Podcast Episode 34

Three Keys to Becoming a Great Chef From Bocuse d’Or Medalist Philip Tessier

Philip Tessier | 43 Minutes | March 15, 2022

In this episode, we chat with Philip Tessier, an award-winning chef, author, coach, culinary partner and innovator. He was the first American chef to ever place on the podium at the biennial Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France, and coached the 2017 U.S. team to a gold-medal victory, a journey that he recounts in his book: Chasing Bocuse.

Philip began his training in the kitchen at a young age while growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was interested and motivated to learn new techniques and taste new things, so his curiosity often led him to the library searching for cookbooks with exotic recipes. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and after graduation, to sought out the best kitchens of France, New York and California to hone his craft. Over the course of three decades, Tessier worked at some of the world’s most renowned restaurants including Roger Verge’s Le Moulin de Mougins, Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin, as well as Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Bouchon and The French Laundry. It was at The French Laundry that Tessier began to train for the pinnacle of culinary achievement, the Olympics of the food world: the Bocuse d’Or.

Listen as we chat with Philip about the road to Bocuse d’Or, building a strong culinary team, and the three principles that guide his work.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Philip Tessier, a world-renowned, award-winning chef, author, coach, culinary partner and innovator. He was the first American Chef to ever place on the podium at the Bocuse d’Or competition in France. He took home the silver medal in 2015, and led the U.S. team to gold in 2017. He recounts his journey in his book, “Chasing Bocuse.” Today, Chef Tessier is the executive chef and partner of Press in St. Helena, where he is redefining dining experiences in the Napa Valley.

Join us today as we chat with Chef Tessier about competing at the highest culinary level, working in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, and the value of mentorship and giving back.

Welcome, Chef! Good morning. There he is.

Philip Tessier: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s great to have you. A little early on the West Coast, right?

Philip Tessier: Not too bad.

Kirk Bachmann: Before anything, how are you? Is the family healthy? The staff healthy? Managing the pandemic well, as we’re all trying to?

Philip Tessier: I think we’re, hopefully, on the down-slope from this craziness.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s been a long…

Philip Tessier: It’s been interesting, both between business and keeping the staff as safe as we can. Keeping them confident we’re doing the right thing for them. I’ve said it before, but hopefully the worst is behind us.

Technique and Ingredients

Kirk Bachmann: We certainly hope so. It’s great to see restaurants opening again. We know our students are eager for that as well.

To kick things off today, Chef, it would be remiss if I didn’t say congratulations. What a career! There’s a lot to see about what you’ve done in the last couple of decades. I know we’ll talk much about Bocuse today. But I have to focus on you first. I’m going to embarrass you a little bit. “Chasing Bocuse.” What an absolutely beautiful book. It’s a coffee table book. It’s a worker book. It’s all over the place. I have it here at the school. You’re a chef, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re an author, you’re a mentor. It’s important – I believe – to recognize and mention as I listen to your stories of your journey is what really touched me is how you share your success with everyone on your team. You speak so highly of your team. You speak so highly of those you mentor. You speak so highly of the restaurant industry itself. You mention that there’s no better time to be a chef. Just really, really exciting. I wanted to say thank you for those thoughts. Really, really important at this time.

Just to kick things off today, two things that you mention are necessary in a great recipe. Number one: quality ingredients. Number two: great technique. So shamelessly, I’d love for you to expand on that, particularly for our student audience. Techniques and ingredients.

Philip Tessier: That comes directly from the Thomas Keller school of thought. I moved out to California in 2007 and I remember I did some small interview for L.A. Times. I remember saying in there that everybody uses the same carrots; it’s really the technique that matters. After being in California for two years, soon regretted that statement.

Kirk Bachmann: Let me take that back.

Philip Tessier: It’s really the difference between what New York was at that time. Everyone’s ordering from the same produce companies. You have the Union Square Market and such during certain seasons. A lot of it is more limited in terms of what you get your hands on. I think being out in California especially over the last 11-12 years, it’s really shown me several things.

One is the direct connection to those ingredients as a real influences not only in how we cook and how we think and our appreciation and excitement for things. When you see crosnes come out of the ground for the first time and you realize that’s how they grow. When you see a pea shoot growing at a difference stage than you would have because a produce company only delivers it a certain way, it expands your understanding of one ingredient. The quality of that ingredient coming to you both in terms of its actual quality and freshness, but also what stage of life it’s in, and things like this, is really your starting point.

I think technique can cover over a lot of flaws, but when it’s not used in this way, when it’s really used to add value to something that is already something that garners your attention on its own, it really gives you the opportunity to hit new levels. Those are the two basic ingredients, if you will, for really anything that we want to do in our craft. I think what really separates the stages of restaurants that you see from the bottom up. There are zero restaurants at the top that are using inferior products or flawed techniques. It kind of speaks for itself.

The Bocuse d’Or Experience

Kirk Bachmann: Great, great advice. I love the use of the term craft, because that’s definitely what it is. Here comes some of the accolades. There’s no other chef in the world that can say, “I’m a Bocuse d’Or silver medalist and gold medalist in the same sentence.” But you can. Along with that, you’ve achieved such prestige and more prestige than a chef could hope for. I’d love for you to set the stage a little bit.

I think it would be cool to hear in your words a little bit more about Bocuse and the competition. But more than anything: you’re on the competition floor or on the stage. The envelope is being opened, and the United States is announced for the silver medal. What is going through your mind at that time? What isn’t going through your mind at that time?!

Philip Tessier: It’s really hard to put it into words. When you think about everything that goes into a specific moment…At that moment, everything that was going through my head was just a replaying of every challenge, adversity, disappointment, success, and really just the whole journey of getting there.

In 2015, we went there as total underdogs. Nobody paid attention to us. Having been involved for competition now for the better part of a decade, you realize very quickly that there are three, four, maybe five teams that everybody’s really paying attention to. At the beginning of that day, we were not one of them. France was surrounded by a million cameras. For us, we felt like we were there, our little team standing around my box that day in the kitchen.

As the day progressed, that changed pretty quickly, and people started to realize that we had come with something quite different. When the day came for the awards, in that moment, I think there was a strong sense of confidence that we had done something worthy of recognition, yet still nothing certain until it was there.

At that point, we were just focused on getting on the podium. In almost 30 years, we had never gotten better than sixth. Ironically, it was Grant Achatz who announced that envelope. More than anything, there was just a sense of release. I write about it a little in the book, but you don’t realize the weight that is on your shoulders until you allow yourself to think about it. For so many months, and really the whole year, just trying to push aside the pressure and focus on the task at hand. When you’re finally able to let your guard down and accept what we had achieved, it was pretty extraordinary. Just a flood of emotion. To be there with Chef Keller and Gavin Kaysen who was the coach that year. Skylar, who had matured dramatically as a young 21 year old was pretty much, even to this day, when you recount it, all the same emotions are still there.

It’s one of those things, I think, that’s really hard to translate to young chefs. That level of commitment just reaches such an extraordinarily different level of reward. I think it’s one of my passions, to really tell this Bocuse story in a more tangible way that gets people excited about it. I think there’s a strong level of intimidation, and to some degree –

Kirk Bachmann: I would imagine.

Philip Tessier: But at the same time, there’s a lot of confidence, and a lot of my confidence came from looking at who I was surrounded by. I looked at the team of coaches with Grant Achatz and Dave Beran and Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Gabriel Kreuther and others, and Richard Rosendale who had just competed multiple times. I thought, If I can’t do it with these guys, how are we going to do it.

I think it’s such an extraordinary thing. To be there in that stadium: it’s 2500 fans, it’s everything – the tempo, the pace, the excitement. The intensity is second to none. I’ve never considered myself a competition chef, but I think when you’re put into this environment, it really pushes you to your limits. To this day, I still look back and wonder, How do I get back to that level? How do I get back to that level of intensity and focus? It’s something that pushes you to your limits in a really good way.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s amazing the chills I get just hearing you share that story again. I can remember trying to find the results way back then on the internet. Everybody was so excited. I re-watched some of the footage again this weekend. It’s hard not to get emotional. It’s like a sporting event. People have painted faces and flags and signs. Is it a lot different in Europe that it is in America when it comes to that level of culinary cooking competition?

Cuisine and National Identity

Philip Tessier: I think there’s two things there. One, when you feel the emotions and everything there, I think the one that is probably missing the most when people watch this, because if you’re here, maybe it’s just entertainment. Maybe it’s just curiosity. But really, the whole thing running through the vein of the competition is just the intensity of the patriotism that you feel. I was there in 2013, and when we took seventh, it’s just that feeling of disappointment for your country. Being able to represent your country there is just extraordinary, and the honor.

That was specifically tying into your question of how it is perceived in Europe. It’s different in each country, but I think what I’ve seen specifically is that certain countries view this as a stake in the ground of their culinary recognition, their culinary importance, and the importance of their national heritage. So if you think about all of the Scandinavian countries, this is huge over there. Think about France: it’s incredibly significant to them. I was just there at the last finals. Emmanuel Macron was there at this big Grands Chefs dinner. He’s talking to everyone in the room, mostly all the French chefs. “Our culinary heritage is a key part of us as France.” They just have a huge commitment now – I think it is like $4 million investment – into the new team and the new training center. It’s pretty fascinating how that culinary heritage is such an important part of their culture. As you see the world growing smaller and smaller, and as you see English taking over in many countries as the main language, the Euro. People are really looking to what they can grab onto to preserve their culture and their heritage. Cuisine, of course, in France especially is such a key part of that.

You referred earlier to using the word craft. I think it is something that is a passion of mine through this competition, through what I do as a chef on a daily basis, is how do we elevate our craft to a level where people view this in our country the same way. It’s been boosted by certain things. It’s also been challenged by some of those same things. It’s part of the journey and our responsibility.

“You Get One Shot”

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. A little bit more about the actual competition. It’s been around for about thirty years, maybe a little bit more, every two years.

Philip Tessier: 1987.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s held every two years and there’s 24 finalists that come together. Twelve teams cook on the first day, 12 teams cook on the second day. Named after Paul Bocuse himself. In your mind, is there anything that even comes close to that? I know we have the Culinary Olympics every four years in Germany. Is it similar, or is it different? It seems like a lot more pressure for one individual and your commis in that box, as you call it, in front of a lot of people. Versus a team. Can you speak a little bit to that so people understand the significance of this competition?

Philip Tessier: I think the interesting thing about Bocuse d’Or versus any other competition that I know is it’s just two guys. It’s one chef and what they call a commis, and they have to be 22 or younger. Most people don’t know that. There’s generally at least a ten-year age gap between the chef and the commis. It’s entertaining and challenging at the same time.

I think the difference between the IKA Olympics in Germany is you see these guys come back from those saying, “We won eight gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze.” You’re like, “How many events are there over there?” Whereas Bocuse d’Or is one day. You get one shot at it. It’s five-and-a-half hours. You put up two dishes. One is generally a plated item and the other one is on the grandiose platter that you have to design. I think the pressure of that is that if I don’t do well on one event in the Olympics, I can go and do another one. Everybody wants to win the overall thing. But for this, there’s three guys – or girls – standing on that podium, and that’s it. Nobody wants to miss out on that.

This is always the thing that I come back to as a sense of gratitude on my side. Watching other teams, other chefs put in the same effort, and there’s no guarantee. For us to come away twice from that competition with the success that we did, it was pretty extraordinary and something that we certainly don’t take for granted. We used to joke about it in our training. One way that we found to alleviate the pressure of the secret thoughts of, “We only get one shot at this. What if we screw it up?” was joking. “Hey Chef, you only get one shot at this. Are you going to do it right?” You have to focus on what you can control, do everything you can to build your confidence for that day. Honestly, that day when we went in, we were just excited to show the world what we had done. Who knows what was going to happen after that?

The Legacy of Paul Bocuse

Kirk Bachmann: Just incredible story. From your website, you have this beautiful tribute to Chef Paul Bocuse. I just want to share a little bit of it. I quote, “Every generation there are chefs who break the mold. Chefs who are pioneers and forge a new path in cuisine and become icons to the generation of chefs that follow them. They are idolized, emulated, and achieve a legendary status among the mere mortals of the culinary world. We’ve heard the names: Careme, Escoffier, and of course Paul Bocuse.” Can you speak a little bit to what the man actually meant to you?

Philip Tessier: Anybody that you come across in the Bocuse d’Or has a significant reverence for Paul Bocuse. I think one of the key things was just being in France. The thing that first brought me there to the Bocuse d’Or was specifically the Diner des Grands Chefs it’s held on the first night of the competition. it’s generally about 200 chefs there. There’s probably 300 Michelin Stars in one room at that point. It’s pretty much the Who’s Who of the culinary world. When you see the level or respect of those chefs towards Paul Bocuse, I think that pretty much says it all. When you look at Alain DuCasse and Joël Robuchon and all these others. Maybe there are other more talented chefs or more exciting chefs or other things, but what Paul Bocuse really did for all of us – those listening to this, those who are students in the school today whether they recognize it or not – is really moved our craft and profession to being recognized as more of a white-collar profession. The pandemic we’ve experienced over the last two years has shown a clear dichotomy between this blue-collar perception of our industry, as well as the high-end side of it where people are really trained professionals and the impact that has, and the demand people have for what we do.

I think Paul Bocuse was the first celebrity chef. He was the first one to really put us in the limelight, out of the kitchen into the spotlight a little bit. Obviously, that’s been pushed in some pretty far directions. He was also a hard-working restaurateur. When you’re in his restaurant, seeing the staff that was surrounding him as I did multiple times, the reverence they have for him. He’s like the Godfather.

Kirk Bachmann: Just amazing.

Philip Tessier: It’s just fascinating and something that I think is well-deserved with what he was able to achieve. I think for us, I look at the opportunity the Bocuse d’Or has given me. The doors that’s opened in my career and path. He’s the one who created that opportunity for myself and others. I think a lot of what we do, what I do today, is really with that in mind, towards that same responsibility to those who work for me and what the choices I make for how we continue to grow in the future.

The Why of Competition

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a beautiful tribute. On a personal note, I grew up in a pastry chef’s home, kitchen. My father came over from Germany in 1960, and he made his Meisterbrief there. He has this unbelievable respect for the craft. That’s what I learned growing up, the respect for the ingredients and the hard work. He wasn’t a competition chef. You said earlier, you made a comment about being a competition chef, that you’re not a competition chef, and that chef’s shouldn’t compete for the sake of competing. It’s clearly deeper for you. Maybe you can talk to that a little bit. What does that stage do for you and what does it mean to you? It’s beyond competing, it sounds like.

Philip Tessier: I think the galvanizing moment for me to really decide I was going to do the Bocuse d’Or was in 2013. We had dinner at Paul Bocuse the next day. In front of Paul Bocuse’s restaurant, there’s an entryway engraved with the avenue of winner. It’s all the past Bocuse d’Or winners there. You could see the empty spot where 2015 was going to be, and I just remember standing there thinking, “The best American chefs in our country are as good, if not better, than anyone who won the day before.” It was just a moment where I could see how great it would be to have USA in this list of names and this list of countries. For me, that’s really what it was all about from day one.

I think when you look at why people compete – I had someone come and want to stage with me, saying “I want to do the San Pellegrino competition.” I asked, “Why do you want to do this?” He said, “I have two more years to train for it. I want to be an influencer.” I said, “Wait a minute. What?” I remember coming back on the plane from 2017 when we won gold and watching that Top Chef was randomly playing on the plane. This show, everybody loves this show and they watch it, but yet nobody knows about the Bocuse d’Or. There are plenty of reasons for that, but the reality of that genuineness of the craft and recognizing that we can entertain others. We do entertain others with what we do, but the passion and the drive for us has to be the experience. It has to be the guest experience, the hospitality. When it comes all the way into competition world, there has to be a really strong answer for the why behind it.

I remember, my 11-year-old was like, “Papa, you should do more competition so you can earn more money.” I said, “I hate to break it to you, but they don’t pay very well.” The why behind it is really important. There are a lot of chefs who just compete to compete. I think what you eventually see with that is the food becomes very siloed into this competition style. It doesn’t, to me, evoke a lot of soul which, personally, I get excited about. That’s why when people come to me and say, “I want to do Bocuse d’Or,” I’m like, “Do you?”

I’m really being honest with them about what that means. I always point them in the same direction. You need to go work for the best chefs in the best restaurants. That’s it. It’s not about going to train to be a competitor. it’s about training to be a great chef.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said.

Philip Tessier: You’ll be able to come into that competition world, it’ll translate.

A Team of the Right People

Kirk Bachmann: Along those same lines, I’d love it if you could speak a little bit to how to create or develop a winning team. I’ve heard you mention a few times on a few broadcasts that I’ve viewed. I think it’s important for young culinarians to understand how important the concept of a team is. Whether you’re going to France to competing, or you’re opening Monday through Friday and the weekends to take care of your guests when they come to your restaurant or to your café. Whatever it is. If you want to speak a little bit to the importance of a team, and building a winning team. Key word: winning.

Philip Tessier: I think starting off, there’s always three things that drove my decisions as to my choices in my career. One was I always want to be learning. The second one was that in order to do that, I needed to be working for the best. Thirdly, was to be part of a team that I was excited to be a part of.

That’s always the three things I looked for and asked myself. Was I doing those where I was? There are a few points: you’re always going to learn something where you are, but it’s kind of like working out. If you keep doing the same exercises, you plateau a little bit. Challenging myself to get out of that comfort zone and to push yourself into the next thing.

Using an example of the restaurant I’m in now: I took this over as a consultant here at Press at St. Helena in California. I was supposed to be here for four months. It was kind of a traditional steakhouse. Things were in some strong disrepair here. Between a series of events and another project falling through, covid coming on and everything, I stayed on here as a partner. We’re really transforming this restaurant.

The importance of people and a team just can’t be understated. When challenging moments come in, I tell these guys every day is Saturday. If we pretend like Monday and Tuesday are no big deal, and then we try to turn it on on Saturday, there’s no way that you’re going to perform at that level. I think helping the team understand the vision and the why behind what we do is really step one. For me, I tell everyone as they go through the hiring process here that I’m super-protective about who we bring in. it really only takes one wrong person, in a sense, to begin to challenge the culture. I think that was one of the biggest things I took from working for Thomas Keller for a decade. That culture was super strong. When we opened in 2004, it was clear why we were all there. We were all there to be the best and to achieve the goals that Chef Keller had set out for us and for himself. Anything less than that wasn’t going to be accepted, both by them or by us individually.

What I look for are people who are self-motivated, have their own goals and their own visions. I’m not interested in pushing the whole thing forward. I’m much more interested in having people who want to follow along. If you do that well enough, when the challenging times come – as much as all of us can be seen as we’ve got it all together and we can overcome anything, anybody who says otherwise is probably lying to you – we all come to a point when we’re challenged personally and individually. We need something that’s going to get us past the next point. In my experience, that’s always been the team. That’s always been the people around me. You can do this, or you wake up in the morning and you’re like, “All right, at least I get to work with these guys today. No matter what happens, at least we’re in it together.”

For me, both between the environment I want to provide for those working for me and the goals we want to achieve together, there’s nothing more important than having the right people working together for a common goal.

Grit, Tenacity and Humility

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. You’ve mentioned the words “grit, tenacity, and humility.” How do those get woven into that recipe?

Philip Tessier: I think those are some things that are hard to find in today’s world. It’s just interesting. We have a lot of really good things happening in our industry. We hear a lot about mental health and awareness, and it’s really critical. At the same time, I think there’s a lot of confusion to that. I think what I’ve seen happen repeatedly, over and over again, is this craft, this profession save people, in a sense. People who maybe have an addictive personality, or whatever it may be, but being able to see the goals and have this craft over take their desire for other things really gives them a purpose. That’s critical.

I think the grit and tenacity. Tenacity is a word I use repeatedly here in the restaurant. Really, it’s the ability to work beyond the level of most, if not even what you could do yourself. I think that comes with a sense of believing in what you’re doing. For me to work harder, I’m going to train for the marathon. Nobody does a marathon without thinking at certain points, “Why am I doing this? I should just stop. Why do I have to go all the way?” There’s a reason fewer people on the earth have done marathons than others.

I think that’s something you honestly can’t really teach. You can put the model in front of people. You can show people the example of what that looks like, but it really comes down to the individual.

Similarly, with the humility side of things. Something I tell people here I that I don’t need superstars working for me. I just need people who want to be part of the team and are willing to do whatever it takes. Hopefully we build some superstars here that come from what we do. But ultimately, the humility allows everyone to continue to be in an environment of learning and support. The old school ways of yelling and screaming are still there. They’re still prevalent. They’re still my default mode because that’s the world I was training in as well. It takes a conscious effort to take that point of humility and say, “We’re all accountable to one another. This isn’t a dictatorship. We all are here to learn.”

I think I told somebody the other day, “I don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room.” That’s my worst fear here. I want to be learning and growing. Those same three goals still apply to me today. They haven’t changed even though I’m no longer a 17-year-old, pimple-faced kid going to culinary school. Those goals hold true, and I think that sense of recognition – that’s why I love this craft, because there’s always something more to learn. There’s always something you don’t know, and you can learn from anyone.

Mentorship Means Being A Constant Example

Kirk Bachmann: Great advice. So Chef, you’ve worked with some of the most well-known esteemed chefs. You’re now in that class. You’ve worked with Roger Verge, Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, the list goes on. I’m curious as to how their mentorship for you played a role in your culinary journey. We’ll talk about some of the other mentorship initiatives that you’re involved in in just a bit. But how did they impact you and the style you now have as you lead your team?

Philip Tessier: It’s interesting. At a young age, I remember one of the first chefs I worked for. He we great. At the Williamsburg Inn in Virginia. I was fortunate to land in a pretty decent place to start my culinary career. People had gone to culinary school were learning basic good technique overall. I also remember there was one guy there I didn’t really like. The management style. I think I learned two things there. One is how to emulate what you do like, and also fill in the blanks of what you feel people lack or are missing.

It was kind of the same goal I had when I took over as a coach for Bocuse d’Or in 2017 was to fill in the gaps that I wished had been filled in for me, and how do I support that. That’s the whole goal of the way that cycle is built, to build on the year before.

I think in terms of the mentors for me, I think there’s a misconception especially in our business of what a mentor look like. I think a lot of people are looking for someone who, “They’re going to be my mentor, and they’re going to be there for me all the time. We’re going to talk every week and have coffee, and they’re going to tell me what to do.” There’s just not enough time in the world for that on a consistent basis. It is important for my team that they hear from me on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s collectively as a group. I try to find those individual moments, and then for sure finding those individual moments periodically. A lot of that mentorship just comes through being together, through working in the trenches together. Being that constant example and giving them something to tangibly follow and emulate.

I think the mentorship comes through the collective team as well. Thomas Keller built a team at Per Se that wasn’t just him, it was everyone. All of those chefs there, Corey Lee, Jonathan Benno, all of these chefs who were there were mentors for me in that. it’s the collective team, and that’s why it’s important that anyone working under me is emulating, if not better, than me. The management style, the mentality, the culture. That they understand if you’re a sous chef working for me, you are not above the law. You are very much in line, if not even more so accountable for what we stand for. I think that’s something that I’ve done throughout. Looking at my time at Le Bernardin, my time at Per Se, French Laundry and other places. Really, what did I love working there? What were the things I could take away? Some of the things that I understand why it was like that, but I think we can do it differently in some ways.

I think, lastly, is these chefs had a mentality of creating opportunity for us. I know Erik Ripert was very supportive of me going to Per Se when I left there, and helping me make that bridge for certain with Chef Keller. Creating opportunity and supporting me in those roles that I took on from one place to the next. I spent a decade working for him in three different restaurants, and the Bocuse d’Or and never grew tired of the opportunity that I had. Creating opportunity is part of that. A big piece comes with allowing them to blossom, find a place to cultivate that talent and keep it working under you and not traveling elsewhere.

How to Recharge

Kirk Bachmann: Chef, for you personally, how do you recharge? How do you find innovation? Is it through travel, family time, exercise, meditation? I imagine you don’t have a lot of time, but with all these different projects going on, where do you find the time to bring that inspiration out?

Philip Tessier: I’d say the last two years that’s been pretty hard. everything’s been sort of restricted and shut down. I think we’ve found a lot of that here locally. Again, just couldn’t be more thankful that I’ve been where I have been, seeing some of the challenges that others have gone through. It hasn’t been easy here by any means.

I think for me, a lot of exercise is really when I know I’m at my best. When I’m not doing that, I know I need to get back to it. Cycling, running. I love playing pretty much any sport. Soccer is my favorite. I have three kids and my wife does pastry. We met in culinary school.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow! That’s great.

Philip Tessier: I’m fortunate she understands what it takes to be in this business. I make sure that when I’m outside of here, I spend that time with my family. That’s pretty critical. I’ve found that balance isn’t two scales at an even level, but more so the pendulum swings this way, and you’ve got to make sure it swings back.

Definitely travel is where I think I get the most renewed enthusiasm, being on the receiving side of hospitality experience, or seeing the innovation of another chef, or just exploring ingredients in another place. It just renews that excitement and diversity that you get from this kind of experience. I’d say, collective whole there is really key for maintaining that balance. I’ve learned at this point to know when it’s off balance and what I need to do to get back to it.

I feel really fortunate. I have a family. My wife is super supportive. I obviously wouldn’t be where I am without her.

Find Opportunities By Knocking on the Door

Kirk Bachmann: That alone is your balance. Family. That’s great. I love that response.

Chef, let’s say specifically for Escoffier students or any culinary students that have the desire or the dream to work with chefs at your level, or at least approaching that level. What advice would you give, at the simplest level, for them to climb that ladder? Obviously we’ve talked a lot about grit, humility, tenacity, teamwork, hard work. Anything specific for young culinarians to keep in mind? Not even competition, but just to get to a place of cuisine like you’re working with now.

Philip Tessier: First of all, step one is just knocking on the door. Where we are today, we hire anyone here at Press. We’ve developed a place that’s an environment of learning for whatever skill set you’re at. I’ve hired my friend’s 17-year-old son who has never worked in a kitchen before and is in marines coming back in two months. We’ve hired some good talented cooks, and everything in between. We’re right down the street from a culinary school here. We have the opportunity to have eight or nine students working here at any one time. Never underestimate your ability to contribute. If you’re willing to listen, follow instruction, work hard, you can work anywhere. That’s it, in my opinion.

Ultimately, though, two key things. One of my mentors as a chef at the culinary school at CIA in New York, William Phillips was kind of my mentor for over a year. He always used to say, “I’d rather work at the bottom of the top than at the top of the bottom.” Really, a lot of kids will leave school and go be a sous chef. You’ve just jumped over the great divide here. That money might be there. That position might be there, but your ability to grow beyond that has now been severely limited. I think understanding that having the patience to get in at the bottom and work your way up, and ultimately to really enjoy that journey.

One of my favorite parts of my career was working for free for six months in France. I basically went there and was like, “I don’t have any money. I need to work six days.” “No problem.” If you love what you do, then this is such a wonderful, wonderful career. I used to tell the young kids coming in to French Laundry, “You’re either going to love this job, or it’s going to be the worst job that you’ve ever had, and it’s totally up to you.”

If you want that discipline, if you want that level of push and challenge, and you thrive on that, you’re in the right place. If you just kind of what to learn and get to the next thing and check the box, put in your resume, it’s only going to get you so far. Do it while you’re young. Do it while you can. Life only gets more complicated as you go along.

I think that was some of the key decisions that I made. Just making those sacrifices when I was young. Not having a paycheck didn’t really matter. I worked for free, had a free place to live, ate staff meal, ate some cheese on my days off. It was great. I loved it. I would do it all over again.

Having an Impact

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great storytelling. I love it.

Giving back is really important to you, as a mentor, but also to the community. A few words about your involvement with the Mentor Foundation and No Kid Hungry? Really important to you.

Philip Tessier: When you’ve been given an opportunity like I have, I think you immediately look at how do you translate that to the next. I think there’s a point in every chef’s career – at one point it’s all about your achievements and what you’re doing, and at some point along side that comes the opportunity you have to create that opportunity for others. Some of our reward, in a sense, comes from seeing those young chefs go on and do their thing, knowing that you had a role in that success.

I think for me, Mentor has been a huge part of Bocuse d’Or. They’re the organization behind Bocuse d’Or in the USA. Their Young Chef’s competitions and scholarship program really is 100 percent focused on exactly this. I think with other things we’ve done, most recently, is the local community. Through the pandemic here, we started a program called Feed our Families with the Boys and Girls’ Club here. I think collectively we did about 30,000 meals throughout the course of the year at the height of the pandemic. Seeing the impact of that in the community on those involved in executing that has been really extraordinary.

Just again, it goes to show the opportunity we have to impact as an industry, as chefs. You look at what Jose Andres does across the world with his program and others. It’s a constant reminder that if we make it just about us, we’ll achieve an award. You’ll get the recognition, and it’ll eventually disappear. The accolades come and go and people forget, and people move on. Especially in today’s world, it’s the news of today that matters. I think when you look at the impact you can have on a community and the impact you can have on individuals, that’s something that actually lives on and continues forward.

I think balancing the investment of our time and attention on both pieces is really critical.

Chef Philip Tessier’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Thank you for that work.

Chef, we’re getting a little close to the end of our time today. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So here comes the toughest question: what is, Chef, the ultimate dish in your world?

Philip Tessier: The general answer to that would be a dish that gives you a real sense of place. Not only a sense of place, but of a moment in time. I think there is a specific meal for me going to Bistro Maxim’s in Paris and just walking through the door, smelling pork fat and truffles.

Kirk Bachmann: I knew you were going to go to France.

Philip Tessier: Something I’ll never forget. That was a memorable meal. Maybe heightened by the fact that we’d just done really well in the Bocuse d’Or. I don’t know. I think that experience – and there’s multiple stories like that – just having that sense of place, moment in time. It’s winter. it’s cold. That warm feeling when you walk through the doors. It’s a beautiful thing.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love that. Chef, thank you so much. Congratulations on all the success. We’re honored to have had this time with you today. Best of luck going forward, and I hope we can send some Escoffier students your way soon.

Philip Tessier: Let us know. We’re here. Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you, Chef.

And thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast brought to you by August Escoffier School for Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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