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BirdsEye View

in pursuit of excellence - the sequel

The reaction to the French laundry article as been overwhelming. Below is the sequel, depicting once again why Thomas Keller is an invincible force in the culinary world. For more insights into a different part of that world, check out the food photos on www.anatbird.com. They include photos from the markets in Bhutan, which I recently visited, and which is amazing!

In Pursuit Of Excellence - The Sequel

The BirdsEye View article about the French Laundry and Thomas Keller's unique ability to sustain a competitive advantage hit a chord with many readers. I received dozens of comments about it, and people continue to discuss its various facets.

As I mentioned in another issue of BirdsEye View, Keller recently was awarded three Michelin stars for his New York restaurant, Per Se. He is the first American chef to achieve this distinction. Some restaurateurs react to achieving the apex of their profession by focusing on payback. They toiled for decades to reach this distinction, working unspeakable hours, and often for meager rewards. Further, to reach the coveted three star level, they often have to make significant investments in their restaurants' décor, china, silverware etc. Once the three stars have been awarded, many shift their focus to reaping the monetary rewards from this rare honor by increasing the number of seats in the restaurant, opening a shop nearby, and overall paying less attention to the food. In fact, I often prefer upcoming two star restaurants to the three star ones, since these chefs still have something to prove; they continue working toward maximizing their food and overall dining experience rather than the return on that investment.

This is why I was somewhat surprised when I returned to the French Laundry late January, after the restaurant's traditional two weeks off after New Year's. The following improvements and additional investments have been made during that period:

  • A large and beautiful serving area was added to the first floor. It is invisible to the patrons, but it facilitates the food service.

  • A very expensive coffee machine was purchased. The machine ensures that each cup of coffee, cappuccino, espresso etc. is made exactly the same way, such that the taste is 100% consistent, regardless to the person who is brewing the coffee.

  • New tablecloths have been ordered, bearing Keller's white-on-white hound-tooth pattern. Alas, the fabric quality was so high that local laundries refused to wash it. Keller's response: he is building a laundry of his own to launder the tablecloth, rather than compromise on their quality.

  • The restaurant's waiting area has been changed to offer more comfortable seating; a whole wooden bar was dismantled to make room for the cushy chairs.

  • Cristoffle, the famous French silver maker, has added silver items to the restaurant's unique collection of silver food implements, such as an especially created carrier of the restaurant's smoked salmon cones, a trademark canapé. The implement has no other use but to hold the cones for a more elegant presentation of this dish.

  • A vacuum machine that empties the air from fruits such as watermelon, cantaloupe etc. for a denser and more intense tasting fruit.

  • Most stunningly, Keller reduced, instead of added, the number of seats in the restaurant. Tables were comfortably spaced, but he felt additional space will enhance the dining experience, and cut two tables from the already tiny, 60 seat space.

These enhancements cover the gamut of cutting-edge technological innovation, used to enhance the consistency and uniqueness of the dining experience, coupled with visual, server-related and other elements that move the restaurant even closer to 100% flawless execution 100% of the time.

I am sharing all this with you not only because I am an admirer of chef Keller's cuisine, but also because these changes embody, in my mind, his unwavering commitment to excellence according to his own standards. I admire Thomas not only due to his genius in cooking, but also because of his amazing drive to achieve perfection in what he does according to his own expectations. Countless accolades and recognition by peers, professionals and laymen alike didn't slow him down. He continues to march toward perfection by his own definition, and drives even harder toward the goal now that others have given him the highest recognition possible.

Very few leaders do not rest on their laurels, not even for a moment, when they reach the apex of success. Banks that have built a fortress balance sheet that yields top decile results every quarter coupled with double digit EPS growth typically do not seek the next mountain to climb, or tweak their business paradigm to get even better. Organizations accept change and improvement best when they are on the ropes and there is possibly no other choice to survive except to change.

Keller has a vision in his mind of where he wants to take his cuisine, and he pursues it relentlessly. I find him inspirational for being uncompromising, driven, humble, and with unusual clarity of vision. He has changed the paradigm of dining, and his followers are sprouting in kitchens around the globe, as he continues to refine his craft. There is much we can learn from him, as we struggle with our own value proposition and its various elements. Our businesses are different, but the lessons from this remarkable example of the pursuit of excellence aren't.