By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC
hink back to when you were just starting out. Maybe it was at the age of 15 or 16, that first job as a dishwasher. Not a glamorous position, but nonetheless, important. While diving for pearls, you had a chance to watch what was going on in the prep kitchen and maybe even admire the intensity and grace of those swashbuckling line cooks. When you were caught up with dishes, maybe the chef gave you an opportunity to peel potatoes, onions and carrots. Again, not glamorous, but it was a start.
Then there was that first Saturday when the breakfast cook was buried in tickets and he yelled to you to jump on the line.
That first taste was relegated to setting up plates, cutting orange garnishes and laying a rasher of bacon on plates when called for, but it sure was great. This became a standard operating procedure during peak rush on every breakfast you worked.
You were hooked.
Maybe, just maybe, you are where you are — line cook, sous chef, chef — because of the early opportunities that came your way.
That chef who is taking the time to invest in you; providing you with challenges, day in and day out; insisting that you do things correctly, never wavering from a standard of excellence; and pushing you to constantly improve your skills is your mentor, your guide on the side. Many professionals can relate to this scenario and recognize the doors that open because of this dedicated mentor.
Whether that chef was the first you worked with, the one who has the title in your restaurant today or is the chef instructor in school, he or she knew that part of the responsibility of being a chef is to pass it on. Passing it on has been, for generations, a standard of operation for chefs. In fact, until a few decades ago, this process was an expectation of any one in a restaurant leadership position.
The Guild System of Europe provided formal and informal roots for the American workforce, noting that chefs and managers were expected to build their workforce from the bottom up. Training, mentorships and apprenticeship were the methods used, and they were used quite effectively. It was a hands-on approach towards building a skilled labor force and preparing individuals for a lifetime career in food. Whether affiliated with a formal apprenticeship model or one designed specifically for a given property, imbedded in the program was the requirement of immersion in the job and the ability to learn while doing it.
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
― Benjamin Franklin
This mentorship was, for years, the way it worked. After all, it probably worked this way, at some level, for you. Now it’s time to look at those dishwashers, breakfast cooks, prep cooks, line cooks and culinary students in your kitchen and realize that with the right guidance, they could become the next wave of accomplished chefs and restaurateurs.
“Every beginner possesses a great potential to be an expert in his or her chosen field.” ― Lailah Gifty Akita, Think Great: Be Great!
How would you envision these individuals in the role of chef? What traits, skills, and attitudes would you like to see evident in their roles as leaders? How could you help?
- GIVE THEM A CHANCE – Look for opportunities to engage your young staff and provide them with chances to grow. This is not only good for them but also an essential method of retaining good staff.
- TEACH THEM WHY – As your cooks grow through experience, they will need to become problem-solvers and standard-bearers of excellence. Unless they know why things are done a certain way, this end result will be difficult to achieve.
- SHOW THEM HOW – Real learning takes place when you demonstrate the correct process and allow each cook to replicate that process. Most cooks are tactile learners; they need to experience the process for it to really sink in.
- PROVIDE HONEST CRITIQUE – Critique versus criticism requires that the mentor not only point out what is wrong but, more importantly, show the individual how to make it right.
- PUSH THEM TO THEIR POTENTIAL – Good isn’t good enough. Assume that everyone wants to excel at his or her job, and make sure that they never accept anything but a level of excellence with every task.
- CHALLENGE THEM – Push the cook outside of his or her comfort zone. Give them a chance to grow every day.
- LISTEN AND COUNSEL THEM – Give each cook the opportunity to voice his or her opinions, concerns, frustrations and confusion. Great mentors are excellent listeners and always follow up with wise suggestions – even ones that make the cook uncomfortable.
- DEMONSTRATE HOW TO LEAD PEOPLE – Young cooks will emulate the way that you operate and how you treat people (employees, peers, servers, vendors, etc.) Make sure that you walk the talk. Be the example.
- INVOLVE THEM IN THE PROCESS OF BECOMING BUSINESS SAVVY -Encourage cooks to join you on inventory day, negotiating with vendors, developing weekly staff schedules and even share how you come up with performance numbers. At some point, this will become their job.
- CELEBRATE THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS – As important as it is to critique, becoming a cook’s cheerleader is essential in building confidence and setting the stage for his or her lifelong success in the field.
“Leaders should influence others in such a way that it builds people up, encourages and edifies them so they can duplicate this attitude in others.” ― Bob Goshen
Your legacy as a cook or chef is not in the recognition that comes your way, but rather in the type of leaders that you help to guide through mentorship. Invest in others; it’s the right thing to do, and it is incredibly rewarding.
Pictured above: ACF Central Region Student Chef of the Year, sponsored by Custom Culinary®, Shayne McCrady, sauté cook/line cook, The Gatesworth at One McKnight Place, St. Louis; Chefs de Cuisine Association of St. Louis Inc