Sponsored by Ventura Foods
Thomas Keller is a man who needs no introduction. The California-based chef has won nearly every culinary award imaginable; his cookbooks line the shelf of other chefs and passionate home cooks the world round, and foodies can list off his iconic dishes like they are naming tracks on a multi-platinum album by an iconic rock star. His ongoing philanthropic work, leadership support of programs like the Bocuse D’Or, and his popular cooking instruction courses on the Master Class digital platform all make him instantly recognizable in any room, but when speaking with him, it is clear that this level of notoriety was never something he sought or that lands particularly comfortably for him. The 2022 Menu Masters Hall of Fame inductee inspired the crowd at the gala celebration in Chicago this past May, sharing his philosophies about food and cooking, his hopes for the future, and some of the things that keep him grounded. Chef Keller was gracious enough to sit down with us to share more of the lessons he has learned during his extraordinary career.
Keller did not grow up in a particularly food-centric home: “My mother ran restaurants. She wasn't a chef, I mean, she cooked, you know, occasionally, at home on special occasions, birthdays, or certainly the major holidays, but most of the time she worked at night, and so I was brought up by my older brothers who fed me Hamburger Helper or Chef Boyardee, SpaghettiOs and Beans and Franks and things like that. But it felt like a luxury to be able to pop up the TV dinner stand and sit in front of the TV with my brothers and watch Leave it to Beaver or whatever was on.”
Learning that self-sufficiency, first from his brothers cooking for him, and later when fending for himself, was his initial foundation in the world of cooking, Keller says. “I found comfort and security in the kitchen right from a young age, 13 or 14 years old, and started to develop some of my future skills, or what I call disciplines, that have helped me become a really good cook and still maintain today.”
He learned them first from being a dishwasher and has always held out what he calls the Six Disciplines as essential to your personal professional practice, whatever it might be, but certainly in the culinary world. “You know, those six disciplines have changed people's lives.”
These disciplines on the surface seem simple, but there needs to be rigor behind them. Organization, which for Keller is about how to organize himself so that his place on the team never negatively impacted anyone else. “Being ready for the task is so important. It’s the difference between failure and success.” Keller says.
Secondly, he points to efficiency, which for him is very much about economy of movement, space usage, maximizing resources. “How to be efficient in the way I racked my dishes so I could get a full rack. To be efficient in the space in which I was allotted to execute the intended task, which was to wash as many dishes as I possibly can.”
Thirdly, and perhaps one of the disciplines that can be most emotionally fraught for people, is critical feedback. Keller knows it is imperative to learn where someone is making mistakes and how to correct them. “Embrace the idea of criticism,” he says. It is the best way to continually move forward, and there is always room to do something better or to be better yourself.
Next, he really thinks that repetition is something that gets a bit lost today, but that can be the difference between being good and being great at something. “The ability to embrace the idea of repetition that will make you a good cook.” And that one should find a way to enjoy that repetition. To find the meditative nature in doing something over and over until you have that muscle memory, until it can become second nature. He thinks the old saying is true, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”
Repetition also plays out in the discipline of rituals. “Doing the same thing at specific times of the day. In front of the dishwasher, it meant I had to take out the garbage at specific times of the day. All highly functional restaurants are based on rituals.” Keller also thinks that finding ritualistic practice is important in self-care, which is something he is fully embracing, from diet and exercise to a new meditation practice, getting enough sleep, keeping his body and mind fit is part and parcel of serving his busy and demanding professional life, and keeping him grounded in his personal life.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, teamwork. Keller’s experiences as a dishwasher taught him that there is no role that is lesser than any other in a business, and particularly in a restaurant. The finest chef in the world cannot get his creations to the diner without clean plates, flatware and glasses, the chefs on the line need those fresh pans at hand in the moment to keep the dance of the kitchen flowing smoothly. “Understanding that everybody in our restaurant is part of a unified team,” Keller says, is the only way to really achieve at the highest levels. “If anybody makes a mistake, we’ve all made a mistake.”
Ultimately, Keller says, the why of the work of a cook is simple, but often overlooked. He remembers back to a pivotal moment in 1976 when he met a French chef who asked him one day, “Why do folks cook?” Keller felt the chef was expecting a philosophical answer from him. “I basically mumbled something that was stupid, and he said, ‘No. Cooks cook to nurture people.’ That was the moment I became a chef. There was something inside of me that the idea touched a spark that resonated. My faith, destiny, whatever you want to call it, I said this is it. This is what I want to do. The rest of my life is to nurture people, and I can nurture people through cooking.”
It was, as Keller recalls, a major shift that made him realize that he was a nurturer, and there was no better way to nurture people than to feed them. The way his brothers fed him. And with an expansive generosity that to those around you, not just your guests but also yourselves.
“You know, we can't forget about the way we treat ourselves and how we nurture each other in our inner circles, in our restaurants and of course with our guests in our communities, and then in our world,” he said. “That's a very important thing when you think about nurturing, how it touches many different things that we do.”
Centering that giving spirit in his work, instead of the commerce, has served him well, but he hesitates to think of himself as an inspiration. “I don't like to talk about inspiration because people ask about what inspires you, well f*** who knows what inspires you really? If I knew what inspired me, I'd go there and stand there and wait for my inspiration every day, right? But that unfortunately doesn't happen. We're influenced more than we're inspired. I prefer to use the word influence over inspiration. People often say my cookbooks inspired them, but I don't really think so, I think they influence them. You know, Charlie Trotter’s book was very influential for me, as for so many other chefs, but it didn't inspire me to open my own restaurant or try to do what he did, it influenced and informed what I might do.”
That precision of language also feeds into his views on the culinary world in general. Keller is hopeful for the future, but knows there is work yet to do, and for him, it is struggling with how the business of food can really take the necessary leaps forward. “What is the future? How do we continue to make this profession better? I'm tired of people calling it an industry. This is how important words are. Words are really really critical. And I keep hearing this word industry. We're not industrialists. I mean, we're professionals. I want to be like the medical profession. I want to be like doctors. There's a high level of respect for them. They're the ones that define their profession. That write the papers that change the way people think about taking care of themselves, who develop new techniques to save people's lives, I mean that's a profession, and the same thing with the law profession. We are the same, we are professional. We're a group of individuals who are focused on nurturing our ourselves and our guests in the world. And we nurture through our ability to understand what we're doing. And that's a continual progress. We should be the ones that are writing the rules for our profession, not journalists. And this is where we have to make this departure because the media still kind of has this chokehold on perception. They're the ones that more or less are defining who we are and what we do and what's important and what's relevant.”
Keller’s ambition for the profession is both sincere and profound. “We should be the ones that are defining and refining what we do and finding meaning in the words that we use. So, the question is how to make our profession truly a bona fide profession that is influencing each other and not influenced by others? Chefs need to have more of a of a of a universal opportunity to have conversations together. This doesn't happen. To realize that the leaders in our profession need to take hold and come together to form a collective opinion about what we should be doing and then a collective goal about what those opinions are and action plans to reach that.”
The key for Keller, is that the conversation about “what’s next” is both bigger and smaller than just new projects. “You're talking to a journalist or someone and they will always ask, what's next? Does there have to be anything next? I mean really, why do we always have to be thinking about what's next? What's next is usually opening more restaurants, and then we get criticized. I talk about this, and many of my colleagues around the world talk about this. What truly is this extra strategy that we're all looking for? The extra strategy is not opening more restaurants. The extra strategy is not doing more work or doing the next thing. The extra strategy is finding an internal way to find a moment where you're able to influence, impact and change our profession. What's next is what we're doing today, and that's the most important thing. We're working with our suppliers and supporting them. We're supporting our communities, supporting our teams, and we're ultimately giving our guests great experiences and memories because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much money you have. Doesn't matter how famous you are. How many memories can you embrace?”
And for early career culinarians, Keller hopes they can stay patient and present as their work develops. “I'm not really sure what conversations they should be having, because I can't really generalize young people, but I would say that I think there are two words that I use for young culinarians who are who are embarking on a career. Number one, be patient. Enjoy the moment when you're really part truly part of a team. Where you're really working in that environment, relishing those moments because once you leave that, you're never going to go back. And then the second word is persistence. I mean, don't let anybody tell you that you can't do something. You can do anything you want. I am sitting here today largely because of my persistence, not my patience.”
The MenuMasters program was founded by both Nation’s Restaurant News and Ventura Foods in 1997, with the inaugural event held in May of 1998.
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