7 do’s and don’ts for mentoring apprentices


Happy National Apprenticeship Week! Now in its fifth year, this nationwide celebration gives businesses, communities and educators the opportunity to showcase their apprenticeship programs and apprentices while providing valuable information to career seekers. NAW 2019 is observed on November 11-17, 2019.

ACFEF Apprenticeship programs provide an invaluable opportunity for budding culinary professionals to learn their craft on the job as well as in a kitchen — a true trial by fire, if you will. Apprentices who put their all into the program come out as chefs with a wealth of knowledge and skills — not to mention months or years of experience working on a real line.

But they’re not the only ones who benefit. Apprentices give chefs an extra set of hands in the kitchen, foster teamwork among the rest of the staff, and allow the chef to pass on their expertise to future professionals who often end up being their most loyal employees.

But in order to truly reap these benefits — and to be a benefit to their apprentices — chefs should also be committed and invest time and effort into these students to teach them what they need to know. No matter how busy it is, it’s important for chefs to be great mentors — and the following dos and don’ts can help you develop the important skills great mentors have.

Apprentice and chef cooking together

Do limit the number of apprentices you have. With the vast amount of material that has to be covered throughout an apprenticeship, it’s best to limit the number of people you teach at one time so you’re not spreading yourself too thin. Since every apprentice you work with will have different skill levels and needs, taking on too many may result in someone’s education falling through the cracks.

Don’t make assumptions.  You have a certain style when you work in the kitchen. Your regular employees know that, but your apprentice doesn’t. In order to be a good mentor, you should avoid making assumptions about whether or not your apprentices always know what you’re talking about. 

“I think assumptions can really get a lot of people in trouble in their program,” says Chris McCook, executive chef at Athens Country Club in Georgia. “Just because someone is going along and doing well, and not constantly following up and asking questions, we can really do them a disservice if we take for granted that they know something, or we assume they do. I think that’s just setting them up, and the operation, for failure.” 

Do display your passion. You’re passionate about cooking and you’re a great subject matter expert — that’s why you’re in the position you’re in. In order to be a great mentor, you have to display that passion as you teach your apprentices even the most basic tasks. When you care about the quality of the education you give your students, you are also caring for your entire team and your customers because the quality of the work and morale in the kitchen increases with your passion.  

Don’t teach by recipe alone. Although during busy times, chefs may give their apprentices a recipe and expect them to learn a technique, John Johnstone, vice president of Food and Beverage at The Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, says good mentors will take advantage of the inherently visual nature of chefs by actually showing them what to do. 

“Chefs are visual learners. Sure, you can learn from reading a book, but reading a book will tell you how to do something, it doesn’t show you,” he says. “And that’s the great thing about our craft: it’s about skill. Just because you can read a recipe doesn’t mean to say that it’s going to taste good. It’s all technique. It’s when, how, where, and these are things that you can only learn on the stove, you can only learn on the cutting board. It’s the unwritten things that make the difference, which is all in technique.”   

Do regularly evaluate your apprentices. Although you’re watching your apprentices’ performance on a daily basis, you may forget to formally sit down with them to let them know how they’re doing. Employees continuously want to know if they’re doing a good job, so in order to be a good mentor, it’s important to make a point of meeting with apprentices regularly to let them know where they stand. However, in order to keep these workers motivated, it’s important to always find positive things to say during these meetings.

“Even in the world’s worst cook, I can find something positive that they do, even if they just show up to work on time or have a sense of urgency even though they’re making mistakes,” said William Racin, Pastry Chef at The Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh. “I always find something positive so they leave the meeting knowing that I’m trying to help them succeed.”

Don’t forget to regularly evaluate yourself. No mentor is perfect, so as you’re evaluating the performance of your apprentice, it’s also important to think about your own. This kind of introspection can help you consider your strengths and weaknesses as a leader, which will allow you to adopt different approaches so you can become more effective and bring out a better performance in your trainees.

Do commit to lifelong learning. Just because you’re a skilled professional who is teaching the next generation of chefs doesn’t mean you don’t have anything left to learn. The best mentors are lifelong learners who stay on the cutting edge of what’s developing in the kitchen. And when you increase your own knowledge, you also invigorate your desire to share more and more with your employees.

ACFlogo_tag_CMYK_lowresIf you would like to learn more about starting an ACFEF apprenticeship program in your kitchen or becoming an ACFEF apprentice, please click here.

Questions? Send an e-mail to our Apprenticeship department or call us at (904) 484-0217.