The French Laundry's Thomas Keller on Being a Successful Chef and Businessman
Thomas Keller penned an interesting story yesterday in the Los Angeles Times about what it means to be a successful chef brand in 2008.
Keller says that a successful chef today has to grapple with spreadsheets as well as spreads. And in doing so, he will be faced with (at least in Keller's case) a seemingly endless array of business opportunities. How does Keller deal with this? How about other name-brand chefs?
Finesse and Integrity
By looking at every opportunity through a prism of "finesse" and "integrity." I guess what Keller is saying is if he's going to open a burger joint, he has to develop a burger recipe long on finesse that's true to his implicit devotion to quality and, dare I say, greatness.
In Keller's case I think he does consider every opportunity or potential new venture judiciously, paying careful attention to the dreaded spreadsheets.
Looking at Keller's ventures, I would say that he maintains his insanely high standards pretty consistently. The sliders at Bouchon Bakery at the Time Warner Center in New York may be among the best sliders I have ever eaten. Sometimes Keller does slip up, such as with the lobster club sandwich I ate at the same Bouchon branch a couple of months ago. The sandwich's thick-cut bacon had very little of its fat rendered, making the sandwich inedible, which was more than a little annoying given the sandwich's hefty price tag.
But that lousy sandwich is the exception in my Keller eating experiences. His peanut butter sandwich cookies redefine just how good that cookie can be. Ditto his Oreo-inspired TKO cookies, sticky buns, and pesto croissants.
Increased Business, Lower Standards
If we look to Keller as an example of a chef getting it right most of the time, we can look to Wolfgang Puck as a chef who has either relinquished control of much of his far-flung empire or lowered his standards by paying too much attention to spreadsheets.
Many of Puck's restaurants still serve pretty good food, but nobody would say that the food served at airports under the Puck name is elevating airport food in any meaningful way. Ditto for his disappointing frozen pizzas, which are ridiculously overpriced and mediocre at best.
Folks like Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck are constantly coming to forks in their chef roads. Keller's internal compass has served himself and serious eaters rather well, but I don't think I can say the same thing about Wolfgang Puck, though there is no doubt that Puck has made a lot more money. Their paths serve as cautionary tales for all up and coming chef brands pondering their next steps as spreadsheet jockeys and cooking standard-bearers.