What I Learned About Exceptional Success from a 3-Star Chef (And It’s Not About Cooking)

creativity life lessons productivity self improvement Feb 13, 2019

9 Surprising Principles For Lighting a Fire To Your Career

Wildly successful creative people fascinate me. I still waiver when it comes to defining my own personal success; I just know when my talents marry with the skills I’ve learned, it’s where the magic happens. I feel my heart beating, and I wake up excited for the day ahead to lead the way for my creative self to expand.

Sometimes creative success is fleeting. You see someone who does really well with a first published book, a first CD, or art in a gallery show, and then their career falls flat. It’s the thing all creative people fear… “am I a “one-hit wonder?”

How do you build sustainable success?
I wondered, where does sustainable success come from? It doesn’t appear to be limited to talent alone… it’s a complexity of ingredients that include a willingness to use strategies to keep the creative fire lit, a never-ending commitment to excellence, and a love for what you do.

A while ago, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to a man who has been at the top of his field in the world of food for decades.

Chef Thomas Keller is an American Chef and restaurateur. His restaurant, The French Laundry in Napa has won multiple awards, including 3 Stars from the prestigious Michelin Guide. It takes a year to get a reservation, and a loan to pay the bill… but no customer leaves unsatisfied.

He was named the “Best Chef in America” in 1997 and has received Michelin awards for his other restaurants as well, including Per Se in New York and Bouchon in Napa.

When you look at Thomas Keller’s bio on Wikipedia, his education is listed as “apprenticeship.” That’s all… Apprenticeship.

Somewhere in his path, Thomas Keller, the apprentice, discovered the magic that launched and sustained a career of excellence… and it wasn’t only because he loved creating food. He found satisfaction in all aspects of his business… including washing the dishes.

I passionately love cooking. Years of cooking classes, reading Bon Appétit, and growing up watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin had given me the gift of confidence and joy in the kitchen.

My late husband, David Peckinpah, was a producer and writer for television and film. For 26 years we hosted dinner parties in our home with talented people in the entertainment industry.

Sitting down to a great meal was the perfect platform to discuss a plot for the next episode of a series, a character arc, or an idea for a new movie. I loved those times, and they all centered around food… delicious home cooked food.

When I had the opportunity to meet and listen to Chef Thomas Keller speak, I jumped at it. I inched my way forward in the crowd of people at a restaurant expo in Los Angeles, California. I wanted to get as close as I could.

I first experienced Chef Keller’s food at his restaurant, Bouchon in Napa. I’ve had memorable meals in my life, but there are just a few that have brought me to tears; this was one of them.

It could have been because I was falling in love with the man who took me on this date. It had been several years since my husband died, and my emotions were all over the place… but I have never been so moved over a plate of chicken.

Chef Keller took the meal to “extraordinary” by serving the roasted chicken with polenta, fresh out of the garden squash, wild mushrooms and sweet corn with Sauce Chasseur, a simple French sauce made with white wine, mushrooms, and shallots.

Cry-worthy for sure.

How does a man who starts out washing dishes develop the skills and talents to become one of the most distinguished chefs in the world?
Chef Keller’s secret is not just about cooking; it’s about mindset blended with exceptional skills and techniques, and the ability to master flavors and presentation in a way that strikes memorable awe in his guests.

His first secret is “repetition.”
Chef Keller started in the restaurant business by washing dishes. As small as that job may seem, he recognized how mastering the art of repetition was fundamental… wash, rinse, repeat.

He developed a ritualized, organized way of doing dishes to become faster, more efficient.

When he moved on to become a cook, his skill of organization and repetition helped him perfect one of the most delicate and difficult recipes in food preparation, the Hollandaise Sauce. He practiced it methodically, over and over again, until it was perfect every time.

And, somewhere within the magic of Hollandaise Sauce, his passion came alive.

“In 1977 I met a French Chef who said to me, ‘Cooks cook to nurture people.’ That moment is when I decided to become a professional chef.” -Chef Thomas Keller

Chef Keller continued his story, and I excitedly began typing notes on my phone. I looked for wisdom from this creative genius because I was creatively stuck.

This was just a few months after my 4th book came out.

Chef Keller’s story about repetition and ritual resonated with me. During the process of writing this book, I learned to ritualize the writing process. I made a commitment, a strategy, and a ritual that I followed every day until I finished my book. I was amazed at how efficient I’d become as a writer. It was the first time I didn’t wait for inspiration; I discovered inspiration was there, waiting for me every day when I showed up for it. (You can read more about inspiration in this article on Thrive Global: Stop Avoiding Your Creative Destiny)

But I was in a lull after the book came out. I call it the “now what” phase. Did I really have another book in me or was that all there is?

I was hoping to hear how one of the most decorated chefs on the planet consistently stayed in a zone of genius with innovative, fresh ideas for his menu and his business.

That day I wrote down 9 surprising principles I learned from him.

1. Learn the value of repetition. It makes you really good at the thing you’re repeating, whether it’s washing dishes, writing on a daily basis, or creating a new product. It’s like carefully placing the kindling as the foundation for the fire that is yet to come.

2. Organization is key. Chef Thomas said when he learned to organize the dishes before washing; it was easier to put them away. Organization sets the stage for control and provides greater productivity.

“I focus on techniques rather than recipes because it’s really the techniques that are the most important part of any recipe.” -Chef Thomas Keller

3. Keep building your techniques and skills. Never assume you are “good enough.” Great food depends on quality ingredients and great skills. Great writing comes from thought-provoking content and good skills. Great dancers are a combination of good choreography and great skills. Consistently educate and train in your field.

4. Critical feedback is a component of learning, even when it hurts. Accept criticism as a necessary part of growth and becoming great at what you do. If no one tells you the soup needs salt, you put out a less-than-excellent product.

5. Create a ritual for achieving your goal. Great chefs know the value of prepping the kitchen. It’s part of the ritual of the day. For me, I created a ritual for writing. it provides a specific time and leads into my day of writing. Actors do a “green room” where they prep mentally for their work on stage or in a film. (Read more about rituals in Developing the Creative Mindset)

6. Develop a team and become a mentor to them. Chef Keller said to teach your team to be better than you. Once you’ve trained them, it’s mutually beneficial to maintain a mentor relationship with them. You never want to take their training away. There are always new things you can teach them. Their achievements become your successes.

7. Consistency is a critical component of customer satisfaction. With the cost of dining in a restaurant, Keller never wants a customer to go home feeling like they wasted their money. He demands consistency and excellence. It’s the key to developing a solid reputation and repeat business.

8. Choose your words carefully. Chef Keller said he hates the term “hospitality industry.” “It’s not an industry, we are a profession.” Words have power, and certain words can de-personalize the importance of what we do. Profession sounded much more respectful to me.

There is also a term ‘front of the house,’ (meaning what the customer sees and is involved in), and ‘back of the house,’ (everything behind the scenes that customers won’t see). Keller stressed, “We are all on the same team. Don’t separate us.” Bring it all together for a complete experience.

9. Show respect for the product and the people who created it. “Don’t burn the toast!” Thomas said, “Remember a lot of work went into creating that loaf of bread!” It began with the seed planted in the ground and took months of nurturing to grow and transform the wheat into flour. To bring it to fruition, it took the baker hours. Every loaf is kneaded, proofed, and baked.

… and there it is again, the power of skills, techniques, and repetition… knead, proof, and bake.

I’d never given much thought to burnt toast, but his story changed me.

A piece of unwatched bread in the oven quickly turns to burnt toast if your attention to the basics is off; all of that effort, gone.

Chef Keller shared the story of visiting a farm where they raised rabbits for his business. The farm owner asked if Thomas would like to participate in preparing the rabbit for his restaurant.

His narrative began when the rabbit was still alive. His voice choked with emotion as he told the story. With that experience, he clearly gained tremendous respect for the farmer and the animal that provided a meal for his guests.

He never again looked at serving food in the same way. He said, “My level of respect for the product we received was heightened.”

When you’re creatively stuck, return to the basics.
And that takes me back to where I was before I saw Chef Keller speak…creatively stuck. I realized I had to go back to the basics… my rituals, skills, and commitment.

Keller helped me learn to trust the process and the magic that happens. A chef doesn’t stop with perfecting Hollandaise Sauce; his achievement of mastering the difficult recipe builds confidence for creating his next signature dish and the next.

Our past achievements are not endings, but beginnings. It’s the creative process that challenges us to discover “what’s next.”

We must bring the extraordinary to our businesses.

Lastly, Chef Keller expressed the importance of restaurants bringing extraordinary food to the table to create a memorable experience for their guests.

And it was just that. Our night at Keller’s Bouchon Restaurant in Napa delivered taste, awe, and the night I fell in love with my future husband. That’s pretty extraordinary.

And we’re just about to make next year’s anniversary reservations at The French Laundry now.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got creativity on your mind… I have a complimentary sample for you. A short ebook on how to establish some simple habits to set your creativity on fire: How to Develop the Creative Mindset.

**Previously published on Thrive Global**