Cooking Up Your Leadership Legacy

Posted 04.05.2010

Chefkeller Food is a big deal in my house. My wife, Diane, is an accomplished cook and food blogger and, lucky for me, I get to eat her great meals. So, we were both interested in an article that ran in the Financial Times  over the weekend about how one of the best chefs in the world, Thomas Keller, is training the next generation of great chefs at his acclaimed Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry. It takes at least six months to get a dinner reservation there. Some good friends of ours had dinner there last week and Diane is getting together with one of them today to hear all the details. Dining at The French Laundry is definitely on our bucket list.

The FT article focused on a couple of young chefs who are in the midst of three month stints in the kitchen of The French Laundry. Both of these guys are accomplished in their own rights and one of them comes from a family of French chefs that owns a Michelin three star restaurant of its own. They’re no slouches themselves and, yet, they take three months off to apprentice alongside Keller and the rest of his team.

The Wine Spectator ran a special issue on Keller last month and part of the package was a two page spread on the dozens of great chefs around the world who have trained with him. Along with creating great food, Keller is clearly passionate about building a legacy of talent that will carry on long after he’s hung up his apron. How is he teaching this next generation? Here are a few things I learned from the FT article on his apprenticeship program that could apply to just about any leader who wants to build a legacy for the future:

Recruit the Best: The first thing Keller is doing is attracting some of the best culinary talent in the world to join him in The French Laundry kitchen. His personal brand and that of his restaurant enables him to recruit the top chefs. One of the chefs featured in the FT says that winning a competition to work with Keller was “one of the best days of my life.”

Invite Input: The typical high end restaurant might change its menu weekly, monthly or even seasonally.  Usually the changes are made by the head chef and maybe the sous chef.  The nine course tasting menu at The French Laundry changes twice a day – the lunch menu for the next day is set at 4:00 pm and the dinner menu for the next night is set at 12:00 am before the restaurant closes for the evening.  While the fish, meat and poultry have been ordered in advance, all of the chefs meet together to brainstorm the sauces, sides and garnishes that will make the meals so memorable. As one of the apprentices said in the article, “Here, I come up with ideas for three dishes every day, and sometimes even more when we know there’s a VIP in the restaurant to whose table we are going to serve one or two extra courses.”

Organize for Success: The chefs that come to work at The French Laundry can’t believe how organized the kitchen is. Everything has a place right down to the lids that cover the plastic containers for sauces.  There are no cling wrap covers in Thomas Keller’s kitchen. The very accomplished chefs who train with him say they’ve never seen anything like his systems and templates. The systems allow them to focus on their craft and bring forth the creativity around the daily menus.

Shared Accountability: Each day’s menu is taped to the table where the chefs place their dishes for final inspection. Everyone on the team has accountability for ensuring that what’s being delivered to the customer precisely matches the description on the menu. In most restaurants, the head chef does the final inspection. At The French Laundry, everyone shares the accountability for a perfect product.

What about you? Are you giving much thought and attention to building the generation of leaders that will come after you? What methods and approaches seem to be working the best?