine.
TK: There’s not a whole lot of American culinary heritage. We’re a land of immigrants so we have a lot of different cuisines throughout America. That’s certainly been prominent throughout our history. What we see today is the results of the past 35 years
Before World War II, there was a great relationship with farmers and the fisherman and the gardeners, and even after the war. It was all farm-to-table. Not just for restaurants, but for everybody. When I was growing up with my grandmother, we’d go to the market. The milk was delivered; the bread was delivered to the door. So America really has that heritage of being aligned with where food is produced.
When World War II began, all the men went to war, and the women went to work. It really dramatically changed the way we began to eat in America. We started to see in the early 1950s and 1960s a generation of baby boomers who were raised on convenience food. I was raised on Swanson’s TV dinners, and convenience food like macaroni and cheese made right out of a box. That lasted for a period of time through my childhood, until I started this career. Then we started to see in the early 1970s, a couple of chefs in our country started to reestablish the relationships with our farmers, and our fisherman and our gardeners. And that’s when this whole chef-driven market began. We see around the country now, this idea that restaurants are farm-to-the table. The media has made it into something new, but it’s the way chefs have always been. America used to have an international reputation of fast food, convenience food, which was partially true. Today, we have some of the best chefs, the best restaurants, some of the best ingredients in the world.
DQ: How would you define the Thomas Keller cuisine?
TK: Our cuisine is very evolutionary. We have the opportunity to evolve the cuisine in our kitchen through collaboration with the staff. I think that’s the cornerstone of our restaurant that has given me, and everyone around me, the ability to continue to grow and continue to set new standards through that evolutionary process and collaboration.
How do we define our cuisine? Our cuisine is American even though it is deeply rooted in French traditional techniques and history.
DQ: What do you think are the key ingredients to your success?
TK: Perseverance. Never giving up. In any professional that you undertake, if you give up at a threat of failure, then you’ll never succeed. I think perseverance is important in anything that you’re doing. That’s certainly has been why I’ve achieved what I’ve done because I continue to work at it. I don’t give up. That’s one key element.
It’s also having people who have motivated and mentored me as a young cook, and who have taught me things that I needed to know early in my career. Those people are very important. Those people who are around me throughout my career that have worked with me, and have worked for me, are also a big part of why I was successful.
DQ: What qualities do you look for in your staff?
TK: I look for someone with a desire to succeed, a desire to do a good job. Desire burns inside. If you don’t have desire, then what do you have? You don’t have anything. So it’s very simple.
DQ: What are some setbacks you have experienced and overcame in your career?
TK: I don’t see any setbacks in my career. The failures have given me the success that came after that. Without failure, you can’t have success.
DQ: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting your staff and all the talented chefs at your restaurants in Yountville. They spoke about you with great fondness, awe and admiration. They said that you spend a lot of time training and mentoring them. Please tell us more about this.
In any profession, I think the younger generation needs to have the knowledge and wisdom of the older generation. It is the older generation’s responsibility to mentor. So if you look at it as three distinct responsibilities as to what we should do as the older generation, hiring is the first step. I think that you need to put in a great amount of effort in hiring a person. I think you should give the other person the opportunity to also see the environment that they’ll be coming into. It’s not about me to analyze you; but it’s also my responsibility to give you the opportunity to analyze us, and see if we’re the right fit.
The second part is training somebody. Training was always something that was overlooked or taken for granted in my profession. For me as a young cook, and in some places today, there was the allocated two weeks to learn; the assumption then is that you’ll be doing the job. Everybody has the ability to learn in different paces. If you use the analogy of a child, when you were a kid you had training wheels on your bicycle. When you learn how to swim, your mother had these big balloons on your arms. You don’t tell a child you have two week to learn how to ride a bicycle or learn how to swim. You give the child the time and the training to be able to be competent.
It’s not that we’re hiring children. But it’s the same kind of parallel. They may be cooks, but in the kitchen, just to understand where everything is kept sometimes takes a couple of days. So you have to give the person the opportunity, and to commit to the training 100 percent. So the training can be two weeks, two months, it can be six months. You never know. One day it will happen and they’ll understand it. It’s extraordinary. I’ve seen it so many times.
So, you hire the right person. You give them the benefit of the right kind of training.
Then it is our responsibility to mentor them, to give them different sets of skills: judgments, knowledge, wisdom, to help them understand how to be a leader, how to motivate people… all these things. If you do those three things correctly, what happens to that person? That person becomes better than you are.
DQ: Though some chefs don’t want someone to be better than them.
TK: I think of it this way, if the person is not better than I am, what does that say about me? It says I haven’t done a good job. My goal in my life is to do a good job. So if I’m hiring you, I’m training you and I’m mentoring you, then you have to be better than me. Otherwise I’m not as good as I think I am.
Each generation is always better than the generation before. It doesn’t diminish the great leaders of the previous generation because the next generation has better skills, better knowledge and better experience. It doesn’t diminish anybody. It only helps to add and enhance the individual.
DQ: I agree. But as you know, some people like to keep the “knowledge” to themselves.
TK: You know why? One word: It’s ego. If you can extract ego from yourself, you don’t need to extract all of it, because you need ego. But if you can extract ego from yourself, to a point where you can be impactful to another person, then your ego is actually enhanced.
DQ: You were named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 2011 for your work in promoting French cuisine in America. What did it mean for you to receive this honor?
TK: It’s one of the most extraordinary things that ever happened to me. To have another country recognize you as having made a significant contribution to their culture; that’s pretty extraordinary. It’s not everyday that you have the opportunity to be recognized by the president of a country that you have had great affection, admiration and respect for throughout your entire career.
It says a couple things. From a personal achievement, it was an amazing honor for me. From a national level, it brings recognition that American cuisine has really arrived. We have the respect of France, which is the preeminent culture and cuisine in the world, recognizing that America has great cuisine is equally as important
DQ: Please describe what is the ‘Modern Chef.’
TK: It’s someone like me. I’m talking about my generation of chefs who has the ability to rise above their restaurants and embrace other opportunities and still maintain responsibility to the restaurants from where they rose. Today, we have multiple restaurants, we do interviews, and we write books. As for me, I’ve also done movies, I’ve designed china, I’ve designed silverware, I’m on the board of trustees to the Culinary of America. There are so many things I’ve done that didn’t happen for chefs of the last generation. In a nutshell, the modern chef today has opportunities to expand beyond his kitchen.
DQ: February is the start of the new “Year of the Snake” for countries in Asia. Do you have a New Year wish for our Vietnamese readers?
TK: As anyone who would want to wish any group of individuals around the world, it would be that we all have a better life. What happens today as we see all around us is that there is so much injustice and so much pain. We would only hope that somehow our leaders could come together to stop this. They have the ability to change the course of history. And for some reason, they choose not to; and it saddens me.
DQ: What are some fun things that you pursue when you’re not working?
TK: If I do have a stretch of time off, it would be just to relax and do nothing. Watch sports on TV, or any teams from San Francisco. I like historical movies and action movies. I also love golf and would continue to improve my game. Read books on the beach would also be a joy.
DQ: What is the Thomas Keller legacy that you would like to leave behind?
TK: You can’t define your own legacy. Other people will define that for you.
DQ: What do you think they’re saying now? And do you agree?
TK: I have no idea.
DQ: They say you’re the greatest and that you’re the best, and so on..
TK: You can’t listen to what other people say. (laughs)
DQ: Do you read the reviews that are written about your restaurants?
TK: Everything that’s been written about you is what you did yesterday. I want to know what we’re doing tomorrow. It’s the same thing with reviews. It’s fantastic to get a wonderful review. You can only find reassurance in the direction you’re going. You can’t look to them as a validation for what you’re doing.
DQ: Do you have plans to open more restaurants?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I also have many opportunities, being a modern chef that we discussed earlier. I’m not sure that opening more restaurants, for me, is the right business model. It’s interesting that every interview that I do, the journalists often ask me: What are you doing next? My question to you is: Why do I have to do anything? (laughs)
Maybe the reality is that we should really be focused on running our restaurants. Expansion is difficult. What does it do? It consumes your time. That consumption of time almost puts you in a position of neglect and that’s not good. As you know with children, if you neglect them, what happens? They run awry. (laughs) So we don’t want to neglect our restaurants.
DQ: If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would that be?
TK: I would love to have dinner again with Julia Child. I miss her greatly. We had some wonderful times together. Harry Truman would be another person. I think Harry Truman was one of the last presidents who was able to resonate in an effective way with people. Someone like him would be great to have dinner with, and my friends and family.