By Mike Hoban
Shout-out worthy talent management is found in many places as we’ve highlighted in this blog over the last few months. Business situations; athletic teams; the military – those are the usual suspects. I recently read an engaging article about talent management in a different and perhaps unexpected milieu, a story that provided much, um, food for thought: the kitchen in a world class restaurant. This is the story of Thomas Keller, entrepreneur, culinary wizard and Talent Manager extraordinaire.
The article, in the current issue of Wine Spectator (Quick - What’s the difference between a wino and a connoisseur? About 8 bucks a bottle…) highlighted Keller’s success in creating the world renowned French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley and then launching several other eateries across the country that generate rhapsody in foodies and critics alike.
World class chefs are high achieving performers, and Julia Child notwithstanding, are sometimes thought of as being temperamental artistes, oozing with ego, exactitude and intolerance. That doesn’t seem to be part of Keller’s recipe for success according to the Wine Spectator piece. “Keller has achieved what he has in part because he is a brilliant cook but even more importantly because he realized he had to sublimate his ego to succeed.” He’s quoted in the article as saying, “I am not the star, the team is the star.”
“The team.” Might that just be cliché de jour for the master chef? The story suggests otherwise, that there is steak as well as sizzle in Mr. Keller’s ruminations. Says a colleague and admirer: “He has created a culture in his restaurants that that not only values teamwork but finds and nurtures talent. That, as much as anything, has made it possible for Keller to step aside from his various kitchens and pass the torch to others.” A notable quotable about finding and nurturing talent is commonplace in a biz magazine. But it’s hardly commonplace to read those words in a magazine for food buffs and cork dorks (Full disclosure – I subscribe…).
So just how does he create this so-called talent management culture? For one, by treating his underlings as culinary collaborators. When he ran the French Laundry, he involved members of his staff in creating new dishes and new menus. One chef who left to become a star in his own right calls him “inspirational,” someone who led by example and who was never abusive even when the kitchen was in a “crisis situation.” And he demonstrated an interest in people personally. “People loved him. He has a lot of loyal followers” is how one ex-French Laundry chef describes him.
Of course, there’s a price to pay for finding and nurturing talent and many of his cooks, chefs and sommeliers have gone on to great food careers and ownership opportunities elsewhere. A side article in the magazine lists 48 “protégés” (their word) who have become stars elsewhere. This was not a point being made about his seemingly high turnover, it was a point that one of his signature dishes seems to be talent management - finding and developing people.
Keller made it a point to promote from within, to provide wing-stretching opportunities for young up-and-comers. And his philosophy about succession management? “Part of every chef and department head’s job is to identify a replacement and train him or her.” And that POV has allowed him to expand his gastronomic empire to 9 restaurants across the U.S., all of which have enviable reputations.
He doesn’t run the eateries on a day-to-day basis anymore. As a good talent manager, he looks at his job as one of “giving people opportunities.” He says that “If my presence is needed in the kitchen, I haven’t done my job.”
So good talent management can allow you to have your cake and eat it too. Especially in a restaurant.