Your Legacy Lives On: Thomas Keller

First Republic
October 31, 2014

As owner of The French Laundry in Napa, Chef Thomas Keller appreciates excellence. His family of restaurants has grown to include Per Se, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc, and he is one of the great many clients who bank with First Republic on both coasts. We spoke with him about his thoughts on legacy, building a great team, challenges he has faced and his advice for aspiring chefs or business owners.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs or business owners? 

When it comes to career growth or secrets for running a good business, there are two words that come to my mind: patience and persistence.

  1. Being patient with yourself is such an integral part of career growth, whether it is with your time or with where you are in your career. It’s important to spend time learning and enjoying the learning process. As a youngster, I was too impatient and was encouraged to learn patience, and it made all the difference.
  2. As for persistence, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something, and don’t ever feel like you can’t do something. Persistence is key, and it’s something that was really innate for me. I was never going to give up; I knew one day I would prosper.

How do you build a common vision and approach with your employees? 

We have a great staff and a very dynamic team, which spans across a range of locations including Yountville in Northern California, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and New York City. There are three main things we do to ensure this common vision for our employees:

1. Hiring

We maintain a very close-knit culture by making sure that we hire correctly and that the individuals we bring into our organization are like-minded. We know they have a sense of dedication, commitment and an innate curiosity about what they are doing, but we also want to make sure they understand the demands of working in a restaurant, especially if this is the first restaurant they work in. I often say, talent alone is not enough; it takes talent combined with the right attitude.

2. Training

The commitment doesn’t end after we hire an individual. We are committed to their success through a comprehensive onboarding and training program. The expectations are high within our restaurants, and we have an obligation to provide them the support they need to be successful.

3. Mentoring

Finally, our job is to mentor them. This kind of mentorship is certainly professional, but it is also a personal mentorship. The ultimate goal is for the individual to have the opportunity to become a better chef than the mentor. We want to be able to give them the tools, skills, knowledge and the attitude to one day go out to other restaurants and impact them in a positive way. If that person wasn’t given these pillars to become better than their mentor, then the mentor really hasn’t done a good job. For us, it is not necessarily just about our restaurants; it’s about our profession. And if we’re not raising the standards of our profession, then we are not being truly responsible for it.

How has First Republic supported your growth?

As First Republic was growing, we were growing as well. We grew with them, and they grew with us, and it has been a wonderful relationship since. They care about where we are going and where we have been. I am very loyal, I trust them, and I know that when we come together and we need something, they are there to support us. I think it is a really important foundation to this great partnership. They have been part of our learning process, and they always make sure they understand what we need in a fundamental way so that they can plan for growth that will realize success for both of us. They are not only protecting themselves, but they are also protecting me, and that makes me feel comfortable.

What is one of your proudest moments in your career?

I’ve seen several of our alumni who have moved on and been successful at opening their own restaurants. For me to watch that process, knowing where I began and where they began, and for me to be able to help them to achieve their goals as others have helped me, not only is it extremely gratifying, but it is one of the proudest moments that I can think of in my entire career, to watch that success.

Does any point in your career stand out as the most challenging or difficult? 

There have been many challenges, but none as great as the fire at Per Se in New York just five days after we opened. We had been in development of that project for three and a half years; we had worked so incredibly hard, put in so much time and effort and finally executed our ideas, all to have a catastrophic fire break out. It was a difficult time. And interestingly enough, over the next couple of days, I started receiving encouraging notes and floral arrangements from a lot of our Asian guests who were congratulating me on having a fire because I learned that if you have a fire in your kitchen, it is good luck. This completely changed my point of view, and I reclaimed my excitement, my commitment and determination to reopen Per Se.

What does legacy mean to you?

Legacy is what you leave behind. And typically what you leave behind are those people who you have somehow impacted or somehow connected to, and your exchange of knowledge has helped them realize their dreams and their goals. What we want to do in our restaurants is give individuals in the restaurant industry the skills, knowledge and maturity so they can go out and be successful on their own. So I guess if there was any legacy that I would like to claim, I would say that I helped elevate the standards of our culinary profession here in America.