Don’t call Thomas Keller a “celebrity chef.” He bristles at the term.
“You wouldn’t call Tom Cruise a celebrity actor, would you?” he asks. “I’m just a chef.”
Well, not exactly. Chef Keller sits at the helm of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, which includes two Michelin three-star restaurants: The French Laundry, a Napa Valley gem; and Manhattan-based Per Se, where I recently chatted with Keller about his journey as an entrepreneurial chef.
“I think I've always been an entrepreneur,” he says. “I have always wanted my own business, always wanted to be in control of my own destiny, but more important than that, I've always wanted to be a chef.”
Two restaurant failures, one in West Palm Beach and one in Manhattan, taught Keller plenty and prepared him for the ultimate success of The French Laundry, which he bought in 1994. Among those lessons: “You need to build a team that is able to embrace the philosophy, culture, vision, and goals that are consistent with yours,” he says.
Both The French Laundry and Per Se feature two nine-course, fixed-price tasting menus that change daily. Using only the freshest ingredients gathered from a select group of farmers, gardeners, foragers, and fishermen, Keller is known for his meticulous attention to quality. It’s a pricy but highly memorable experience for guests, and one that hinges on committed and coordinated teamwork.
Collaborative and Competitive
Building that system began when Keller was running The French Laundry with a kitchen staff of only four chefs. “Yes, I was the owner, and I was the chef de cuisine, but I developed a culture that was based on the idea that anybody could have an impact,” Keller says. “Sitting around the table every night and changing the menu every day was one of the most significant decisions I made. At the end of the night, we’d talk about what was coming in tomorrow. These are our proteins, these are our vegetables, and what are we going to do? Everyone was responsible for coming up with ideas and techniques. That’s the ideal kitchen–where there’s true ownership for everybody.”
And when Keller says everybody, he really does mean everybody. He recalls that a young coffee server once asked him if he had ever thought of making sake granite. “I had never thought of that,” he says, “but it spawned the idea for a recipe that we still use today.”
Every chef de partie, or station chef, is responsible for his or her part of the menu, right down to ordering ingredients and delegating the jobs required to make a certain dish. “We’re teaching them how to become leaders, how to delegate, and how to be responsible for everything that has to happen in their kitchen station before they really have reached that level in their careers,” says Keller. He adds that the system also fosters friendly competition among his staff, with each chef motivated to try new recipes and techniques.
“We change our menu every day, so that helps create that little bit of competition,” he says. Each chef de partie tries to come up with a composition that’s going to impress and one-up the chef across from him. “That elevates and evolves what we do every day.”
That spirit of collaboration and autonomy was particularly important when Keller opened Per Se eight years ago. He actually closed The French Laundry for five months so that he could not only do major renovations there, but also move some of his staff to New York temporarily to “inoculate a new group of individuals” in the company culture. In fact, he began by training 24 Per Se employees in Yountville at The French Laundry 18 months before Per Se opened in New York. “That strong foundation helped catapult Per Se immediately to the prominence that it has,” he says.
Even now, the cross pollination continues. In Per Se’s gleaming kitchen, where a small army of employees prepares the evening’s fare with all the care and focus of surgeons, is a wall-mounted video monitor that displays the activity in The French Laundry’s kitchen, in real time. And just recently, the two restaurants switched chefs de cuisine (head chefs) for three weeks, an experiment that worked extremely well, according to Keller. Each chef found familiar faces—people who had also moved between the restaurants and were able to quickly familiarize the chefs with new kitchens. And while the restaurants were certainly not identical, the culture and the values were.
A Recipe for Success
Keller maintains that his company’s culture was never really part of a grand plan, but that it evolved according to the needs of the business. In retrospect, culture has been critical to his ability to grow and maintain the quality and brand identity of both restaurants.
“The strength of our restaurants is far superior to that of an individual restaurant,” he says. “Now we have two teams embracing the same culture, the same philosophy, the same ideals.”
A cornerstone of that philosophy is continuous improvement—going to work every day with the intention of doing things better than the day before, if only incrementally. Ultimately, there’s a cumulative effect, says Keller. But it all hinges on hiring, training, and mentoring the right people.
“Mentoring and training somebody is about making them better than you, so if the person is not better than you are then you haven't done your job,” he says. “One of the proudest moments is when I walk into the kitchen and smack myself on the head and say ‘I wish I had thought of that,’ because you know when that happens that your team is on the right track.”
Learn more in OPEN Forum's Company Culture 2012 series.