Thomas Keller On The Simplicity Of Good Hospitality And What Young Cooks Must Have To Succeed

How do you begin to say thank you to one of our greatest living chefs? Gratitude was the feeling that came over me as I thought of what chef Thomas Keller has done to develop a level of upmost culinary excellence that has surpassed the challenges of time, economic hurdles, and increasing competition in the restaurant industry. Being able to spend a few minutes at his Las Vegas flagship, Bouchon Bistro, in the Venezia Tower at the Venetian Hotel, Casino and Resort, was indeed a privilege and a moment in time that I will cherish.

Chef Keller's accolades speak to his professional acumen along with a bevy of Michelin stars and the highest regard and awards in the culinary industry. He recently brought his gracious and glorious culinary gifts to a sold out event in Las Vegas.  Speaking with Keller at the Venezia Tower's lovely pool setting, it was impossible not to feel his care and consciousness as he spoke about his ideas on what is timeless and necessary to continue a legacy of culinary excellence.

The Daily Meal: What is new and exciting with your ventures?
Thomas Keller: What is new and exciting is Bouchon! I am always excited when I come here to Las Vegas. This is such a special location here in the Venetian, the Venezia tower. When they built the tower eleven years ago and the outdoor patio, we decided to come here at that time. I love this space and nowhere in Las Vegas do you have this kind of privacy in a court yard setting. It is very attractive to me.

Rumor has it you have a new bakery item at Bouchon bakery.
We are reintroducing some old flavor profile ingredients with our peanut butter and chocolate cookie. It's basically like a Reese's peanut butter cup, and who doesn't like that?

With the development of new restaurants sometimes weekly here in Las Vegas, what does it take for a restaurant to stand out from the competition and continue to thrive and grow?
I don't think that restaurants really compete with one another. I think people come into this town because they have a great deal of variety to choose from. There are a lot of choices here, a lot of diversity in dining. It could be Bouchon Bistro one evening, and then one could go to José Andrés for Spanish paella, Michael Mina's steakhouse, or Joe's Stone Crab. That's the great thing about Las Vegas—you have such a wonderful concentration of experiences to choose from.

What it takes to stay relevant is really the team. The team must have the best training to stay current. The thing is that the restaurant business is really an easy kind of equation, you greet the guests with a smile, give them the food, and you say good night to the guest with a smile. If you do those things right, you will have business.

What should be in place at the very beginning of a customer's experience? What should the entrance look like and what should a customer feel upon entering a dining establishment?
The customer should feel a sense of generosity, graciousness, and a spirit of hospitality and welcoming. Personality is important. When people are greeted with a smile and the right personality, people become comfortable right away. It is so simple, that so many of us often forget about it.

You have had such great success in an industry that is often littered with failures. What do you attribute your success?
My team is the mainstay. You can come up with a great idea but you cannot execute without great people. You need a team of people that can see what you see, feel what you feel, and want to do what you want to do.

Do you believe in cross-training everyone in all aspects of the restaurant?
I don't believe I train everyone. We have a philosophy and a culture that is instilled in those who have been a part of us for a long time. In doing that, they are able to translate their knowledge to the new staff and inoculate the new staff that come in and that is important. It is about amassing a group of individuals around you that have that same kind of philosophy about hospitality. If you do that, you can accomplish anything.

How do you keep you team motivated?
They motivate themselves. If I have to do everything we are sure to be a failure. I think that is one of the misconceptions about chefs or people that are in leadership roles is that they do everything. It's not true. We allow those around us to rise up to the occasion. And if you let them rise up to the occasion they will surprise you with everything they do. [pullquote:right]

What advice would you give to those going into culinary school?
To those beginning their career: you will need the upmost patience. Don't rush yourself. There are so many young people that want to be further ahead than where they are, and it is not just the culinary profession. It can actually be rather painful for them. I think you need to be patient with your career, not just because you need to learn your skills very well, but you want to enjoy that moment of time in your career as a young culinary student, or chef de partie. Once you go into management everything changes. Patience is the most important piece of advice, and the second one for a young culinary student would be persistence. Don't let anyone say you cannot do something. My advice is to stay at it, keep practicing, keep motivating yourself, and you know you will get there.

Was there a specific time that someone really encouraged you that stands out in your memory?
They all stand out to me. There are so many individuals that have been such an extraordinary part of my life. It would be unfair to say this one stood out more than another. They all have an enormous impact in advising me and encouraging me, teaching me, and helping me to understand what was truly important.

If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would that be?
Fernand Point would be one; he was such an extraordinary chef. Harry Truman would be another—I think Harry Truman was one of our last truly great presidents. Surely, there would be Julia Child also. Although I have had dinner with her many times, I would welcome her back to my table any time in my life. My mother and my father, although they are not with me any longer, I would invite them back. I also think someone like Joe DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson who struggled to change his profession and was someone that understood what it takes to make a difference. Those are the kinds of people I would like to have dinner with.