4 Ways to Better Mentor Your Culinary Crew

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Once, after having personally cooked a staff meal for the prep crew, I stood off to the side with my sous chef, beaming like a proud poppa as they tore into the food. My sous chef, sensing my smugness, elbowed me into the present by saying, “Don’t think for a moment that just because you cooked them a meal that any one of them wouldn’t gut you like a fish in your sleep.”

Shocked at his assertion, I asked him what he meant. “Telling people what to do isn’t the same thing as leading them,” he replied.

I walked away, dazed and confused. I considered how I came up and the way my chefs had treated me — hazing, denigration, and humiliation were all tactics employed by those that were my de facto role models. If it was good for the goose, wasn’t it also good for the gander?

Had I, up to that point in my career, only been an empty, starched white jacket pushing people around with the authority afforded my position?

Such began my 20-year investigation into culinary leadership best practices. I ultimately discovered that what is most often described as leadership is, in actual application, mentorship.

The Importance of Mentorship

Most, if not all, of us can remember that magic moment in our careers when someone older, wiser, and more skilled took an interest in us.

It took me almost burning my career and life to ashes to realize there was someone right in front of me who saw me beyond my position on the schedule, held me to the possibility of greatness, and was willing to mentor me.

Once I let go of my hubris, arrogance, and bravado, I became a willing participant in that relationship — and it changed my life forever. Without that grounded relationship, I would have become a statistic, another casualty of promise squandered.

That man, Ed Jamison, was my mentor. Who was that for you in your life and career?

Shifting the Way We Lead

“Leader” is defined as “any person or thing that leads or conducts, one who goes first, one having authority to direct, or as a person or thing that leads in a certain field in terms of excellence or success.”

In some industries, this would seem to be enough. But in today’s economy, where most kitchens are chronically understaffed, we may need to shift our perspective about how we lead and coach our teams. The current statistics state that for each employee we lose who makes less than $30K a year, replacement and training costs an average $3,800 per employee. If a moral imperative won’t sway you to consider changing your leadership style, then the economics sure as hell should.

“Mentor,” on the other hand, is defined as “a knowledgeable person who holds vast experience and perspective in a particular area who is open to sharing his or her life experiences in order to advance the personal and professional growth of a younger person.”

Consider that a good leader isn’t necessarily always a good mentor, but a good mentor will always be a good leader.

Beyond Best Practices

Chefs today are often asked to wear many hats — leader, coach, teacher, trainer, father, confessor, addiction counselor, human resources specialist, etc. — and often with little or no formal training. If we stack those hats and compress them into two main ones, they might look like:

  1. Teaching Skills & Training Best Practices, and

  2. Mentoring Maturity

Everyone can probably agree on point No. 1, but some might balk at No. 2.

“Chef, isn’t it enough to teach skills? Shouldn’t prospective crew members show up already armed with maturity?”

The short answer is “yes.” It would be reasonable to expect someone to conduct themselves professionally, but just because they should doesn’t always mean that they will.

More often than not, today’s culinary crew members come into your kitchens’ uninitiated and immature. This is not a judgement or slam; it’s simply an observation. Hadn’t I been a young shining light once, too? Wasn’t I once completely ungrounded, a wild mix of talent, hope, and energy?

If we ever want to get out of the endless cycle of hiring and training replacement employees, we’re going to need to dig deeper and apply techniques on how to be better mentors. Our biggest success in our careers should be the legions of mature professionals mentored in our kitchen laboratories who have moved on and become great mentors themselves. It is not an obligation, but an opportunity, to secure a legacy beyond our momentary culinary achievements.

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4 Ways to Become a Better Mentor

1. Realize that you can mentor anyone at any time.

Every moment of contact with an associate is an opportunity to mentor…if we take the time to see them beyond what they do for us. It takes just a few moments to ask about their home life, their family, or their passions.

2. Always model consistent best practices.

From a crisp uniform to addressing fellow associates in a respectful manner, always use your best judgment and manners when conducting your business.

Remember that your crew is constantly looking to you for emotional cues on how to react in the kitchen. Show them what mature professionalism looks like when handling stressful situations.

Role-play similar situations with your mentees one-on-one so that they are prepared when they first face the fire, and learn how not to take it personally.

3. Be emotionally intelligent.

The difference between a mentor/mentee relationship versus a coaching or training relationship is longevity. For long-term success, the mentee is best served when you are sincere, vulnerable, and discreet. “Banking emotional capital” is a process best done when people see each other as human beings and separate from what they do for a living. Use mentoring moments — whether you’re next to them dicing vegetables, setting up a station for service, or plating a banquet — as a way to share stories of when you were coming up, the challenges you faced, and how you overcame them.

4. Talk less, listen more.

This may be tough for some of us, but it pays off huge dividends in the end. Most of us have been taught that, for an operation to run cohesively, there can only be one voice in the room. If you’re expediting service for 300, then you would be right. However, when it comes to mentoring, the science is not only to find the right question to ask, but to listen — actively.

Value is added to a relationship when you allow someone else to have a voice. You are still the decision maker, but inviting others as stakeholders to the conversation builds camaraderie and a sense of community. I know a chef who holds almost all meetings by committee, creating space for others to build their critical thinking skills. More often than not, their communal decisions are the same as he would have come to unilaterally, but now, everyone else is emotionally invested in the decision.

Active listening takes courage because you’re opening yourself up to the opinions of others. A grounded, mature chef will always want an inclusive environment because he or she has nothing to fear. It does not diminish his or her authority, but further cements him or her as a great mentor.

All culinarians remember the stories of chefs who led them, but they’ll often only tell the tale of that one chef who was a true mentor.