I began my career being mentored by 1 amazing southern cook, 2 amazing Executive Chefs... and 1 Master Chef - both German chefs were strict and insanely organized in their own ways... and one Italian American chef whose flavor profile blew me away (so much so that I externed in Northern Italy to search my soul after that) and I took a pay cut and a station cut to be a humble servant in his kitchen. He once said to me: "Lesa, why are you so quiet? And I said "Chef, I like to focus -and I can't let you down." This chef was famous for screaming: "SILENCE!" In the kitchen when the cooks' line got too loud. He felt it was a distraction from the food, his signature menu, and he'd lecture the line to chill out and re-focus, lest they miss a salient detail. I felt I understood him on some level - we both would prep silently in the kitchen for hours until the other cooks arrived. I had the opportunity to earn extra hours, just because he liked my work and temperament. I learned so much just silently working with and around Michael. He would prep the proteins for service, I'd watch him like a hawk - the way he seasoned, the way his presence with food informed ala minute choice - the quiet competence he worked with informed every step. He was discerning.
Chef Hauck taught me how to organize any kitchen brigade as well as classic french technique. Those tools he learned and improvised from being a student of Escoffiers' legacy. He taught me teamwork. And patience. And more focus. And made me read truly boring books about how to organize production ala Escoffiers' style of management and report back. And I devoured it happily... Chef Hauck never broke a sweat. And I thought if I could do that and not break a sweat - I know on some level my skills are integrating.
Master Chef Handke taught me true self confidence in cookery. Not to be confused with arrogance at all. Master Chef Handke was famous for giving away recipes to patrons who fell in love with a particular dish. I asked him, 'Chef why do you give away your recipes? They could be in a book! Do you give them all of the ingredients?' Chef replied, "Yes, I give them everything. I hold nothing back." Why I asked? "Because they cannot possibly re-create it with the same eyes, heart, palate and focus. That is one of a kind."
At the time, I just said - "Thank you chef." Obviously, it took years to really understand what he was referring to. On the one hand, I had one chef tell me that every single food dish we could conceive of has already been done before (deflating and humbling because I genuinely believe it's true - chef work has been around hundreds of years) .... and then I had another chef tell me no one could make a dish like him because it comes from his own interpretation of what that dish truly is. I believe both to be true. It takes years of practice to execute flawlessly. It takes deep drive, deep focus and profound mastery to execute flawlessly beautiful cuisine and to not stray from the process by selling out to 'good enough'. Good enough might make a fun PB&J sandwich, but 'good enough' can't possibly pay attention to the finer elements of a beef bourguignon. And though beef bourguignon has been made by many wonderful chefs, Master Chef Handke's interpretation was truly extra-ordinary.
These were pure experiences of chefs who hired a kid with zero experience but a good heart. At the time, I wasn't sure I would have any talent for this industry - but I just knew I had to explore this cooking thing, investigate it a bit and see for myself. I was doing well in academia... passionate about a teaching career, with a double major in Elementary Education and a minor in Psychology. From the outside - I was doing well - on the Dean's List, consecutive years.
On a summer break from my usual 18 credit hour load - I needed the summer off to switch gears, and decompress by working my tail off. A friend who was a Social worker for a Non Profit Foundation - asked me to apply at the local non profit as an assistant housing manager for the summer. I did - was hired and began working shifts there. I'd do things like coordinate appointments (there were many) and shop and prep for dinner.
The residents were a mix of people, men/women, gay/straight, multiethnic. I had to attend trainings, both for hospice and alcohol/drug seminars of recognizing the subtle sings of abuse. It was a lot - but It shaped me greatly. When I noticed the residents only ate certain foods... I called the staff nutritionist who insisted that I just "Cook Them What They Crave." Watching caloric intake was not what the residents needed - they needed crave worthy food. The medication often destroyed their appetite and was a real issue for the evolution of the disease during those years. And Steve, a black male resident from Tennessee, wanted to teach me how to cook as my family also hailed from southern cooking as well. He was too weak to stand, but asked if he directed me... would I take the direction to create a great meal. I agreed. And the smells that emanated were mesmerizing and absolutely everyone came to eat at the table that night.
I was hooked! I was completely elated and began cooking for them every night - storing freezer meals on my days off so my co-workers could just re-heat in the oven and the residents had something yummy to eat that really sounded good. Without even knowing it, I had informally become a personal chef. I cannot tell you how great it felt to be taught legit soul food from a guy who had become a dear friend of mine (he passed on Feb. 14th 1999- I was there when he left us). He was a great friend and mentor into all things soul...with some food tips in there as well. My very 1st Executive Chef position... I felt him there on my first night of service.
After Steve's passing, the non profit lost funding, and I finished the summer there and then in the fall went to work for Chef Hauck, then Chef Michael, then Master Chef for over 12 years.
All of this inspiration at 5 am to say... these initial relationships changed me as a culinarian. In fact, tough as they were at times... these experiences made me a better chef and leader. I can tell you that after many years in food - I have not once forgotten any of them for their pivotal role.
So I wonder... how many people still mentor these days? It's easy to see that all of my early mentors really shaped my interest in food and presently I hear far too many stories of a lack of professional mentoring, and it's part of my journey to have been both a mentee and now a mentor. Cooking is a great way for me to pay forward everything I have learned to entreprenuers, with several dashes of my own travels and work abroad, my own learning curves, high volume scaling and inevitable tough parts of the journey. Regardless the next gen of chefs await - So what are you teaching them??
The next generation need to learn from us - and chefs who continue to push, grow and evolve in their own career, need not worry about being replaced by incumbents as is often the concern. It takes years to gain true integration in a variety of venues, disciplines, and cuisines. True mentors are needed to guide the next generation of chefs - my generation (gen X) needs to stand up, stay competitive and leave a legacy. The future of food awaits - the leaders of the next era - need our wisdom. What they do with that - is entirely up to them.
I'd love to know -
What gets in the way of mentoring at your venue?
Have you tried to mentor younger chefs - what was the outcome? How was it approached?