While there is no exact recipe that molds a master, those found within the hospitality industry have foraged their own unique paths peppered with lessons learned that can benefit us all as we find our own way. Alice Cheng, Founder and CEO of Culinary Agents, had the opportunity to interview Chef Thomas Keller in this inaugural edition of our series, Mentoring with the Masters.
ADVICE FOR ASPIRING AND EXISTING KITCHEN PROFESSIONALS
Q: Through your restaurants, your place on the boards of CIA and ICE, and as president of Ment’or, you have helped train and launch the careers of so many chefs. What continues to be the most important lesson you try to instill?
A: Most people think of success as based on what was done yesterday, but I focus on what we are doing today and how we are going to do it better tomorrow. Success, for me, is not about fortune or fame. Success is about giving to our team, our guests, our friends and family and community through time and commitment, advice and mentoring. Always, at the center of it all, are the wonderful memories created together of meals enjoyed and shared.
Q: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself as a young chef?
A: When it comes to career growth or keys to running a good business, there are two words that come to my mind: patience and persistence. Being patient with yourself is an integral part of career growth, whether it is with your time or the stage in your career. It’s important to spend time learning and enjoying that process. As for persistence, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something, and don’t ever feel like you can’t do something.
As I grew into my role as a chef, restaurateur and then the leader of our restaurant group, I realized that I needed to promote confidence and courage among my team across all departments, and to give them a strong understanding of who they are, and what they can contribute—so that together we can make a positive impact on our profession.
Q: Being a chef and restaurateur, what advice do you have for those cooks hoping to manage their own businesses someday.
A: Regardless of whether you are a chef or restaurateur, when you are just starting out and developing a foundation, it’s important to build a common vision and approach with your team. For us, it is not necessarily just about our restaurants; it’s about our profession. And if we’re not raising the standards of our profession, then we are not being truly responsible to it.
Q: We all experience reflection points along our paths, was there ever anyone who made you question your career path and what was the result?
A: I began my culinary education at a young age and I’ve had many teachers along the way. But there’s only one teacher I call my mentor, the person who has done more than any other to make me the chef I am today. Chef Roland G. Henin. Chef Henin took me aside one day and explained to me why cooks cook – that whether you were the short-order cook down the street or the private cook for a family or a chef in one of the finest restaurants in the world, he said ‘Cooks cook to nurture people.’ At that moment, that very moment, July 1977, is when I decided to become a professional chef. Chef Henin’s words became my guiding principle, the foundation of everything I try to do. We cook to nurture. To make people happy. To create lasting memories around a meal.
Q: How did the guiding principles at your establishments come about and how do they impact your restaurants?
A: There were many lessons I learned early in my career. Some of them include: Repetition is fundamental to one’s success in cooking. You learn more about a certain technique each time you attempt it. Awareness. Once you are aware of everything that goes on around you, this opens you up to inspiration and to new ways to interpret your cuisine. Inspiration leads to evolution. Evolution becomes more rapid when you share ideas and collaborate with a group of individuals who share your same ideals and philosophy.
The biggest lesson I learned as a young chef? Striving to do a little better each day. If you improved on something even just a little bit each day, imagine what one can achieve in a month; multiply that by a lifetime.
THE DEEPER MEANING BEHIND BOCUSE D'OR
Q: I had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand in Lyon the exact moment that Team USA was announced as the winner of the 2017 Bocuse d’Or. What do you hope that those who are unfamiliar with its significance understand?
A: I promised Chef Paul Bocuse ten years ago that we’d make it to the top of the podium, and for Team USA to achieve Silver in 2015 and immediately follow that up with Gold in 2017 is just incredible. The five teams, that have represented the U.S. in the last nine years, have displayed extraordinary commitment, motivation and dedication. And it’s not just from the culinary participants, but the entire hospitality profession—farmers, fisherman, foragers gardeners, restaurateurs, sommeliers and vintners. Our win was built on the shoulders of a thousand people.
What started as a training program strictly for the Bocuse d’Or competition has evolved to focus on so much more than that, including young chef competitions and a grant program that’s awarded more than a half-million dollars to young chefs eager to advance their careers. Ment’or is all about passing down what we’ve learned and inspiring the next generation of chefs. It’s our duty.
Q: With the passing of your close friend Paul Bocuse, what lessons did you learn from him that you feel are the most important to preserve?
A: We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. There are few individuals who have borne the weight of our profession and the modernization of restaurants around the world, as Chef Paul has.
Chef Paul Bocuse was not only my dear friend, but a man who changed our lives and the lives of millions. He set the example for chefs and restaurateurs. He helped us understand the importance of evolution, teaching, mentoring, sharing, and building meaningful relationships. In his lifetime, he began a culinary revolution thereby elevating the awareness of cuisine on a global scale, which in turn informed how we view and interact with food. We are forever grateful for his love for America, and for being the Chef that motivated the culinary culture of this country. We will do our very best to honor his legacy for generations to come.
About Thomas Keller
Thomas Keller is renowned for his culinary skills and his exceptionally high standards. He has established a collection of restaurants that set a new paradigm within the hospitality profession. He is the first and only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings from the prestigious Michelin Guide, as well as the first American male chef to be designated a Chevalier of The French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France. He has received countless accolades, including The Culinary Institute of America’s “Chef of the Year” Award and the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Chef” and “Outstanding Restaurateur” Awards.