There are plenty of entrepreneurs who will tell you that corporate culture informs every facet of how they manage their companies. But those who walk that walk are rare. And those who extend that philosophy to their suppliers and business partners are even rarer. Count Thomas Keller among them. Keller, the owner of two Michelin three-star restaurants–The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York–knows that the fishermen, foragers, gardeners, and farmers who supply his restaurants with the freshest ingredients are an integral part of the complex calculus that makes for a memorable dining experience. And so he treats them accordingly.
“We’re in business together because we have similar values,” says Keller, referring to his community of suppliers. “They are as much a part of our restaurant as our guests and our staff – they’re that important.” Keith Martin, who’s Elysian Fields Farms in Western Pennsylvania has been supplying Keller’s restaurants with lamb for 15 years, describes Keller as “a culinary icon and a true leader.” He recalls that, several years ago, Keller gathered a small group of his suppliers in New York so that they could not only meet his staff and see how the restaurant operates first hand, but connect with one another in an informal roundtable discussion.
“We were able to discuss our philosophies,” recalls Martin. “I got a lot from it. It was nice to know that other people think the way you do. We’re all passionate for what we do, but even deeper than that is our level of commitment.”
For Martin, that means caring for his animals humanely and naturally, and with the firm belief that everything that happens to the animal from birth to slaughter is reflected in the quality of the meat. To that end, he’s developed a detailed tracking system that records what the lamb eats and drinks, when it was weaned and if it was stressed at any time. He recalls that Keller once discovered a rare “toughness issue” in Martin’s lamb. Using his tracking system, Martin discovered that prior to slaughter, the lambs had been exposed to an extreme heat wave.
“They were panting, and their respiration was so high and their ribs were going crazy, so that muscle group was working overtime,” he says. “All that’s gone before is represented in the product.”
The Long-Term Value
For his part, Keller knows that the direct and intimate relationship he has with suppliers like Martin means that he is connected to their lives and to their challenges in ways that most chefs are not. When there are glitches, he’s not happy, of course, but he’s committed to long-term relationships, to the point that he doesn’t even negotiate on price. “I expect the ultimate best they can give me, and they expect to have the price of their products respected. I can't expect them to diminish the quality of their life because I can't afford to pay for their ingredients. Like my mother said, you get what you pay for. So for me, there’s no point in negotiation.”
Ingrid Bengis, a Deer Island, Maine, seafood dealer who has been working with Keller for 25 years, confirms that he never discusses price with her. “He assumes, correctly, that he can trust me and I will do my best for him, and that I need to make a living,” she says. “And however I define that is alright with him. He’s not counting.” For her part, Bengis has very close relationships with all the fishermen who “risk their lives every day,” to supply top chefs like Keller with lobster, scallops, crab, halibut and other delicacies.
Sure, she’s demanding. “I drive them crazy,” she says. “But if they’re really proud of what they bring in, it works.” It’s also important to her that her restaurant partners understand and respect her community. “I went to The French Laundry and I spent an hour talking to the staff about where I live because I felt that it was important for them to have a sense of what kind of lives produce this product.” Conversely, if chefs don’t have time for her stories and have no interest in her community, she rarely has time for them.
Keller stresses that the spirit of collaboration that he fosters in his restaurants also extends to his suppliers. Bengis recalls a shipment of lobsters that got tied up in the delivery process a day before New Year’s Eve several years ago. “Thomas and I were on the phone all night together, struggling to make sure he was going to have what he needed,” she says. “And he was bending over backwards not to say ‘I’ll get them someplace else.’ I’d call that collaboration.”
The Bigger Picture
For Keller, there’s a bigger issue than just getting lobsters on the table. “We talk a lot about sustainability,” he says. “But we don’t talk about it in a complete way. What about the sustainability of communities? If Ingrid was not able to sell her scallops and lobsters to chefs, the community would die, and where is the sustainability in that? Sustainability goes beyond ingredients to communities and individuals.”
Learn more in OPEN Forum's Company Culture 2012 series.
Photo credit: American Express