TODAY'S CHEF: Must cook, and do much, much more. (James O'Brien / For the Times)

When I was learning to cook, I never dreamed I'd wind up designing a line of porcelain.

In those days I believed I would be a chef at one restaurant with one menu and in one kitchen for my whole life. That was the way chefs had always worked.

Instead, I find myself in a generation of chefs whose responsibilities extend well beyond the kitchen. There is a whole new way of looking at the job -- one that none of us has been trained for.

Chefs today are businessmen as much as they are cooks. Rather than just preparing dishes in a kitchen, we are involved in balancing profit-and-loss statements, analyzing business plans and exploring new ventures.

We have opportunities earlier generations of chefs never dreamed of. But in some ways, that makes our jobs even harder.

Setting priorities

WITH SO many avenues open, how do we choose which to pursue?

On the one hand, we have tremendous possibilities, and even obligations, to develop our businesses and help our staffs grow and prosper. I'm incredibly proud that three chefs who won awards from the James Beard Foundation this year came out of the French Laundry kitchen.

But at the same time, we need to make sure that whatever we do, we are staying true to who we are as chefs.

Certainly, we must be dynamic and open to change. Success, for all of us, lies in adapting to meet new demands. Charles Darwin summed it up best: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives . . . it is the one that is most adaptable to change."

But even while we must be flexible, we must also remain true to our core beliefs and philosophy.

When I first started cooking, it was the rituals of work that I enjoyed: I took pleasure in working daily to improve whatever it was I was doing, whether it was sliding the rack into the dishwasher perfectly, or working for two years trying to perfect making hollandaise sauce.

Then I went to work for Roland Henin, a chef who showed me that cooking is not just a job. Cooking is about having awareness and sensitivity to the point that you feel a connection to the food and your customers. It is not only about satisfying yourself, but also satisfying other people.

He gave me a book, "Ma Gastronomie" by Fernand Point (1897-1955), the chef and owner at La Pyramide in France. For Point, running a restaurant was about the total experience -- the ambience, the wine, the guests and the cuisine.

Point insisted on Baccarat for crystal, his china was Limoges -- no detail was insignificant. He once said, "I'm not hard to please, I'm content with the very best."

It was this book that changed my perspective on what the role of a chef really is. I aspired not only to focus on cuisine, but on every aspect of the guests' experience.

When I opened the French Laundry, my goals were simple: Pay back my investors, improve the restaurant, and offer good benefits to my staff.

After two years my accountant called and told me that for the first time we had finally made a profit -- $17. But once we'd celebrated, the question became: What next?

It soon became clear to me that -- without abandoning those original goals -- I could do more.