Chef Thomas Keller: Bouncing Back from Setbacks | Summary and Q&A

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April 15, 2013
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Stanford Graduate School of Business
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Chef Thomas Keller: Bouncing Back from Setbacks

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Summary

In this video, Chef Thomas Keller discusses his journey in the culinary world, from washing dishes in his mother's restaurant to opening multiple successful restaurants. He emphasizes the importance of desire and dedication in pursuing a career in cooking, and shares insights on hiring and training staff.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did washing dishes in his mother's restaurant spark Chef Keller's interest in cooking?

Chef Keller explains that as a young boy, he found himself in his mother's restaurant after school. Since he was too young to handle knives or be near the fire, he was assigned to the dishwashing area. This experience taught him skills such as organization, efficiency, teamwork, and the importance of repetition, which ultimately benefited him in becoming a successful cook.

Q: What later experience convinced Chef Keller to commit himself to cooking?

It was during his time working at a private club in Narragansett, Rhode Island, cooking for the staff, that Chef Keller had a realization. He noticed that when he cooked for the young staff members, they would provide immediate and honest feedback. This feedback, along with the guidance of a French chef he met, helped him understand that cooking is about nurturing and bringing pleasure to others. That's when he made the decision to dedicate his life to cooking.

Q: Can Chef Keller discuss his decision to close his first restaurant, Raquel, in New York City?

Chef Keller shares that after facing financial challenges, he and his partner had to make a choice. They could either change the format of the restaurant to make it more casual, or they could give up and pursue their goals. Being determined to maintain fine dining as their vision, they decided to close the restaurant and move to Southern California. Although it was a difficult choice, it eventually led to the opening of the French Laundry.

Q: How did Chef Keller's presence on the culinary scene grow after opening the French Laundry?

After the success of the French Laundry, Chef Keller expanded his presence by opening other restaurants with different concepts, locations, and cuisines. The decision to open each new restaurant was driven by various factors, such as the need for a place to eat after work (which led to Bouchon), the lack of a suitable bread supplier (which led to Bouchon Bakery), and the opportunity to establish a presence in New York City (which led to per se). Each new restaurant contributed to the strength and evolution of Chef Keller's overall restaurant empire.

Q: How does Chef Keller approach hiring new talent for his restaurants?

Chef Keller emphasizes the importance of desire in hiring new talent. While skills are also important, he believes that having a strong desire to do the job is crucial. During the hiring process, he brings candidates into the kitchen to observe how they move, react to others, and perform basic tasks. This allows him to assess not only their skills but also their fit within the intense and fast-paced kitchen environment. The goal is to make sure that candidates truly believe they can work in that environment and remain dedicated to the job.

Q: What are the top three qualities Chef Keller looks for when hiring new talent?

According to Chef Keller, the top three qualities he looks for are desire, desire, and desire. While skills and experience are factors, he believes that the desire to do the job well is what truly matters. He highlights the importance of commitment to training, as it may take time for someone new to develop the necessary skills and proficiency. A strong dedication and positive attitude, even on difficult days, are indications of a person's potential for success.

Q: Is there a specific question Chef Keller asks in interviews to determine a candidate's level of desire?

Chef Keller doesn't rely on a specific question to assess a candidate's level of desire. Instead, he brings candidates into the kitchen to observe their movements, reactions, and performance of basic tasks. Additionally, he wants candidates to experience the kitchen environment firsthand and assess whether they believe they can work in that environment. This helps in understanding their overall fit and dedication to the job.

Q: What have been some of the driving factors behind Chef Keller's decision to open new restaurants in different locations?

Chef Keller's decision to open new restaurants in different locations was driven by various factors. For example, opening Bouchon was driven by the need for a place to eat after work, and opening Bouchon Bakery was motivated by the lack of a suitable bread supplier. Additionally, opening per se in New York City was a natural choice for Chef Keller, as he already had a network of friends, media connections, and suppliers there. Each decision to open a new restaurant was carefully considered based on the unique circumstances and opportunities in each location.

Q: How does Chef Keller respond to the notion that he may be spreading himself too thin by opening multiple restaurants?

Chef Keller disagrees with the notion that opening multiple restaurants spreads him too thin. He believes that if managed correctly, opening additional restaurants can actually strengthen the overall business. He emphasizes the importance of building a strong team in each restaurant, with every member focused on their specific roles and responsibilities. With a collaborative and knowledge-sharing approach between restaurants, he has seen a rapid rate of evolution and continuous improvement throughout his establishments.

Q: What are the top qualities Chef Keller looks for in new staff members during the hiring process?

Chef Keller places a strong emphasis on desire when it comes to hiring new staff members. He believes that desire is more important than mere passion, as passion can come and go, while desire is a consistent motivation. Additionally, he looks for qualities such as the ability to work well in a team, dedication, positive attitude, and willingness to learn and grow. Overall, he aims to find individuals who have a genuine desire and commitment to succeed in their roles.

Q: How does Chef Keller approach training new staff members?

Chef Keller believes in committing 100% to the training of new staff members. He compares it to teaching a child how to swim, emphasizing that training takes time and patience. By providing dedicated training opportunities and mentoring, Chef Keller aims to help individuals succeed in their positions. He encourages continuous learning and offers support to those who struggle, but also expects a strong commitment and desire from trainees throughout the learning process.

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