In 1995, a social writer on the San Francisco Chronicle called Herb Caen wrote two extraordinary paragraphs about The French Laundry, which changed the restaurant. We'd been written about in food magazines and we were on the radar for foodies, but not everybody reads food magazines. But everyone in North California read Herb Caen and it was amazing. We have these significant moments in our careers that catapult us to the next level. Each one, in and of themselves, is the most important and the biggest break that you've had because without that singular one you wouldn't move on to the next one.
My mother taught me how important attention to detail and being organised and efficient was. In the beginning of my life, the opportunity to learn from my mother was certainly my biggest break. I was the youngest of five boys and I had a younger sister, and she raised us in a way that was comfortable and loving and really set us up for success in our lives.
I think when we fail at something it helps us learn what to do and what not to do next time. I set up a restaurant in New York, Rakel, in a partnership with Serge Raoul. I was a young chef and I barely knew how to run a kitchen, let alone a restaurant. I learnt then that if I had the opportunity to have another restaurant, I was going to have someone who was a professional expert to run the dining room and I was going to have someone to do the accounting so we understood how much money we had, where we needed to make more money, and what we needed to do to make the business successful.So when I did the French Laundry I established that tripod. That made a significant difference and certainly took a lot of pressure off of me because I could focus on the food without having to focus on those other areas.
We don't expand fast. It takes a couple of years to open a restaurant because my philosophy is we cannot diminish one of our restaurants by opening another one. I think there are seven individuals who need to be trained and prepared to go to open a new restaurant whose departure isn't going to reduce the quality of the team in the specific restaurant they come from or the group of restaurants they come from. Rory Herrmann, who is a chef at Bouchon in Beverly Hills, our newest restaurant, was one of our chefs here at Per Se [in New York] and when he left here he had trained someone to take his place. Then Rory trained for a year at Bouchon before we even started to open Bouchon in Beverly Hills so he had complete knowledge of what we were doing. We are always making sure we have key individuals who have been mentored and trained in our restaurants for our next restaurant.
Service is always about understanding and anticipating what the guests need without imposing it upon them. It's a three and a half-to-four hour experience in the French Laundry and Per Se, so we have to have servers who are intelligent and who can be engaging and have a conversation with our guests because they're interacting with them for that period of time — and it's a long period of time. We have to spend a long time identifying people and training and mentoring them. That's our culture of teamwork. We all stand or fall together — in the dining room or in the kitchen.
Ferdinand Point [the late chef and author of the celebrated cook book, Ma Gastronomie] was just an extraordinary man. His book has been a part of my life since 1977. I continue to give it to our young people to read.
The childhood episode that probably affected me most was the separation of my parents. They had two different ideas about life. My mother [who also ran a restaurant] was always the one who tried to excel and continued to push herself to a better life, to gain knowledge and sophistication. My father — who retired as a captain of the Marine Corps — was a very simple man. Certainly, if I had grown up with my father, I would be a significantly different man today. I feel somewhat blessed — although I'm sure it's difficult for my parents and my siblings who are divorced. Growing up with my mother is a great part of the reason I am who I am today. I think it would have been much different if I'd grown up with my father.
We have no control over what people write, or people think, or the praise that they give us. We have to be confident and satisfied with what we do day-to-day. If we feel we've done a great job when we go home at night to sleep, I think we're successful regardless of what anyone says. I was the first American to receive three Michelin stars and then the first to receive six, which was an amazing moment in my life. It was a pinnacle moment. I would be lying to you to say it wouldn't hurt if we lost them but at the same time what is written about you is about what you did yesterday and we can just think about what we're doing tomorrow.
The great restaurants of the world are populated by people who love great restaurants regardless of where they come from. When we opened in New York people would ask me: "How do you think people in New York are going to react to Per Se? Are you going to change anything?" Why would we change anything? What we're doing is what made us successful. Why would we change it for New Yorkers? New Yorkers are as sophisticated as anywhere in the world, but why would we modify a cuisine for them? We do what we do because that's what we do.
I think today the UK and United States are considered serious players in the restaurant world and I'm really proud of that. I have some great friends in the UK, whether it's Heston [Blumenthal] or Jason [Atherton], even Gordon [Ramsay]. It's wonderful to have this camaraderie we share around the world. When we open at Harrods, hopefully we will make everybody proud.
Thomas Keller now owns six restaurants and five bakeries in the US and is the only American chef to have two restaurants with three Michelin stars: The French Laundry and Per Se in New York. This month, he opens a pop-up restaurant in the Georgian Restaurant at Harrods that will serve a £250-a-head tasting menu for ten days from 1 October.
blog comments powered by