Chef Thomas Keller Shares the Most Important Lessons He's Learned from Martha
For Keller, Martha empowers others to embrace their role as nurturers.
Martha Stewart has been a household name since the 1980s, so it's no surprise that her work and teachings have influenced people across the world. As part of our latest series, professional chefs, lifestyle experts, and even a few celebrities take part in What Martha Taught Me to reveal what they've learned from our founder, plus what they did to take their careers to the next level.
Chef Thomas Keller has never seen a career in food as being, well, really about the food. "I went into cooking because I couldn't play baseball," Keller said. "Early on, I felt a lot of similarities: the same team environment, the camaraderie, the very specific sense of duty. It resonated with me." Over time, Keller's impressive career—which includes the acclaimed French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City—took on a deeper meaning that transcended his culinary success. "Chefs nurture people—not just our guests, but our staff as well," Keller explained. "It's not just about nurturing with food, but also with the culture [of the restaurant]. We're giving people opportunities to find their path. [That drive to nurture] isn't something you choose, it's something that's innate. I find it to be very meaningful."
Here's how Keller views Martha's contributions to the community he's found to be so fulfilling. And here's how you know he means every word: "I keep pictures in my office of people who inspire me," explained the chef. "There's a picture of Oprah [Winfrey] and I, Julia [Child] and I, and Martha and I. I have that level of admiration for her."
Keller respects Martha's drive to do things right in—and out of—the kitchen.
"You try to have fun, but it's a serious thing," explained Keller, a classically trained chef. "I cook in a professional kitchen, whereas Martha's teaching people to cook in a home kitchen…but we always want to make sure that we are representing the highest standards and expectations of the trade. When you're in Martha's kitchen with her staff…they're very well-educated, very disciplined, very versatile. They have an understanding of food and of being able to prepare things that carry a visual appeal."
Her influence extends beyond the kitchen, too. "Martha has been influential in many different areas, but especially in helping people see and understand her lifestyle as something that's aspirational," Keller said. "We need to realize that we all can do better for ourselves, and understand what that means and what that looks like. Martha's been a great influencer in that regard. She's an extraordinary woman, with an extraordinary business, and extraordinary insight, giving people things they can aspire to become or aspire to do. It's tremendous, the dynamic she brings to the consumer."
Keller admires Martha's eye for quality and support for small artisans.
For Keller, those who have succeeded in public spheres have a responsibility to educate the public on those who make their work possible. He sees Martha as a prime example of that. "It wasn't until the early '70s that we really started to embrace this idea of culinary heritage in America—supporting not just chefs, but also fishermen, foragers, and gardeners," Keller explained. "They're some of the most important individuals in a society, giving us the tools to express ourselves culturally."
He continued, "We have to recognize our true responsibility to those farmers around the world and our responsibility to support the individuals producing the best ingredients. People like Martha, who bring an eye for quality and an obligation to the people involved, help give that support to the individuals who make our work possible."
Keller sees Martha as a symbol of empowerment.
"Martha's a giant in her ability to influence the general consumer on every level," said Keller of Martha's lifestyle empire and empowering message for homemakers. "She creates strong values and roles for people. She gives them the opportunity to express generosity by nurturing their friends and family. If we can give someone an ability to access a higher sense of personal pride…that's an extraordinary thing."
"I think our legacy is defined by others," Keller continued. "Martha doesn't even know all the people she's touched. When you're a chef, and you're in the public eye, there's a person you don't know and will never know, and you've influenced that person in their life. How grateful you have to be, to be able to influence someone's life that way. Our work is only as valuable as those who embrace what we've done and pass it on."