Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
I was born and raised on my family’s farm outside of Lyon, France. We never really traveled, but when I was eleven, my parents took me to Brittany, a region in the northwest corner of the country. Friends there invited us to a restaurant on the coast, and we ordered a plateau de fruits de mer. I had never seen anything like it. It was three layers with about ten different kinds of seafood. There were baby gray shrimp, small pink shrimp, and langoustine. There were oysters, littleneck clams, large clams, and razor clams alongside crab and lobster. It was majestic. In that moment, I realized that traveling to experience new kinds of food is one of the most beautiful things you can do. After that, whenever I went on a trip, the journey was always for food—to eat something unique, something special, something delicious. You can see churches and other sights, but the best souvenir for me is always my memory of the food.
I decided I wanted to become a chef. When I was fourteen, I got accepted to a three-year apprentice program. It was similar to a hotel school, but it was for young people who wanted to be chefs. The program was in Lyon, so I moved there and lived in a spare room at my uncle's place. I worked twelve to sixteen hours a day—splitting my time between school and a very good restaurant in town. While my friends were off playing soccer and skiing on weekends, I worked. It was trying, but I learned so much: how to shop for food, peel every type of vegetable, fillet every fish, and pluck every game bird.
Most mornings, while picking up supplies at the local market, I would see a chef named Paul Bocuse. If there had been a gang of chefs in Lyon, Paul would have been the leader. Although he lived in a small town, this man was respected, admired, and in demand all over the world. He traveled a lot and made the rest of us dream about places like the United States, South America, Australia, and Asia. To me, being able to travel and have people appreciate your talent all over the world was the quintessential reason to be a chef. (Today, Paul is eighty-eight and, in my opinion, no other chef has had a greater impact on the industry. He is basically the Dalai Lama, or the pope, of cooking.)
Two years into my program, when I was sixteen, I had a big fight with the restaurant’s head chef. When it got physical, I ran out of the kitchen and into the dining room to protect myself. The restaurant’s owner, who liked me very much, said, “Don’t touch this kid! Leave him alone!” Rather than lose his job, the chef left me alone—but he got me back a year later. When I graduated from the program, I took an exam and scored in the top five out of about 170 young cooks. This made me eligible to enter a national competition to determine who was the best culinary apprentice in France, which I thought would be a great launching point for my career. But to do so, I needed to be registered by a mentor. The chef I fought with (my only prospect to register me) refused. He wanted to destroy my career. Although I was already motivated to succeed, this made me even more so. I wanted my vengeance. I wanted to become better than he was. When someone tries to get in your way, don’t let it squash your ambition or stop you, just change course and keep going.
I went on to work at a few different restaurants in France and did some catering on the side. Slowly climbing my way up the ladder, I was trained by some of the country’s most renowned chefs. I paid close attention to the way they conducted themselves. I wanted to know what made them so distinguished and figure out how to get there. Not only did I hone all of my cooking skills, but I also learned a great deal about managing a kitchen and providing good customer service.
When I was twenty-one, my boss offered me an opportunity to be a sous chef (the chef ranked just below the head chef) at his restaurant in Denmark. It was a big promotion and my first chance to indulge my work-travel fantasy. I loved it. In 1980, when I was twenty-five, I got an offer to go to Washington, D.C., and work as a private chef for an ambassador at the European Commission. I took it, of course.
I think that up until the age of twenty-eight or thirty, people should try to learn and experience as much as they can. If you don’t really know what you want to do, work for high-quality successful people in different fields. If you know what you want to do, take a variety of jobs within that field. For example, if you want to be a chef, work in a restaurant with a staff of fifteen then one with a staff of 120 to see the different organizational scale. Experience different cuisines whenever you can, try new restaurants on your days off, and immerse yourself in the world of food. Every one of my jobs and experiences taught me something about the restaurant business. Diversification broadens your foundation and makes you better equipped for whatever the future brings.
After three years in Washington, D.C., my diplomatic visa ran out. In order to stay in America, I had to find an employer to sponsor me. The search was harder than I expected, but I finally found somebody willing to hire me as a sous chef for a restaurant he was planning. Six months later, as the restaurant was about to open, I realized that I hated the management, the chef, and the food. Although I had no other job leads and was panicked about possibly being forced out of the country, I told my bosses that I’d help them open the restaurant but then I had to leave. Before surrendering and going back to Europe, I decided to ask a friend, the chef Jean-Louis Palladin, for help. He telephoned a friend who was opening a restaurant at the Westbury Hotel in New York. I went in for an interview and got the job. When you feel like you’ve lost your compass, it’s okay to ask for directions.
I remained at the Westbury Hotel for two years then went on to open a restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athénée, where I stayed for another two years. Then, in 1986, I made a life-changing career move: I was hired as the executive chef at New York’s Le Cirque. During my six-year tenure there, Le Cirque became one of the most highly rated restaurants in the country. This brought me a lot of confidence and enabled me to build a very strong reputation as a chef.
In 1992, I left Le Cirque with the hope of opening my first restaurant. I had no money of my own to invest, but I knew that I had talent and wanted to find the right partners. I wanted them to be honest and have an understanding of finance and business that I didn’t. I dreamed big and wanted to raise $2.5 million. My good friend Lili Lynton introduced me to her uncle, Joel Smilow, who was about to retire from his position as the chairman and CEO of Playtex Products. Joel said, “I would like to be the only investor and want to back you up 100 percent. It will be much easier to work together if it’s just the two of us, and I think we’ll do very well.” Joel’s trust and confidence made me feel that all the sacrifices I had made over the years were paying off. We opened our restaurant, Daniel, in 1993 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and have never looked back. Shortly afterward, Daniel received a coveted four-star rating in the New York Times and three stars in the New York City Michelin Guide. In 1994, we started a catering business called Feast & Fêtes and have since opened two retail establishments and five restaurants in New York City, two in Florida, and one in each of the following cities: Singapore, London, Toronto, Montreal, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Boston.
Although we have done extremely well, not every restaurant we’ve opened has been a success. For example, we opened a restaurant in Vancouver in 2008. We went there because the owner, who was very persuasive, had lost his chef and thought that bringing me on board would be the best thing for them. We did what we could to make everything work, but it was the wrong location and the wrong partner. We spent a lot of time, energy, and money trying to build something we shouldn’t have, and it was very frustrating. But I try to learn from mistakes and move on. When you get kicked off your horse, the important thing is to get back on and ride with pride.
The restaurant business depends on good teamwork. My staff, from the dishwashers to the pastry cooks to the waiters and the maitre d’s, is my greatest asset—and much of my success is linked to the fact that many of them have been loyal and remained with me. It’s important to incentivize your employees and reward them for what they do. We try to compensate everyone properly and give them a real opportunity to succeed. When someone with talent sticks with us, they get promoted. About seventy-five percent of the openings we get for executives are given to people who have grown up with me professionally. The executive chef at Daniel, for example, has been with me for seventeen years and has worked his way through every position in the group to get to where he is. Treat your employees with respect, and they will remain an asset. Treat them as expendable, and you will have difficulty holding your team together.
We put a tremendous emphasis on making our customers happy, but on occasion, people come in with such a chip on their shoulder that there is nothing anyone can do about it. This, unfortunately, happens in all service-oriented businesses. In the early days of Daniel, I didn’t always handle this type of situation well. One woman was so abusive to my staff and me from the moment she sat down that I literally pulled her chair out and said, “Please get out of here. No one’s going to cook for you. No one’s going to serve you.” I’m much more experienced and mellow now! If you encounter miserable customers, don’t take it personally—instead, view it as a challenge. Remember that your job is to serve politely and professionally, and make people feel special. If you don’t have a very good reason to bother with an issue, let it go. (Complaints, by the way, are not always unfounded. They are right as often as they are wrong, and they can help you improve and make corrections. It is important to be attentive to criticism and learn from it.)
Working in the restaurant world demands a huge amount of sacrifice. When others are getting together and having fun—Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving—you are working. You also work long hours on regular days, so it is difficult to have much of a personal life. If you choose this profession, stop comparing yourself to others. The restaurant world is another planet. You have to make a choice and not look back.
Restaurants are my passion and consume my thoughts. Anyone who can find this kind of excitement in life is lucky. You may work till you are bone tired, but you won’t mind because there’s nothing else that you would rather be doing. And your ambition will carry you from one milestone to another.
No matter what business you are in, remain focused on what you like and become very knowledgeable about it. If Ralph Lauren, for example, had been all over the place with his designs, he never would have been able to build what he has. Instead, he focused on something very specific and did it well. You have to have your mantra. For me, it’s French cuisine and being French. If you are in a creative field, know the heritage you are inspired by. I have French cookbooks that go back to the 1600s and 1700s. They are difficult to read, but seeing what chefs were doing back then is fascinating and initiates creativity in me. Although I am inventive with my cooking and have many different influences, everything is practiced within the parameters of French cuisine.
It’s important to find good mentors. To get this opportunity, if you want to be a chef, try to get your foot in the door of the best restaurant you can—one that maintains a good reputation year in and year out. (This shows that the people there can not only cook, but that they can also manage a business well.) These jobs are competitive and you may have to start as an intern, but it is an opportunity to learn and network.
Many businesses are built on connections. Don’t take any relationship for granted (you never know where your coworkers will end up down the road) and always leave each job on a good note. Throughout my career, I went above and beyond what was expected of me. In turn, my bosses respected me and wanted the best for me. Every new job I got was with the help of the chef I had been working with. A good reference from your previous employers is essential.
You don’t have to be in a big city like New York or Los Angeles to be a successful chef. If you cook well and create the right environment, the public will find its way to you. You can become the superstar of a much smaller city.