It's A Process
In a Thomas Keller restaurant, teaching takes a three-pronged approach, and starts as early as hiring, continues into training, and blossoms into mentorship.
"Hiring a person is critical," Keller says. "The most important step in bringing someone into our restaurants is making sure first that they understand what the expectations are. We give them the opportunity to come in prior to that hiring process to see the environment—we expect them to approve us, too. We're kind of hiring each other."
This, Keller says, creates an environment in which training and teaching can flourish, where experimentation and exploration can prosper side-by-side with seriousness.
Then comes the training. While fine dining lore leads us to believe that a kitchen under a chef like Keller would be cutthroat, he dispels the myth. His model sets everyone up for success. He likens it to teaching a child to swim.
"You always put floaties on their arms so they don't drown themselves—you don't say you have two weeks to learn to swim and then you take those floaties off, you want to make sure they actually learn how to swim," he says. "We want to make sure we give [our employees] the training, knowledge, and skills, making sure that they're okay, that they don't fall. They may trip, but we don't want them to fall down."
At some point in that process, he says, an employee can stand on their own, and that's when the process rolls into mentoring.
"If you do these three things correctly, what happens is quite extraordinary," Keller says. "That person becomes better than you. If that doesn't happen you haven't done a good job."
Up to the Task
While Keller's teaching system is undoubtedly thorough, the success of his mentees is bolstered by who he lets into the pack. It isn't just anyone that lands in a Thomas Keller restaurant, unsurprisingly. But it's not passion that gets Keller's attention. What his restaurants look for are people with desire.
"I know people talk a lot about passion in so many different ways in our society and culture right now but passion, to me, is unsustainable," Keller says. "Desire is a drive—it drives you every day whether you're tired, sick, distraught, or disillusioned. Desire is always there, so it really affects my decision to hire people."
Attitude is an important indicator of how receptive someone is to being taught. Someone with a know-it-all attitude isn't likely interested in learning. Keller also looks for what someone's goals are. If someone is successful in a Thomas Keller restaurant, is it their goal to be successful elsewhere? In that way, like a rising tide, Keller's teachings spread much farther and wider than just his own restaurants.
"When they leave us, we want them to go out with the knowledge and standards and go to other restaurants and help inoculate that restaurant with some of our standards, our thinking," Keller says. "It's truly about our profession—elevating the standing of our profession."
Within the millennial workforce, and in seemingly every generation of restaurant industry workers, staying in one place for an entire career is unheard of. Keller takes a realistic approach.
"We know they're not going to be with us forever," he says. "Our profession is what we need to be thinking about. If we all thought about it that way, the new individuals coming in would also be well prepared. It's a profession and we need to stand shoulder to shoulder and help each other out."