Interview: chef Thomas Keller

Chef California


How many opportunities did you have to cook with Julia over the years?

It’s funny, as my career in Los Angeles was waning down, I was approached by a good friend of mine, Susie Heller, who was the producer on one of Julia’s chef series – Cooking With Master Chefs – Julia was going around the country cooking with these great chefs, writing one of her cookbooks. Susie asked me. I was the West Coast commis, so I did San Francisco and Los Angeles on that trip. We did three or four chefs here, and we did three or four chefs in San Francisco. That was about two months that I got to spend with Julia on the new show, writing the book. Her work ethic was extraordinary. It exemplifies the kind of woman that she was, and the kind of dedication and commitment she had. She would be up in the morning before any of us were, and she wouldn’t go to sleep until after we went to sleep, because she would be working on the book, working on the script, working on the ideas for the show. Just an extraordinary work ethic.

And then there were those times that I got to cook for Julia. She would come into the kitchen at The French Laundry, and she’d always come in the back door. She’s always come in the kitchen. It was such an endearing thing to have her come into the kitchen, and she’d just walk up. Julia was just the kind of woman who wasn’t intimidating. She was very thoughtful, very endearing, and extremely curious. I think that was one of her greatest assets, was her curiosity. She’d walk up to a cook on the line and ask them what they were doing. Julia’s 6’2”, 6’3”, and then she’d go in the dining room and we’d just cook for her. We’d cook the things we know she likes, roasted chicken, a great salad, some pasta. We weren’t there trying to impress Julia with our knowledge or techniques or repertoire. We were there to make sure she was happy.

Is there anybody you’ve never cooked with that you’d most like to cook with?

Yeah, there are those individuals that are no longer with us, the Fernand Points of the world and the Craig Claibornes of the world, people that you admire that were also significant contributors to, not only to our professions, but also who inspired me to do what I do by the work that they’ve done.

Big picture, what is your favorite part about operating restaurants?

I don’t know that there’s a favorite. There are a number of different things that I get excited about. Certainly the team, the staff, and watching a young cook, a young server, a bartender, come to our restaurant and learn about what a TKRG restaurant is, and understand the culture and understand the philosophy and how important it is to do is a team and collaborative effort. Work clean and organized and make sure we’re taking great pains in maintaining the quality of our environment, not just where the guests eat, but where we’re working, making sure there is that level of integrity and responsibility to making sure that we continue to give them opportunities. There are certain goals in our restaurants, in our team. Number one, hiring them. It’s an important process and one that’s taken seriously. We’re not just hiring somebody to fill a spot. We’re hiring somebody who has the opportunity to continue to evolve and progress, and move out in a way that’s going to have a significant effect on the restaurant, along with a significant impact on our profession. Our overarching goal is to increase the quality and standards of our profession, and not just our restaurants. It’s not just about us. It’s about giving everybody the tools, the knowledge and the training, so that when they leave – and we know everybody’s going to leave – if you know that in the beginning, then you’re comfortable and confident in that. By that standard, everybody’s going to leave the restaurant at some point. We can truly give them everything they need to go out and do a better job in the profession, either for somebody else’s restaurant, or their own restaurant. We can see after 18 years, beginning with The French Laundry, and even before that, you can see the effect the chefs have had, and certainly that I’ve had. I look around our culinary community, our restaurant community, the people that are my generation. I look at the young chefs, I went to their restaurants and see how they elevated the quality of our standards in our profession. I’m looking at now the third generation. It’s just extraordinary how far America has come in such a very short time. It just goes to show you when any one of our professions, whether it’s culinary or technical or IT or medical, education, whatever we set our minds to, we can excel at anything in an extraordinary, compelling way.

Getting back to the basics, though, is really hiring individuals that you know are going to come into your restaurants and make an impact. That’s a process. That’s not something to take lightly. And then obviously training that person. Once you hire them, then you’re committed to them 100%. You can’t be less than 100% committed to them because you’ve already hired them, and then making sure they get the proper training. The proper training can be three months, it can be four months. Who knows how long that takes. There’s no set amount of time for training somebody. I always use the analogy with my staff, and I’m using it for you, when you’re teaching a baby how to swim, they always have the little safety things on, the little floaties around their arms. You don’t give the child two weeks to learn how to swim and then take the floaties off and hope that they learned how to swim. If he hasn’t, he drowns. No, you keep the floaties on until you’re confident that that child knows how to swim, and then you take the floaties off. That’s the same thing. You don’t know how long it’s going to take any child to learn how to swim. Some may take a week, some might take a month or two months. Who knows. They’re committed to that child’s ability to learn how to swim. So we have to view our staff the same way. You have to give them the amount of training that they need to accomplish the job. It’s not a set amount of time, it’s more about the success of their training.

Once they’ve been trained, then your job is to mentor them, and that’s a whole other job, to mentor them throughout their career, throughout their career with you, and many times throughout their career, and that’s an important thing. So hiring, training and mentoring. The goal there is they become better than you, because if they’re not better than you, then you really haven’t done a very good job. That’s kind of it in a nutshell. We all want to be recognized as the best, but my point is that I’m not giving my team, that I hired, the training, the mentorship and the tools, everything that they need to be better than I am, then I haven’t been responsible to the job that have to them.

Going back to hiring, what is it that you’re looking for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?

I’m looking for a number of different things, but if you can name the most important element someone has to have, in order to really excel, I think it’s desire. Desire’s the most important thing. People talk about passion all the time. Passion is terribly overrated these days, and sometimes I think it’s used incorrectly. When people talk about passion, they’re really talking about desire. I’ve never seen anybody who’s passionate about something consistently, every day, for 20 years. It’s just impossible. Passion ebbs and flows, as it should. And we all know it ebbs and flows. We get a new bicycle, we’re extremely passionate about it, but we can’t be passionate about it every day. We don’t ride it every day. We ride it once a week. A new girlfriend, for example. It’s impossible, but it’s easy to have a strong desire all your life. And that desire is something that burns inside of you. I think desire trumps passion, and that’s one thing we look for, is that strong sense of desire.

Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?

I’m not big on live bugs. I’ve eaten live bugs once or twice. I much prefer them fried. I’ve never really in a situation where I’m eating anything that’s really exotic. I’m game to try anything.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, considering all you have going on?

I don’t think I maintain balance in my life. That’s a short answer. It’s like time management. What the hell is that?

Address: 235 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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I am an owner of Woodland Hills Country Club overlooking the San Fernando Valley in Woodland Hills, CA. I am looking for a top chef interested in exploring the opportunity to have a high end restaurant in our clubhouse with fantastic views, excellent parking and access to a large moderate to high income population.

Philip Wilson
[email protected]
(818) 216-7924

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