Chef Thomas Keller on professional success after 40 years

In our series my monday morningmotivated people tell WSJ. how they start the week.

Chef Thomas Keller has an allergy, but not to food. It’s for brainstorming.

“If you’re trying to set aside time for it, you’re actually trying to force something that may not be ready to appear or reveal itself,” he says. For James Beard Award winner, ideas happen when they happen. Instead of forcing creativity, he cultivates a Zen consciousness throughout the day, aided by daily 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. meditation sessions. This prepares him to receive his aha moments.

From French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Per Se in New York, the 66-year-old is a chef and restaurant owner spanning Bouchon Bakery, Bouchon Bistro, Ad Hoc and The Surf Club Restaurant in Miami. Here he talks to WSJ. about his three healthy living principles and a major business decision he made in the wake of the pandemic.

Do you have takeaway breakfast?

It’s traditionally two hard-boiled eggs [drizzled with] about a tablespoon and a half of extra virgin olive oil and a little salt. That’s what my protein is. I have a supplement shake, take my vitamins, and usually drink a cup of coffee.

How do you take your coffee?

Just black, simple, easy.

Are you one of those people who sleep “four hours a night is all I need”, or do you need a minimum to recharge your batteries?

My doctor told me long ago that you need three things to sustain life functionally: sleep, at least seven hours of sleep; good nutrition; and exercise. These are the three things I work towards every day.

What time of the day or week are you most productive or creative?

Certainly, in the morning, I do a lot of my office work, a lot of my meetings. In the early afternoon, I visited the kitchen probably three or four times.

What is your exercise routine like?

Five days a week there is a training session. Typically, it will be cardio, either on my Peloton or the Precor. Then there will be light weights and resistance bands, core work, and then stretching.

You recently took over The Surf Club restaurant. What are some of your favorite things to do while in Miami?

My favorite thing to do in Miami is play golf, so if I can get to the golf course that certainly breaks up the week, it gives me a chance to recharge my batteries a bit. On a golf course, you try to clear your brain of all other interference and distractions.

There are times in South Florida where specific things happen, with Formula 1 more recently being able to go there. But just a walk on the beach early in the morning is a beautiful way to wake up and enjoy the splendid nature of water and sand and sound and smell.

The mind behind The French Laundry and Per Se says he orders his In-N-Out fries well done.


Photo:

David Escalante

Has the pandemic changed anything in the way you think about your work or the role of food and restaurants in people’s lives?

We really had to rise above what we normally do, and I was proud to say that we made a difference. We started something internally called the Keller Restaurant Relief Fund, where we raised money. We have distributed over $1.2 million to our team, former and current team members… [to] pay their hydro bills, rent or groceries.

From a business perspective, we have learned to be sufficient with less. We have become more agile. We eliminated some things that were typical of our business model for years or decades, which was to do lunch service at The French Laundry and Per Se. We have permanently eliminated these three afternoon service periods. Now we only do seven dinners. This allowed us to refocus, to reorient ourselves.

What is your greatest guilty pleasure food?

In-N-Out Burger. I always order the fries well done so they get crispy. This is advice for you.

What is the advice you received and who guided you?

There are two words that I like to use and have come in handy, one that I didn’t do very well at, the other that I did very well at. One is patience. As a youngster you always want to level up, you always want to progress, you always want to be promoted. And sometimes you do it at the expense of your own education and your own experience. Mainly as a cook, we got into this profession because we love to cook the same way an athlete loves to play baseball. Often we are in too much of a hurry. We somehow compromise our love for what we do by going beyond what we do. I always remind all young people to be patient with your career. Enjoy the time you cook because at some point you won’t.

The second thing is perseverance, which is the one thing I’ve embraced all my life. Never give up. If you give up, you’ll never get there. I am the perfect example of someone who has been extremely persistent in trying to achieve their goals. I didn’t buy the French Laundry until I was 40. And everyone wants to be Thomas Keller at 25. It takes time. And some people never get there, but if you don’t keep fighting for it every day, you’ll never get there. So never give up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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