My wife visited the town of Napa with our granddaughter, to hang out with our son and his wife for a week. They had just toured the gardens of The French Laundry restaurant and were pulling out of their parking space when she suddenly noticed that someone in chef attire had appeared in the garden. "Look, one of the chefs!" She announced. And our son said, "That's not just one of the chefs. I think that's the man himself."
"Turn the car around!"
She jumped out and briskly approached the famous Thomas Keller, who was speaking to his culinary gardener. Her first words, as reported by our grand daughter, were, "You're like a god to me." He was gracious in response, and friendly in his reaction to the unexpected visit. They shook hands and all posed for a couple of photographs amid the vegetables.
Why is he so widely admired? Why has Keller's restaurant The French Laundry been such a mythical dining destination for so long? What's also responsible for the excellence also of his restaurant and bakery Bouchon, the equally estimable Ad Hoc, and his New York outpost, Per Se, as well as other venues around the country?
From the testimony of those who work closely with him, Thomas Keller lives the excellence he teaches, and in every way. He embodies the positive spirit that pervades his enterprises. His staff talk about his attention to detail, his work ethic, his mentoring, his nurture, and how he builds their confidence, not only about their work, but in everything they do. Their core values go with them in and out of the kitchen, throughout the entirety of their daily lives. When the chef hires people, he tells them that it's his goal to make them better than he is. And they say they love working with him. It's a community of excellence in the best way, and results in what the gardener called magic.
It's interesting for me, as a philosopher, to note that, in the kitchen of The French Laundry, prominently displayed, is Aristotle's statement:
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
And that's the truth. Every leader makes excellence a habit. Any person who customarily creates something extraordinary does so, too. Habit, you see, is character, and as another philosopher, Heraclitus, once said, "Character is destiny."
A great short video, well worth watching, about Chef Keller and how this works, in the Napa Valley and beyond, can be found at http://youtu.be/0CElD6fkouQ.