00:00:07 ALICE WINKLER: Every fancy restaurant in America dreams of a Michelin star. It’s the ultimate badge of honor. Two stars? To dream of two stars is reckless. And three? Almost delusional. There are only thirteen restaurants in the United States that have ever gotten a three-star rating by Michelin. Two out of those thirteen belong to Thomas Keller. He's the chef-owner of French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in Manhattan. Thomas Keller, of course, is an amazing chef and restaurateur, but of all the lessons on his path to awesome, he learned the most important ones, he says, when he was a dishwasher.
00:00:54 Thomas Keller is the subject of this episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement, though honestly, Keller isn’t too keen on passion. You’ll find out why in a bit. I’m Alice Winkler.
00:01:15 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.
00:01:21 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.
00:01:27 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.
00:01:31 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.
00:01:39 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”
00:01:47 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.
00:01:51 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.
00:02:05 THOMAS KELLER: I began my career at fifteen, in front of a Hobart dishwasher. My mother ran restaurants when I was a child. I was the youngest of five boys. My father was also in the military, so we traveled around a lot. She kept an eye on my older brother Joseph and I. We were the two youngest. He got to peel vegetables and work with the cooks, and I got to be in front of the dishwasher. But it’s amazing what you learn at those least expected times.
00:02:30 ALICE WINKLER: That is Thomas Keller. Yes, Chef! He makes some of the best food in America.
00:02:36 THOMAS KELLER: I learned six disciplines, standing in front of that dishwasher, that became the cornerstone of my success.
00:02:44 I learned about organization — how important organization was. The waiters come in with their dirty dishes and the dirty glasses and the dirty silverware, and they don’t know where to put it. They would just throw it anywhere, so we’d have to set an example for them. This size plate goes here. This size plate goes there. The silverware goes here. The glasses go there. Organization was key, and as a young person, I became organized.
00:03:06 Efficiency. Efficiency was key as well. I needed to understand the dynamics and the timing of being able to wash all these different dishes; all these different pieces of serviceware; how to get ready to wash which ones; at what point to have it ready to go where they needed to go throughout the restaurant. Efficiency was critical. The need for critical feedback — critical feedback — became apparent to me.
00:03:34 If I didn’t scrape the dishes correctly or rinse them off correctly, put them in the dish machine, ninety seconds later the door would open and they would still be dirty. I knew I didn’t do a good job immediately, right away. I had to start all over again. Repetition. Repetition was key — learning to enjoy the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
00:04:02 I realized I really liked repetition. It gave me a great sense of comfort. It was actually liberating after a while because the more you do something, the more you get used to doing it, the more time you have to think about what you’re going to do after that. What is your next goal? Repetition was key for me. Rituals — the idea of rituals — every day doing the same thing at the same time. You had to empty the water out of the dish machine at specific times. You had to empty the garbage at specific times. You had to sweep the floor at specific times.
00:04:31 You had to take out the garbage at specific times. You do these things, and they become ritualistic for you. I like that. I like that kind of order in my life. And then, lastly, was teamwork, understanding that no matter what position you held in that kitchen, you were as important as everybody else. Everybody relied on me. The cooks needed me desperately. They needed their plates, or else they couldn’t plate the food. The bartenders needed their glasses.
00:05:03 The waiters and waitresses needed their knives and forks. They needed their silverware. And they all relied on me, creating great teamwork. I loved that.
00:05:13 ALICE WINKLER: You’re going to hear how each of these six dishwashing lessons played out throughout Thomas Keller’s career. What you’ve been listening to is part of a talk that he gave at the Academy of Achievement’s Summit in 2014. The following year, he also shared some stories with the Academy in a more intimate setting, his restaurant, French Laundry, during an interview with journalist Gail Eichenthal. But this talk he gave was in a room full of students from around the world and luminaries from every field.
00:05:47 THOMAS KELLER: I’m a cook. Success, to me, looks much different than it does to many of you. I don’t save lives. I don’t define economic policy. I don’t invent the next technological marvel or defend the innocent. Our success is really based on giving our guest a memory that they can share with their loved ones and their friends.
00:06:12 ALICE WINKLER: Thomas Keller, by his own description, has the hospitality gene. He inherited it from his mother, who pretty much raised her kids alone.
00:06:23 THOMAS KELLER: I have five siblings — four older brothers and one younger sister ‑ so I was four or five years old when my parents were divorced; so yes, I primarily lived with my mother, and my grandmother for a little while, as well, and my great aunts. So I was shuffled between very loving and dedicated, committed women, and it was really a wonderful childhood, if you will, with — even though I didn’t have a father present, I had some great, great women that helped form and focus my childhood.
00:07:02 ALICE WINKLER: Thomas Keller was actually born at Camp Pendleton, where his father was stationed as a Marine. Keller doesn’t remember much from that time, other than that one of the regiments had a tiger as a mascot — a real tiger — but even before his parents’ divorce, Keller's dad was often away from the family. During the Korean War, he was gone for two-and-a-half years.
00:07:26 THOMAS KELLER: And to keep herself busy, and of course, to supply some income for the family, she worked in restaurants. And, typically, on the base she would work at the Officer’s Club and — you know, as a hostess or a waitress, working her way up to understanding how to manage a restaurant. So when they were divorced, that was her path. She became a restaurant manager. And so as a young person, my brother and I — my brother Joseph, who is eighteen months older than I — would spend a lot of time in the restaurant, in the kitchen, and he migrated towards cooking much earlier than I did. He was very, very fascinated with cooking.
00:08:02 He became a cook. He actually was my first mentor. I remember him watching — you know, he would have the Graham Kerr series. Every day after school, he’d come home and watch Graham Kerr or Julia Child.
00:08:17 GRAHAM KERR: I have the most ridiculous dish that you would ever imagine in your life being done. It is a dish which nobody in their right minds would ever do on television; in fact, would never in their right mind do at home. I don't expect you to do it, except if you're —
00:08:32 JULIA CHILD: Under this golden dome lies an uncooked, unrisen, unbaked soufflé, waiting patiently for the oven. It's going to fit in my time schedule, not vice versa. See how to be the big boss of the big cheese soufflé, today on The French Chef!
00:08:54 ALICE WINKLER: Those should give you a good reminder of the era in which Thomas Keller came of age. It was a time when aspiring cooks didn’t go to cooking school. They just went to work in restaurants, and Keller wasn’t even really an aspiring cook, at least at first.
00:09:10 THOMAS KELLER: In July of 1977, I was in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I was a young man, a young cook who really enjoyed the summer life of New England. I cooked because it allowed me to travel around, not necessarily because I wanted to become a chef. I liked the freedom. I knew I can go anywhere in our country and get a job — true job security. The chef I worked for at a private club shared a few words of wisdom with me that changed my life.
00:09:44 I was the staff cook at this private club. He came to me and said, "Thomas, the reason we cook, all cooks — fine dining chefs, the best chefs, the ones that are in the family restaurants, the ones that are at the bistros — we all cook because we want to nurture people." And it was that nurturing idea that really resonated with me, and it was that moment 37 years ago that I decided to become a professional chef.
00:10:23 ALICE WINKLER: Still, cooking school wasn’t the way to go in the 1970s. You won’t find a Cordon Bleu certificate anywhere in his bio, but Keller did go to France. After all, all the great known chefs at that time were French.
00:10:37 THOMAS KELLER: Where else would you aspire to go, if it wasn’t the best? I mean if you’re going to go to France, which was arguably the best country — had the best food, the best products, the best chefs, the best restaurants — that’s what you wanted to do, and so I set my sights high. It took me quite a while to get there. It was about three-and-a-half years of trying to find somebody in France who was actually going to commit to giving me a job before I actually left America.
00:11:07 Many times, the advice was, "Well, just go. You’ll find a job. Just go. Just go over there. Somebody will hire you." I wanted to make sure that I had somewhere to go to. I wasn’t convinced that I was just going to travel to France and knock on somebody’s door, but in reality, that’s actually what happened. Where I ended up having the commitment from was a one-star Michelin restaurant in Arbois. And I arrived at the front door, and a large, matronly woman, you know, met me, and she was very harsh, and she took me up to my room, which was this small cubicle with a window, but the window was covered with dust — which I thought was dust — and that was my room.
00:11:54 It was poorly lit, and I had to arrive at work the next morning in the kitchen downstairs at 5:30, and they would show me what to do. And in the kitchen downstairs at 5:30, my first job was to shovel coal into the ovens. And I realized that my window wasn’t covered with dust. Well, it was covered with dust, but it was covered with soot, with coal dust, and the kitchen that I was in was nothing like any kitchens that I had been in, in America. And three days later, I packed my bag early in the morning, and I snuck out the door, caught the train, and went to Paris.
00:12:28 And ended up staying at a friend’s apartment for almost two years and literally knocking on people’s doors for a job. And fortunately, you know, my persistence paid off, and I had eight stages, each different. A stage is an observation, you know, permission to have an observation at a restaurant, for about —
00:12:50 GAIL EICHENTHAL: A stage?
00:12:51 THOMAS KELLER: A stage. Yeah. I was a stagiaire, and I was doing a stage, which is — you know, you go into somebody’s — it’s almost like it’s an apprenticeship if you will. So, you know, I did different things in different kitchens because each chef needed a stagiaire in a different way. It was a normal thing, and it still is today.
00:13:10 GAIL EICHENTHAL: So it’s traditionally, in France, also an unpaid position?
00:13:14 THOMAS KELLER: Yes. You work in a restaurant Monday through Friday, and you work, you know, both services — lunch and dinner — so you get to work at 9:00 in the morning. You know, you prepare for lunch. You have lunch. You work through service. You take a break at 3:00. You come back at 5:30. You have dinner. You know, you set up for dinner. Then you have dinner. And then you work until 11:00 at night. So five days a week, you know, I didn’t have to — my meals were paid for.
00:13:38 I was at work, so I didn’t have to spend any money entertaining myself. It was really only on Saturday and Sunday that I kind of had to support myself through eating and/or entertaining myself.
00:13:49 ALICE WINKLER: Thomas Keller had already been cooking in restaurants for ten years before he went to France, and he already had a pretty good foundation in classic French cuisine. He knew how to make a veal stock. But he calls his time at Taillevent, the restaurant where he worked in Paris, the single most influential experience of his career.
00:14:09 THOMAS KELLER: Was it a restaurant that was breaking new ground? No. Was it a restaurant that was progressive and contemporary? Not necessarily. It was a restaurant that was extraordinarily consistent, and great restaurants have to be consistent. We can all cook. You know, there are a lot of great chefs out there who can do a lot of great things. But to be consistent 300 days a year, you know, lunch and dinner, over and over and over and over again, is really, for me, what defines greatness.
00:14:47 One-hit wonders are one-hit wonders. To be there for a long time, to be impactful for a long time, to have a team that continues to evolve, to have guests that continue to come to your restaurant, to have that relationship with your partners or your suppliers — those are really, really important things for me in a restaurant.
00:15:09 ALICE WINKLER: To this day, Thomas Keller is committed to fine dining and to the system that’s been in place ever since Escoffier codified the French kitchen in the early 1900s, with its hierarchy of chef, sous chef, chef de cuisine, and commis.
00:15:27 THOMAS KELLER: I returned from France. I became the first American chef to be at one of the great “La-Le” restaurants in New York City. So you had La Côte Basque, La Caravelle, Le Cirque, La Reserve, Le Périgord. You had all — you know, all these great restaurants were all defined by that, and so they became the “La-Le” restaurants.
00:15:51 And so I became the chef de cuisine of La Reserve, which was on 49th Street. And I came back a bit arrogant, a bit uppity, a bit disrespectful of, not my kitchen, but the owner, and so we didn’t see eye-to-eye. And of course, you know, I thought that I was — because of the things that I learned and because of the ability to execute what I wanted to do, because of my ability to organize a kitchen, I thought that I was invincible.
00:16:24 And of course, you know, when you butt heads with the owner, you know, ultimately the owner’s going to throw you out, and that’s what he did.
00:16:31 ALICE WINKLER: It wasn’t his first failure or his last. Keller decided to open his own restaurant in New York. It was called Rakel — R-A-K-E-L — and it was near SoHo, in an area that was supposed to become New York’s next advertising hub, but then came Black Monday and the demise of that era of big spending. The real problem with Rakel, Keller says, was that it wasn’t supported by a community or a neighborhood. When they turned it into a café in an effort to survive, Keller left and headed, ultimately, to L.A. Here again is interviewer Gail Eichenthal.
00:17:11 GAIL EICHENTHAL: I find it quite striking that, after the failure of this first restaurant that you yourself launched, this did not dissuade you from haute cuisine. Maybe a lot of other people would say, "Hmm, you know, maybe I was too ambitious."
00:17:29 THOMAS KELLER: Actually, it was my second failure in a restaurant. So I learned at that time — persistence, you know, is really one of those keys to success.
00:17:42 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What was the first failure?
00:17:43 THOMAS KELLER: The first — it was an odd name, so don’t laugh. It was a restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida, and I had partnered with two male flight attendants who wanted to open a restaurant, and they had saved their money, and they opened a restaurant called The Cobbly Nob. And The Cobbly Nob has to do with woodworking, and we thought this location was just, like, the perfect location. It was on West 45th Street in West Palm Beach, right next door to the jai alai fronton.
00:18:16 You know, jai alai is a sport, and we thought, "Wow, there are 2,000 people there every night. They’re going to drive right by our restaurant and stop. We’re going to have this instant business." But we were doing, at the time, fine dining, and now I think it would be casual fine dining, and they wanted hot dogs and hamburgers. They didn’t want steak Diane and pommes boulangère. So we lasted about twelve months, and our money ran out, and I left them, went to work at Café du Parc, and the poor guys had to kind of lick their wounds and go back to being flight attendants.
00:18:48 You learn a lot from your mistakes. We just threw demographics out the window. Paul Bocuse said it very well; he said, "No matter how good a cook you are, unless there are people in your seats, you’re going to fail." Of course, I read that after we failed. I should have read that before.
00:19:04 ALICE WINKLER: This story reminded Thomas Keller of his first cooking disaster, many years before he ever thought of owning his own restaurant. A good part of Keller’s success seems to lie in his willingness to maximize the learning that can come from a screw-up.
00:19:20 THOMAS KELLER: When I started to cook, the first cookbook that I received was from my mother, and she gave me a cookbook called The Great — Treasure of Great Recipe — Great Recipe — no, what was it called? It was very interesting because the authors were Vincent and Mary Price, and it was their recipes of the great restaurants that they had experienced around the world. And it was this beautifully leather-bound book, and I’m sure my mother bought it for me because of the quality of the book, not necessarily the quality of the content.
00:19:53 ALICE WINKLER: I looked it up. It was actually called A Treasury of Great Recipes, and the co-author — Vincent Price? Yeah, it was actually that Vincent Price, the actor who was in all those campy horror movies late in his career.
00:20:07 FREDERICK LOREN: I'm Frederick Loren, and I've rented the house on Haunted Hill tonight so that my wife can give a party. There'll be food and drink and ghosts and perhaps even a few murders. You're all invited.
00:20:23 THOMAS KELLER: So my first culinary disaster was — it was a recipe from this book, and it just goes to show you, at the time, the lack of availability of ingredients in our country. So there’s a —
00:20:40 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You have to tell us exactly what that recipe was.
00:20:42 THOMAS KELLER: Yeah. There was a recipe in there, and I can’t remember the name of the recipe, but it was a recipe from a very famous restaurant in Italy, and it was, I believe, spinach pasta with prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan cheese, and butter — very simple. But of course, there was no recipe for the spinach pasta, and of course, at that time, you know, I was very young in my profession. And I said, "Well, how can I make pasta green? I’ll dye it green."
00:21:11 So food color came out. We dyed the pasta green. We couldn’t get prosciutto di Parma because it just wasn’t available in this country, so we used a dried Virginia ham, which was overly salty; the Parmesan was the grated kind that you found in the green shaker. And it was, you know, one of those things that you try. You are trying to prepare a dish without having the proper ingredients or necessarily even the knowledge of those ingredients, and that really became, for me, a real building block because I understood that.
00:21:49 I understood that if I was going to cook a recipe — if I was going to produce a recipe — I needed to have the correct ingredients. I needed to have the knowledge and the skill in order to prepare it. Otherwise, it wasn't going to be good.
00:22:01 GAIL EICHENTHAL: That must have been really bright green pasta.
00:22:04 THOMAS KELLER: It was. It was not very appetizing, but you’d already made the commitment to do it. Right? So you had to follow through. And you had to serve it, and you had to take kind of the feedback, the critical feedback, you know, and just say, "Okay, yeah, I made a mistake." And really, mistakes are such important building blocks for success.
00:22:28 And so that was a mistake I made that I never made again, and I learned from that. I learned that the ingredients were important. I learned the technique was important. I learned skill, knowledge. You know, where did the dish come from? Why was it produced in that part of Italy? Those things.
00:22:42 ALICE WINKLER: So Keller figured out early on that there were crucial and delicious ingredients that you just couldn’t get in America at the time. Let’s call it the Iceberg Lettuce Age. It’s no wonder he became one of the chefs that sparked the “purveyor revolution,” exalting the farmer, the fisherman, the gardener, and the forager. You know those fresh farm markets that have sprung up in towns and cities throughout the country? Well, you can trace a line back from them to Thomas Keller and his fellow chefs, who were hungering for the best ingredients.
00:23:17 THOMAS KELLER: My grandmother — when I lived with my grandmother, we had the milkman that came. We went to the local markets all the time. I mean there was that true connection to our suppliers, to those people who produced our food. World War II kind of shook that all up. All the men went to the war, and the women went to work. After World War II, the men came back and the women stayed at work, and that spawned the convenience food generation, which was us.
00:23:44 So we weren’t away from it for too long, but long enough that so many of us forgot how important it was. And it’s really refreshing to see how much that’s changed in a short period of time — in 35, 40 years. It’s extraordinary, what we have available to us and how important our farmers have become, and really, they are the true superstars of our profession.
00:24:17 GAIL EICHENTHAL: It all goes back to the rabbit.
00:24:18 THOMAS KELLER: Yep. It all goes back to the rabbit.
00:24:21 ALICE WINKLER: The rabbit? Earlier in this interview, Thomas Keller mentioned that he needed to tell the rabbit story at some point. It was another one of those turning points, and you just couldn’t tell the story of his career without it.
00:24:35 THOMAS KELLER: So this was a time in my life when, you know, I started to embrace the idea of doing things myself outside of the kitchen — having a garden — and so, at La Rive, which was a beautiful old farm on the side of a small creek, I planted my first garden.
00:25:00 La Rive was outside of Catskill. I spent three summers there — ’80, ’81, and ’82 — and so, in 1980, I planted my first garden. I understood that there was a lot of competition because not only did I want the vegetables, so did the deer and so did the beavers and so did any other wildlife that would come into the fray. And I learned how to share with them. So I gave them some, and I took some, but gardening became part of my life.
00:25:28 I learned that doing things that other people do better is not necessarily good just because you’re doing it in your own backyard or in your own house. So this idea of smoking your own salmon or this idea of making your own ketchup, which was really popular, you know, at this period of time, didn’t necessarily result in something that was better than the guy in Scotland whose family has been curing and smoking salmon for generations.
00:25:56 But nonetheless, I had built my own little smoker out of an old refrigerator and cured and smoked my own salmon. I was also developing my relationship with farmers, with foragers, with gardeners, with fishermen from around the area, and there was one farmer who supplied me with my rabbits every week. He was a Frenchman, and he would bring me twelve rabbits, beautifully dressed, every week. And one week, I thought, "I’m going to ask him to bring them live because as a chef, I should really know what it feels like, and of course, how to slaughter an animal. And you know, what better animal to slaughter than something that is relatively small?" You know, to go out and slaughter a cow, you know, or a pig would maybe have been a little more emotionally disturbing, but slaughtering a rabbit may be something that I could handle.
00:26:53 So, of course, the next week he showed up. He’s got his cage, and there are twelve rabbits in the cage, and he’s explaining to me in broken English, you know, how to kill the rabbit. And the first and most important thing, he said, was to make sure that when you reach into the cage, that you grab both the hind legs simultaneously. So he reached in the cage, pulls a rabbit out, both legs, has one of those little baseball clubs, knocks it on its head, pins the rabbit to the side of the barn, slits its throat, dresses the rabbit in about five minutes.
00:27:29 He’s gone. “Oh, wow. What just happened?” I’m looking at this rabbit, hanging on the side of the barn, and eleven rabbits in the cage, and now I’m left because now I have to — without his help or his guidance — butcher these other eleven rabbits. And of course, I make the critical mistake of only being able to grab one of the legs, hind legs, of the rabbit. And of course, what does the rabbit do? It jumps! Right?
00:28:00 Its reaction is to jump, and of course, when it tries to jump forward, I’m holding a leg. What happens? I break its leg. The rabbit screams. I mean it was just — it was so — it was such an emotional experience. I didn’t know what to do. The rabbit screamed so loud that Paulette, the wife of the owner, came out of the house —
00:28:24 — their house was just, you know, maybe 50 yards away — thinking something had happened. And now I’ve got this rabbit that’s got a broken leg, and I’ve got to kill it and dress it. And not only that, I’ve got to do the other ten. And I learned, at that moment, a profound respect for the ingredients that we have, a profound respect for those individuals who bring them to us, and how committed they are to what they do, and how committed I have to be to what I’m doing to respect what they do.
00:28:54 And you know, waste became a really important part of that learning experience — making sure that, you know what? That rabbit, you know, which gave up its life, I had to make sure that I utilized it in the best way I could, and every bit of it, and make sure that I had paid attention to how I cooked it. You know, to cook something and overcook it and then just throw it away would be just a wasted life. And so it just didn’t go with our proteins. It went with everything because every ingredient that we receive in our restaurants or you receive at home, as a consumer, somebody has spent part of their life producing that for us. And we have to be respectful of that and make sure that we are able to nourish ourselves with the food that they supply us.
00:29:39 And the rabbit story was that profound moment in my life when I learned that really deep sense of respect for everything that we have coming through our back doors.
00:29:52 GAIL EICHENTHAL: It’s actually a very beautiful story, a painful but beautiful story.
00:29:54 THOMAS KELLER: Yeah. Well, you learn from those.
00:29:56 ALICE WINKLER: All the lessons in Thomas Keller’s life came together in perfect harmony — or, to stick with a cooking metaphor, like a beautiful ivory beurre blanc — when he set his sights on The French Laundry in Yountville, California. It's in the Napa Valley.
00:30:13 THOMAS KELLER: In 1992, I visited the valley from Los Angeles. I wasn’t doing anything. I was unsure of my career. I was questioning my ability as a chef. I knew I could cook. Cooking wasn’t the question, but could I lead a team better? Could I interact better with those around me who influence our restaurants? The kitchen was my comfort zone, and I was very successful in the kitchen, but outside of that, I wasn’t so much so. And on a trip to Napa Valley one spring day, Jonathan Waxman, who was a friend of mine who had opened a restaurant in New York — and now is opening a restaurant here in Napa Valley — I stopped to see him, say hello, see how he was doing.
00:30:59 And he had told me about this small restaurant in Yountville for sale called The French Laundry, and I should look into that. He thought that would be the perfect kind of place for me: small, manageable, in a beautiful community. So I passed by, out of curiosity, and I walked on the property. It was this — kind of this magical place, you know. I just felt an instant connection to it, and I thought, "Wow, this may be a great opportunity for me. It may be my last chance." I was in my mid-thirties.
00:31:28 I thought, you know, "If I’m going to do this, I need to do it now," and I went back to Los Angeles. I got in contact with the owners, Don and Sally Schmitt. I explained my intentions. They invited me up to meet them. I remember she served me on that day. She served me one of the best sandwiches I ever had, which was beef tongue. We sat in their kitchen in their house next door.
00:31:51 We made an instant connection, and we agreed on a price, and I would buy The French Laundry. Of course, I didn’t have any resources whatsoever. I didn’t have a job. I had already closed two restaurants. I had been fired from another. I was a semi-well-known chef with, I guess, a checkered reputation, and now I needed to go out and raise the money to buy this restaurant. I was in an area — in California — I was in Los Angeles. I didn’t really know that area that well. I had only been there for a year, but I was determined. I was committed.
00:32:28 If I was going to make a career, if I was going to be successful in my chosen vocation, I needed to raise this money. I needed to commit myself to doing something I had never done before, and I always say my biggest asset at the time was my ignorance. Had I known everything that I was going to have to do over the course of the next eighteen months, I would have given up right away.
00:32:56 It was such a daunting task, the things that I went through, but each day, you know, waking up each day finding some success kept me motivated to the next day.
00:33:15 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did you commit to purchasing it before you raised the money?
00:33:20 THOMAS KELLER: This was one of those, truly, moments in a person’s life, I think, that was — I was blessed. The Schmitts, lovely people, had agreed to sell me their restaurant for $1.2 million. They agreed to take $5,000 in escrow. They believed in me. Had they not, I wouldn’t be here today. An attorney in Los Angeles named Bob Sutcliffe, whom I was introduced to — he loved food; he loved wine; he loved chefs; so he worked with a couple of chefs in helping them raise money, you know, and organize their businesses.
00:34:05 So, you know, I went to Bob’s office with this idea of The French Laundry. So when I went to see Bob Sutcliffe, I had a 300-page business plan and a bottle of olive oil. And this olive oil was a small olive oil company I began to kind of keep me solvent in some ways but also keep me motivated and keep me busy and have kind of — I wouldn’t even call it plan B — maybe it was a plan D — as an olive oil purveyor. And so I went to talk to Bob, and I gave him this whole spiel about The French Laundry and, you know, here was my business plan.
00:34:41 And he said, "Okay, this is how much this is going to cost you." And I said, "You know, Bob, I really don’t have any money, but I have this olive oil." I put this olive oil on his desk, and for some reason, he said, "Okay, Thomas, you know, I believe in you, but I need something."
00:34:56 ALICE WINKLER: What he needed was the five grand to put into escrow. He agreed to pay himself one day if the project worked out. So for the next two weeks, Keller went to the ATM and took out $500 at a time on his credit card. The lawyer started to modify the business plan, making it presentable to partners.
00:35:18 THOMAS KELLER: Every morning, there was a ritual where I would wake up and I would call, you know, my list of people, asking them for money. "Hello, my name is... you know, I have this idea of... and I’d like you to consider it. Can I send you a copy?" Right? And so, that was over 400 people I called during that period of time. Out of those 400, 52, you know, agreed to write a check, for a lot of different reasons, from any amount of money. I think one of my investors invested $500, and the one who invested the most, I think, was $80,000.
00:35:57 ALICE WINKLER: It was important to Keller to have a large group of investors because of his experience with Rakel, his New York restaurant that had flopped. In that venture, he had just one investor, a friend, who took a big hit when the restaurant went under.
00:36:13 THOMAS KELLER: I said, you know, "I’m never going to do that again. If I’m going to raise money, I’m going to raise money from a lot of different people so it doesn’t impact — if I’m not successful, it’s not going to impact their lives." On my makeshift desk was — I clipped out of the New York Times — during this period in my life, there was an article which was titled “Having a Dream Is Hard; Living It Is Harder.” And that became my inspiration every morning because I had a dream to buy The French Laundry.
00:36:44 But now I had to actually act on it, that dream, and make it reality. And so living that dream became one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but also one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done in my life. My ignorance, as I said earlier, just continued to motivate me, to propel me forward. The success has motivated me and propelled me forward. The ignorance allowed me to do it.
00:37:06 ALICE WINKLER: Not only did Keller have to raise money from private partners to open the business, he first had to buy the property, so he needed a commercial bank loan, but every bank he went to turned him down because of this tax lien in New York, left over from the failure of Rakel. And here’s where luck comes in — or fate — as it does in most success stories. Keller went to the Small Business Administration, and although he wasn’t a likely candidate for an SBA loan, Bill Clinton had just become president, with a commitment to get small businesses thriving again — right place, right time.
00:37:46 THOMAS KELLER: So between private placement, commercial bank loan, and an SBA loan, over the period — and with the help of Don and Sally Schmitt and Bob Sutcliffe, my attorney, as well as the 52 partners — we were able to put together enough money to buy The French Laundry. And on May 1, 1994, we finally closed on the deal.
00:38:10 ALICE WINKLER: The French Laundry, I should tell you, offers a nine-course “chef’s tasting” and a vegetarian option, what they call a “tasting of vegetables.” Either will cost you $310. Today’s menu, as I write this, includes sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar. Also on the menu: garden pumpkin polenta with braised Hobbs bacon, toasted pumpkin seeds, and shaved white truffles from Alba, though that choice will cost you an additional $175.
00:38:50 THOMAS KELLER: We talk about luxury, right? So we think about luxury differently now. We used to think about luxury as choices. The more choices you had, the more luxurious it was. “Well, I could choose” — you know, you go to a hotel, and you had six pillows to choose from. It’s like, "Wow, I can choose any one of these pillows," but which one really is the best? You don’t know. “Well, which one do I want?” It creates an anxiety in you, actually. So when you go into a restaurant like The French Laundry and you have to make a choice, you know, it’s like, "What do I choose?” And, you know, “What does the chef think I should choose?"
00:39:24 People become very anxious in those moments, and luxury, to me, is not having to make a choice, having somebody guide me through an experience that’s going to result in something that is memorable. And that’s how we define success.
00:39:42 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Well said. I need to ask you about a turning point, I think, that has been mentioned in a couple of articles: 1997, Ruth Reichl, who was then the New York Times restaurant critic and had...
00:39:56 THOMAS KELLER: Yeah.
00:39:57 GAIL EICHENTHAL: ...been in L.A. — she called French Laundry "the most exciting place to eat in the United States."
00:40:06 What an impact that must have had.
00:40:09 THOMAS KELLER: We were very flattered. We were very honored, but more so than any of that, we realized a great burden of responsibility. Because Ruth, who is an expert in her field — somebody whom we all look to, somebody who we all respect — has now called us, you know, literally the best place, or the most exciting place, to eat in America. How do we respond to that? We respond to that by notching up our game. We have to really be that much more determined, that much more committed to what we do every day.
00:40:54 Every dish, we have to be thinking about in a way that, when someone comes in, is going to relate that experience to what Ruth said because now your expectations as a guest have become greater. And I know from a personal experience how your expectations can actually diminish an experience.
00:41:21 My first three-star experience in France was just like that. I had been reading about this restaurant for years. It was considered one of the best restaurants in the world. The chef was highly regarded — three Michelin stars. I mean an extraordinary chef, and I went to his restaurant, had lunch on my way to Arbois, and I left thinking, "Wow, what’s so great about that?" Right? They served me pigeon and peas with morel mushrooms. We had a — you know, a beautiful foie gras to start, and we had — I forget the dessert, and I realized three or four months later that it was a perfect meal.
00:42:00 And it was my expectations that got in the way of my experience. This was my first three-star restaurant, and I walked in there thinking that — I don’t know what I was thinking. I was thinking that — I don’t know, fireworks? I don’t know, whatever. And it just didn’t happen, but in retrospect, it was beautiful. The pigeon was beautiful. The peas were just so perfect. The morel mushrooms — everything was just right, and I didn’t appreciate it.
00:42:26 So we have to — our expectations in our kitchen, in our restaurant, in our service, in everything that we do, we have to understand that our expectations have to be of the highest. The highest priority for us is that we are able to reach our own expectations, and if we do that — if we do that every day, then that's the best we can do.
00:42:55 ALICE WINKLER: Thomas Keller’s mother, his first connection to the world of restaurants, didn’t live long enough to see her son’s wild success. She died before he even made it to France, but in one of those unusual twists of fate, his father, a strictly meat-and-potatoes man, came back into his life.
00:43:16 THOMAS KELLER: Even though I hadn’t spent a lot of time with my father growing up, in my early twenties I made a reconnection with him, and certainly we rekindled our relationship, and he was very supportive, even though he didn’t understand what I did. He was a Marine. He was a man who would travel, you know, ten miles to save ten cents on a bar of margarine, not even butter, you know. And then he would buy twenty pounds of it to store in his freezer so that he could have it, you know, whenever he needed it.
00:43:44 He was that kind of, you know — came from that kind of generation. He grew up in the Depression. One of his favorite things to do was to sit in the parking lot early in the morning when our purveyors would bring their deliveries in, and he would always tell me he would save me a dollar on a basket of strawberries, or he would be able to — you know, to get an extra couple of quarts of milk, you know. And it was — he was always the kind of guy who wanted to save money.
00:44:10 And so he was very proud to be able to talk to our suppliers and get them to either give us extra or to reduce our price. And he was always the one who was out there getting reservations for the restaurant. People walking around town, you know — he would just chat people up and, "Oh, you know, my son owns The French Laundry," and they would say, "Oh, can you get me a reservation?" "Oh, no problem." So we were always trying to fill the books in with his reservations. But I think his favorite thing to do was really to share moments with the young staff and just tell stories.
00:44:39 He was a great storyteller, and his house was right next door to The French Laundry, where he lived, and it was a common thing to go over there, you know, after work in the afternoon at 4:00 or 5:00, when the morning team would be finishing up. And they’d be over there on his front porch, drinking beer out of cans because he really liked canned beer, as opposed to bottled beer. Those were things that he was familiar with, so — and just telling stories, and they would just be — you know, they were 50 years younger than he was, you know.
00:45:07 And he would just be telling them stories, and they would just be, like, listening, you know, on the edge of their seats, and that was one of the favorite things that he did.
00:45:13 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What role do you think that Marine background might have had in the discipline with which you approach your craft?
00:45:22 THOMAS KELLER: I think that’s just it. I think it’s discipline. I think that’s, you know, what the Marines say so much about, is that discipline, is that commitment to what you’re doing, and more importantly, the commitment to each other. And that’s what, really, we want to be able to instill, to teach our young staff, is that, you know, the person standing next to you is your colleague. He’s that person that’s going to support you, that’s not going to let you fall, and don’t let him fall, and really, it’s a team.
00:45:52 And we’re all in it together, and we all have to support one another. We’re committed to one another. We’re dedicated to one another, and the success of you, as an individual, is really based on the success of the team.
00:46:06 ALICE WINKLER: Well, that brings me, uncomfortably, to the part of this episode where I feel I have to bring up a story about Thomas Keller that became big news in the food world in 2016 and not in a good way. In January, the New York Times food critic ripped into Keller’s New York restaurant, Per Se. He accused it of “mediocrity, sloppiness, and whatever the opposite of innovative is.” The killer line, the one that reverberated through stainless steel kitchens across America, was about a, quote, “lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water,” unquote.
00:46:48 Ouch! But here’s the thing. Thomas Keller didn’t really flinch and he didn’t defend. He later admitted he was devastated, but he did what you might guess, based on what you’ve heard in this podcast so far. He apologized. He owned up to mistakes. He posted a letter to customers on his website, which said, "We are sorry we let you down. We are not content resting on what we did yesterday. We believe we can do better for ourselves, our profession, and most importantly, our guests. We have the opportunity, the tools, the self-motivation, and the dedication to do so. When we fall short, we work even harder."
00:47:37 ALICE WINKLER: And you know what? The 2017 Michelin rankings have just been leaked, and Per Se did hold onto its three stars. So now, with that covered, I really can end this episode, and I’m going to do it by returning to the inspiring talk Thomas Keller gave in 2014.
00:47:57 THOMAS KELLER: Passion. Just a brief, brief comment about passion because I know I hear that all the time. I hear that more often than I really like to hear that. When a young culinarian comes to our restaurant and he gets into those final stages of interview: "What is it that drives you? Why do you want to be a cook?" "Chef, I am really so passionate about what I do." “Okay, really? You’re really passionate about what you do?”
00:48:24 “Okay, so what happens when you’re doing the same thing every day? What happens when you’re chopping that brunoise for the next six months? Are you going to be as passionate about doing that task three months from now as you are today?” I don’t want passion. I want desire. That strong desire, no matter what the passion level is, is going to drive those young culinarians to make sure they’re doing the job that I want.
00:48:55 Lastly, I want to share with you a quote that hangs in all of our kitchens: "When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving towards perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That’s what cooking is all about." Thank you.
00:49:21 ALICE WINKLER: That’s Chef Thomas Keller speaking to the Academy of Achievement in 2014 and 2015. He’ll be spending Thanksgiving, as he does every year, providing a wonderful meal for the military veterans from the Veterans Home in Yountville, a meal that is, as he says, nourishing in every way. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler. Thanks for listening. Thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes, and happy Thanksgiving.
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