Many things have been written about Chef Thomas Keller. Now that he has been elevated to being one of the top five or so chefs in the world, he has achieved a sort of God like status in our field.
Normally I might shake a finger at this kind of thing, primarily because often these chefs can fall seriously sort when it comes to mastering the art of being human.
Thomas Keller is a rare breed and it’s not because I believe the press and how humble he seems on paper. He is a rare breed, because I have seen him in interaction with his employee’s many times and I have always been impressed with how he treats them.
During my career I was fortunate to train with some of the top American chefs of my era. Although I learned many things, I also had to put up with a constant sense of being demeaned. These chefs often had egos bigger than the restaurants they worked in and the kitchens were either run by fear, or neglect, while we did all the work.
One afternoon while I was dining out in the patio at Bouchon with my oldest daughter is also a chef; Thomas Keller came walking down the street with one of his young protégés. The kid he was with couldn’t have been older than twenty one or so and while they were walking towards the restaurant a constant stream of people came up to great Thomas Keller. What I found so striking about the situation was that to a tee Thomas made a point of introducing the young man to whom ever he was speaking to.
I know this might sound like a small thing, but to me it was almost a revelation. Here was a man making an effort not only to include his guest in conversation, but to show him the values of common decency and respect. When I recalled my younger days I could not think of one personality I had worked with that would have done the same thing. In fact it would have been the opposite. They might have said something like “Oh, don’t mind him; he’s just some nobody slaving away in my kitchen”.
I have spent well over thirty years cooking and during those years I have worked myself almost to the bone trying to improve my skills. Regardless of whether you are beginning in this field or growing out of it, there should be plenty of respect allotted for the simple willingness to undertake the journey. People like Thomas Keller are good for our trade. He not only represents the epitome of excellence and professionalism in his craft, he also represents a model for compassionate leadership. His success I believe not only derives from his singular talents, but in large part for his ability to lead and inspire the people who work for him.
Because I live in the wine country of Northern California I am continually exposed to ex Keller employees. It’s getting boring to have to listen to constant praise of Thomas Keller all day long from people who worked with him.