Thomas Keller On Why Passion Shouldn’t Drive You

One of America’s greatest chefs explains why passion isn’t the driving force of his work.

Even if you aren’t a foodie, chances are, you’ve heard the name Thomas Keller—the creative culinary force behind The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon. A while back, I interviewed Keller for a piece on culinary schools published in Lucky Peach. But as with any article, a lot was left on the cutting room floor.

The best bit was a surprising tangent about passion versus desire. It’s one of those things that’s haunted me—in a good way!—ever since. And rather than let them rot away inside a Google doc, I thought I’d share Keller’s thoughts here with you:

It’s not about passion. Passion is something that we tend to overemphasize, that we certainly place too much importance on. Passion ebbs and flows. To me, it’s about desire. If you have constant, unwavering desire to be a cook, then you’ll be a great cook. If it’s only about passion, sometimes you’ll be good and sometimes you won’t. You’ve got to come in every day with a strong desire. With passion, if you see the first asparagus of the springtime and you become passionate about it, so much the better, but three weeks later, when you’ve seen that asparagus every day now, passions have subsided. What’s going to make you treat the asparagus the same? It’s the desire.

Of course, while Keller’s words refer specifically to cooking, there’s no reason this philosophy couldn’t be applied to your craft, whatever it may be. Because while anyone can do impressive work during those fleeting moments of inspiration fueled by a particularly good cup of coffee, it’s the love for the grind that make the good consistently great. Or so I’m told.

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29 Comments

  • DMC

    I really wish the writer, the chef, and the majority of the people commenting here would pick up a dictionary and learn the clearly defined and absolute meanings of these two words.
    What's being said here is a personal philosophy.

    My personal philosophy about what I do, for example, doesn't involve passion or desire in any form whatsoever, because I know what the two words mean.

  • DMC

    I really wish the writer, the chef, and the majority of the people commenting here would pick up a dictionary and learn the clearly defined and absolute meanings of these two words.
    What's being said here is a personal philosophy.

    My personal philosophy about what I do, for example, doesn't involve passion or desire in any form whatsoever, because I know what the two words mean.

  • downpour

    Passion and desire are the wrong words to use as they are too close in meaning. If I say I have a passion for art, I mean I have a permanent love of it. It's not something that comes and goes. If I say I have a strong desire to eat chocolate cake, that doesn't necessarily mean I will always feel that way.

    To me, passion simply means to have a strong feeling about something, whereas desire means to have a longing for something. The idea of a permanent feeling that the chief is trying to get across, does not apply to either word. If anything, I would say he is using the words the wrong way round.

  • Rainskei

    I think that perhaps a more apt word to describe that idea of a flurry of devotion that bleeds into indifference would be infatuation.

  • Chef Steve

    Chef Keller should stick to being a chef instead of an authority on the English language. The choice of words that someone uses to express their connection to their profession is personal. For Chef Keller to diminish the meaning of passion as less significant than desire may reflect his personal opinion but by no means should be considered a philosophy.
    Pick up an edition of Webster's dictionary and you'll find that passion is much more deep seated than desire even if you accentuate it by saying strong desire.

  • Gourmand

    Mincing words is really the wrong way of going about it. I do understand what he is trying to say, but defining passion and desire in this context is silly. I guess he was asked an for an opinion and he gave it, albeit in a convoluted way. I guess he is trying to say that after the 1000th time preparing something, it takes dedication to execute this function as if it were the first time.

  • Bradford

     You don't get what he's saying, Chef Steve...please stop arguing your personal interpretation of semantics...I find it mildly annoying to my desire to remain free from the extremes of passion anywhere except in my lovers' embrace...That does'nt happen during the dinner rush...

  • Art Eats Law

    Spot-on. So many clients rush into business and into purchases with best intentions, but run out of gas along the trip. Particularly food clients...

  • Aaron Haas

    just wanted to put this out there

     Passion: any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling 
     Desire: a longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoymen

  • Cloudcityrocks

    For all of those confused... Thomas is describing consistency .. the most important asset in the Restaurant industry.  Passion can bring you to greater heights for shorter periods of time... Desire keeps you high enough for long enough to weather the storm that sinks most restaurants... passion alone  does not do this...

  • Clyde_R1

    Cassette makes a great point. What does one do as an entrpreneur, a passionate one, at 3 in the morning when I wake up and my mind, thoughts and aspirations are most vulnerable..." Am I doing the right thing, can I really get this accomplished, do I have enough resources" Passion seems to be out the window at that point and the nightmares take place. He is correct in having the desire...which keeps my passions alive.
    When the sun gets up, when I spash my face with water...I see more clearly. Passion has everything to do with this. Passion definately clouds some of the realities I face but every day there is a new challange and without passion I will not make that connection to my reality, deliver tenaciously and inspire my people and myself to be the best at what they do.
    I dont always succeed. In fact failure is delivered daily in many ways and in varying degrees and is most often the case. But my passion keeps it alive.
    I have learned that my passion for food and service crosses many paths and can engage those around to succeed and find their passions.
    If I were not passionate I would not press on in the face of obstacles.
    I get a thrill showing my passion and at times it can be overwhelming for my staff, but they all know one thing...if they are passionate and respect themselves and what we all do they can create an environment that is inspiring and rewarding personally.
    That may be "polyanna-ish" but when these powers come together its awesome in the real sense of the word.
    Desire I can relate to personally, but passion everyone can see and feel.

  • Angela Roberts

    I have to agree with another commenter. This is semantics with and I'll add over analyzing 

  • cassette_walkman

    I think the driving force of any work is NOT what you do when your feel the passion, desire or love,  BUT it's what you DO do on the days when you don't feel those emotions. That you still drag yourself in, apply yourself and work. Head down, arse up solid work, when it's the last thing on earth you feel like doing.

    THAT defines tenanacity, when you know it's a a down patch and you have to just knuckle down until you feel it come back. When you immerse yourself back in it is amazing how fast the passion and desire does come back.

    I've learned little tricks in my field to do this. Literally what to do when faced with a blank page and nothing is there. Routines to approaching work whether it's the creative and concept stage or the physical construction stage. It's important to recognise that we are human and naturally somewhat inconsistant; an ebb and flow. If we're in an ebb the flow will come next.

    The real considerations for me are: Enjoy it and be good at it.

  • Danielle P

    I think that's called "responsibility." It's going to work even when I don't want to, because I have to.

    We can argue semantics all day, but I think whatever you call it the idea is the same - all elephants are gray, but not everything that's gray is an elephant. Passion is an elephant, whereas motivation/desire/ambition/success or whatever - that's gray.

  • ChefJzy

    As a chef who has taught culinary students, passion represents a love for the game.  It's the rush of performance, the pressure, living on the edge of catastrophe and the reward of audience love for your work.  I prefer Tenacity for Desire.  Underneath the flash is the tenacity to hone your craft....a love to chop onions, make the stock, buy the right ingredients and create the experience and all for little money (except Keller?).  That takes tenacity.  Passion gets accolades, tenacity breeds success. 

  • $487483

    Desire without Persistence is Passion without Energy. Try to help the regular folks like your Aunt Alice in the schoolyard and hold the coffee bean-flavored air.