Dec. 22, 2008 -- How does a man without any formal culinary education go on to own eight acclaimed restaurants? Chef Thomas Keller, 53, says it's necessary to have a strong work ethic.
His path to success wasn't easy. Keller's first New York restaurant, Rakel, received enthusiastic reviews but didn't draw a crowd. Even so, he didn't quit. Instead of giving up Keller moved to California, where he opened The French Laundry, the first of his many publicly celebrated restaurants.
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Few Cooking Memories
Food was scarce in Keller's childhood home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was the second youngest of five siblings, "so there was always a battle to get something to eat." Raised by a single mother, Betty, Keller believes it was her that really instilled his work ethic.
"My mother had an enormous impact on me. It was really more about my work ethic and the desire. I think people talk about passion as something you have to have to do something really well. Well, I don't totally disagree with that but I think passion ebbs and flows. I think the one thing that is most important in being successful is have a strong, a strong desire to do something. And my mother gave me that desire. She gave me that work ethic to continue to try to reach your goals; continue to strive to do that job," he said.
Because his mother was constantly working to support the large family, Keller's most vivid food memories stemmed from the holidays. "I don't have those fond memories of sitting on my mother's knee or my grandmother's knee stirring a pot of cocovan or polenta or whatever. For me, the greatest memories I had as a child were certainly around the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas – that was the time when my mother really spent those moments in the kitchen cooking for us. Whether it was a great turkey at Thanksgiving or a standing rib of roast at Christmas time or ham or things like that around the table. And there was always food then! So we didn't really have to fight for food being the youngest of the group."
Embracing the Restaurant Life
Keller learned about cooking not from an expensive culinary education, but from a mentor, Roland Hennan, who, in 1977, taught him that being a chef is about nurturing.
"That really made the connection to me," Keller said. "Emotionally to what I was doing and from that day on I took this as my career and became very, very serious about cooking …You know, food, food to me is a vehicle to express an emotional, an emotional connection to somebody."
Today, Keller, a fan of In-N-Out burgers, fried bananas, and jelly donuts, now heads up a much-touted group of French-American restaurants and bakeries. Over the past decade he has won consecutive Best Chef awards from the James Beard Foundation, and Per Se, his triumphal 2004 return to New York, received three stars for three years in a row from the New York City Michelin Guide.
The ritual and repetition involved in owning a restaurant drew-in Keller, who loves "to repeat the same things everyday – around the same time everyday – and cooking is really about repetition doing it over and over and over again that's how you really get good at it."
That same love of repetition helped him develop his palette as well. He believes that continual exposure, not only to different food but also to the same foods, makes the taste buds more sophisticated.
"We all have reference points to food," he said. "If we take something as simple as mashed potatoes -- we all know a really good mashed potato and we all know a really bad mashed potato because we've had it so many different times. So those reference points are very important to us. Your experience and your exposure to food over and over again helps you understand what is good and what is bad."
Pressure to Be the Best
One of Keller's biggest pressures is to remain consistent everyday, giving his patrons "very high quality service, very high quality environment, very high quality cuisine so that their entire experience is one that they will remember."
The required "100 percent commitment" is, in Keller's eyes, the only potentially negative aspect about the restaurant industry.
"Being committed to the restaurant industry and a restaurant itself is a lot; it's a lifestyle; it's a 16, 17 hour a day job and you need to be committed to that restaurant; you need to embrace that lifestyle if you want to really be successful at it. So I don't know if that's a negative as much as it is something you're sacrificing and I believe sacrifice is a good thing. I think we all make sacrifices for things that we want to do and things that we want."
The sacrifice is worth it, however, because Keller says "everyday is a new day." But also because he enjoys the emotional connections that happen around the dinner table.
"It's a moment for people to gather together around the dinner table and exchange the stories of the day or talk about their love for one another or have generally a good time. Just having that moment with people," he said. "And I think that is one of the basic pleasures of human nature – sit with your family, your friends, your loved ones and experience a wonderful meal. It doesn't always have to be a great meal, but I tell you, the people around the table make the meal."
He says it's also an emotional experience for the chef. "Food to me is a vehicle to express an emotional, an emotional connection to somebody. And certainly for me as a chef cooking for somebody that I know is really a wonderful experience – to see a smile on that person's face because you know that person," he said. "Cooking for somebody you don't know gives us an opportunity to get to know that person. So, either way, I think the experience for us as cooks and for me as a chef, is one that connects with people and I think that is the most important thing about cooking."