For Keller, cooking remains a very simple equation. Restaurants are about welcoming people in, nourishing them with food and service and embracing them on the way out. As simple as it sounds, it’s impossible to do when your hands are tied behind your back, as the Coronavirus pandemic has done to restaurateurs around the world of late. Keller has been one of the leading voices calling for the insurance industry to pay out on business interruption costs.
“The insurance industry is a massive industry that is extremely rich and very powerful, both financially and legislatively,” says Keller. “They have a lot of lobbyists in Washington. It really comes down to them doing the right thing. Making a decision whether they want to help or not. It should be a very easy decision to make, but so far they have made the decision not to help. I’m not just talking about restaurants, I’m talking about 20 million businesses in America.
“For years and years, in order to have business interruption insurance, we paid our premiums diligently, we paid on time, we paid increases when the increases were levied on us, now when we need help, we need their support they say ‘no, you’re not covered’.
“They don’t have to do everything, but they could do something, they could be part of the effort. There are a number of different ways to do it. They continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, maybe they could just stop advertising for three years. There is so much money made in the insurance industry, they are very smart people, there has to be a way for them to help. We are asking for help, but they don’t want to.
“Our insurance company has over $850 billion in their coffers, just for this kind of situation, to pay insurance claims. We’re not asking for everything, but they can certainly make an effort. They should be obliged to make an effort because it’s the right thing to do. If they have to force people to do the right thing, it’s a problem.”
Yet Keller remains hopeful for the industry. Restaurants have been around for hundreds of years and one pandemic will not kill an essential part of our culture. Restaurants have survived through wars, plagues, depressions, far worse than what we see today, and through it all there is still a continuum of learning, of one generation passing on knowledge to the next. That is what endures, and that is the tradition from which this book springs.
To a young chef, about to embark on their journey in the industry, it is a chaotic time filled with uncertainty. What would Keller say to someone, just leaving culinary school, with a head full of dreams and a desire to cook for people?
“There are two words I like to use to exemplify my advice to a young culinarian,” says Keller. The first is patience. We all want to excel and exceed our abilities, especially as young people because they are ambitious. But I say, be patient, because some of the most joyous times in your career will be in those early years, when you’re a commis, chopping vegetables, tending to the stocks, all that basic work. All that work under a sous chef, early in the morning, where you’re creating the energy in the kitchen for later on, where your work impacts what the others do later on, those are all wonderful moments.
“Then you get promoted to chef-de-partie, someone who works on the line, and that’s when you’re really part of collective team. I always use the sports analogy, that’s when you’re part of that team, like in baseball, football or basketball, that’s the moment in your life when you’re really a team player. There are 6 or 7 people that are doing something different, but they’re like baseball players in their different positions working with the team towards winning the game. That’s the moment in your life when you’re on the line and you’re really learning so much about collaboration and teamwork, about timing, efficiency, skill and execution. So again, take your time with that, because that’s a really exciting time to be on the field. When you become a sous chef you’re starting to manage people. When you become a chef-de-cuisine you’re starting to manage more people and you’re cooking less and less. Never forget that you got into this profession because you love the act of cooking because once you get elevated, it’s hard to go back.
“The other [word] is persistence. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something. You can do anything you want to, you just have to be persistent.”
Keller is living proof of both.