What does success look like to a mentor? When the people you’ve taught are not only successful on their own, but they become even better than you. For Thomas Keller, one of the restaurant industry’s most legendary seasonal chefs and bi-coastal restaurateurs, there are a lot of those successful mentees to be proud of.
“Mentorship is something that can be brief, and mentorship can be lasting,” he says. “Mentorship can turn around—your mentee can become your mentor in the future. But one of the things we always talk about is our ability to remove our egos from the equations and appreciate the effort we’re making toward one another.”
Keller’s effort toward egoless teaching has become what he’s known for—the secret ingredient that seems to foster success among those who come through his kitchens. Just ask Corey Lee. The 41-year-old chef and owner of Benu and In Situ in San Francisco worked under Keller at both The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in New York City between 2001 and 2009. From there, he opened Benu.
“When I first started at The French Laundry, I was blown away by how many dishes were conceived and executed by the individual cooks rather than dictated to them by Thomas or his head chef,” Lee says. “Yet, everything served was still at an incredibly high level.”
This is no accident. This system that Lee marveled at during his time working under Keller was created intentionally, and is as nuanced as the dishes that are served at his restaurants.
“That system—giving people an opportunity to be successful at something new—is something I associate with Thomas Keller and his restaurants,” Lee says.
If you ask Keller, he can’t put a finger on the moment that teaching, in addition to fine seasonal food and impeccable service, became part of his business model. In his mind, the things are inextricably linked, and in that way perhaps it has always been part of work. Teaching, he says, has always been part of his restaurants.
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.”
Impacting an Industry
The imprint Keller makes on his mentees creates a ripple effect in the restaurant industry. As each one strikes out on their own, they infuse the culture of their restaurants with something they learned under Keller’s tutelage.
Tim Hollingsworth, the 39-year-old chef and owner behind Otium in Los Angeles, started at The French Laundry in 2001. He started as a commis and worked his way up to chef de cuisine. In total, Hollingsworth worked under Keller for 13 years and was on the opening team for Per Se. Throughout that time, Hollingsworth recalls, there were many significant moments with Keller that shaped his career.
“He continuously brought me new challenges and opportunities that served as defining moments in growing my career as a chef,” he says. “From day one, he took a chance on me and hired the small-town boy from Placerville, California, with a very short resume.”
Hollingsworth had only a few years of experience when Keller put him on the opening team for Per Se in 2004. A few years later, Keller looked to Hollingsworth as someone to represent the U.S. at the Bocuse d’Or competition in 2009.
“I was very grateful for the opportunity to have both him and legendary chefs from around the world as my mentors,” Hollingsworth says. “Chef Keller has been my biggest mentor and influence throughout my career. He’s an incredible chef and I’ve learned so much under his guidance. I still continue to work with him today through his [Ment’or] foundation and his support has been invaluable.”
Ment’or BKB is a foundation that is devoted to inspiring and supporting culinary excellence in young professionals, as well as supporting the U.S. Bocuse d’Or team. In 2008, Paul Bocuse asked Daniel Boulud to develop a structure to support the U.S. team. Boulud reached out to none other than Keller who, joined by Jerome Bocuse, formed the board of directors of what is now the Ment’or BKB foundation.
Finding the Why
In all his teaching and coaching, it has been important to Keller to foster the purpose behind his mentees’ desires and drives. Whether they want to open their own restaurants or simply be the best at what they do in another chef’s kitchen, Keller supports their success.
When Anna Bolz approached Keller about leaving one of his restaurants, he wanted to understand her motivation and her ultimate career goals. Bolz was working as sous chef at Per Se in 2011, but considered a move to another restaurant to assume the role of pastry chef, which was her ultimate goal.
“I am a pastry chef because no matter how many hours I think about pastry, it never feels like work,” Bolz says. “When I talked to Chef Keller about it, how interested I was and how conflicted I would be about giving such short notice to Per Se, he asked me about my motivations for leaving, my potential motivations for staying, and ultimately what I wanted for my career. He supported my decision either way, and made it very clear that he valued the contributions that I had already made at Per Se.”
Bolz, 34, is now pastry chef at Per Se.