What it Means to Mentor

Standard

I talk a lot about the food industry–what chefs are doing, culinary events, trends, brands. But the topic I find myself most interested in talking about these days is “mentorship”.

Spell check doesn’t like that word, which is an interesting indicator of how far the concept has to go to become a legitimate part of US professional and educational ethos. We’re a bootstrapping, go-your-own-way culture that prides itself on instant, self-made successes; not the plodding, committed, life long trajectories our grandfathers and great-grandfathers would have called successes. We, as a country and as a culture, are so used to going it alone, that we’ve forgotten there is a whole constellation of people out there who are ready, willing and excited to teach us and help us on our way.

Australia and the UK have been rocking mentorship for decades through its young apprentice and trainee trade programs run mostly by state and national organizations as a way of creating skill sets and job opportunities among youth who might typically have gone straight from high school to unemployment. Back in the day before cooking was high profile, cooking was a trade. If you were a line cook, you were just as sexy as the plumber or electrician. Since its meteoric rise in popularity, these countries have capitalized on the chef phenomenon and put their culinary apprentice programs front-and-center for the world to see. And people want in.

The US, perhaps because of its tendency to eschew anything that smacks of old world thinking, has yet to emulate these successful programs, opting instead to have aspiring cooks choose between a long, grossly underpaid climb up the ladder and an exorbitantly priced culinary school education.

Until recently.

Over the past year or so there has been a quiet groundswell of interest in the concept of culinary apprenticeships here. “Why isn’t anyone doing this?” kind of conversations began. Even LA Weekly wrote an op-ed piece discussing the merits of staging versus formal culinary education.

When I left dineLA in 2011, I was a year in on a fleshing out a business model that formalized the chef stage experience. Business plan…check. Investors…check. Committed, noteworthy chefs willing to stand behind it…check. California Labor Laws were the hurdle we just couldn’t squeak our way around without playing fast and loose with state regulations on unpaid labor and what it means to apprentice.

I haven’t given up, and there are others who are creating their own interesting ways of supporting this necessary area of opportunity for the industry. Culintro has its Stage Program, which is essentially a pass-through, vetting applicants for chefs and large groups who host paid apprenticeships. Culinary Agents has created a series of “Get Inspired” mentoring events in partnership with some of New York’s biggest restaurant guns. And ment’or BKB, a non-profit created to foster culinary excellence in the US and, ultimately, developing the culinary prowess necessary to represent this country in the Bocuse d’Or.

Leave it to Daniel Boulud to finally walk the walk for us. If it works, his intensive high school apprenticeship program being created in partnership with the New York Department of Education would prove to be the first of its kind on our shores. Created out of necessity as a way of sourcing the skilled labor necessary to feed his restaurant empire, at its core is a solution to a much larger and more expansive need in the US.

I frequently receive emails from young people (ouch) wanting to get into culinary marketing who see me as an example of one way to do it–successfully I hope. I always take the time to respond to their emails, take their calls, offer guidance, suggestions and even introductions. This is how I mentor. Some day I may be able to hire one of these bright young things to help me run my stage program. For now I’ll keep taking their calls.


Photos are from the October 30th ment’or BKB Los Angeles Culinary Competition hosted by Bouchon Beverly Hills. Winner: Lyn Wells from Canyon Park Cafe, Orem, Utah.

mentorBKB.jpg

Good People Doing Good Things

Standard

Image

When I come across something interesting in the culinary world that also happens to be innovative, beautiful and altruistic I immediately want to be involved.

I’ve known Bob Hodson for several years now — our relationship snaking back through my work in the restaurant industry and his day job as a commercial food photographer.

Bob is incurably curious, gregarious, and in love with the world of delicious food and passionate, inspired chefs. So much so that he began to carve out time from his work schedule to cultivate a passion project called Chef’s Insight. The site is essentially a photographic journey into the process and inspiration of a chef. He’ll go as deep as the chef will allow, capturing raw, fly-on-the-wall images that help to tell the story of the personality and the food born from it. For Bob I believe the work fills a need to connect with that beauty and craftsmanship he so admires. For others (like me), it is a sumptuous, voyeuristic culinary experience.

How could I not want to be involved?

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at last week’s shoot with Chef Jimmy Shaw of Loteria Grill. Stay tuned for Jimmy’s feature and, in the meantime, devour what’s already there.

Chef's Insight / Jimmy Shaw

Chef’s Insight / Jimmy Shaw

Leveraging Chef Talent

Standard

tacobell

This article covering an article about Taco Bell’s recent rebound demonstrates the power of the culinary world and why more and more people are positioning themselves as brokers within it.

Doritos promotion aside–align yourself with a credible, recognizable chef personality and watch a vast, new audience flood through your door.

The model doesn’t always work (Aaron Sanchez / House of Blues), but if constructed correctly, a partnership with the right culinary talent could help revitalize and reposition your brand.

Mr. Postman

Standard

David Lefevre, MB Post

I left my post as the director of dineLA on March 11, 2011.  I remember the date not so much because it left a mark on me, but because it was my sister’s birthday. The last three months have been a wonderful, fuzzy blur of clients, building websites, tackling passion projects and remembering what it’s like to take time for myself—like with my coffee and journal in the morning, even if it is already 8am.

Interviewing David Lefevre recently while we shot his beautiful new MB Post, I was struck by how palpably he wore his recent transition in his countenance, by how seemingly humbled he was to have stepped into a life that he’d dreamt about for a long time.  I can relate.

New restaurants seem to open every 10 minutes.  For a very long time I was keeping up with most of them, opening the menu in unison with a roomful of 60 others hoping to be surprised.  Generally what we found was numbingly similar to the last new opening.  (I won’t recite the prerequisite list of menu items and small plates here…surely you have them memorized.)  But David’s done something different. He’s having fun.

What’s that?  Come again?

Yes, he’s being irreverent and cheeky and whimsical and a little bit brazen.  He’s given vegetables their due; he’s taken his mom’s favorites and made them better; and he’s cooking for himself in a way that makes us want to invite ourselves over to his place for a Sunday evening. (We’d bring the wine.) But he’s not just cooking for himself, he’s actually cooking exactly what we want—we just didn’t know it until we saw it.

Beluga lentil, shrimp and chorizo soup with yogurt, red onion and cilantro. Blistering green beans with Thai basil, chili sauce and crispy pork. Or the Albondigas! (his exclamation mark) with garnet yam puree, shishito and maple-miso glaze hastily scribbled into the margin of the menu printed earlier in the day.

You’d think the amped up list of elements would create overbearing mouthfuls, but, like his beautiful pomegranate cous cous with lavender feta, marcona almonds and mint (plus a perfect brunoise of cucumber and fragrant fresh melon), they remind us how exciting it is to taste something new. I could get used to that.

MB Post, 1142 Manhattan Ave, Manhattan Beach, 310.545.5405 http://eatmbpost.com/

MB Post

Chef David plating the cous cous

Pomegranate cous cous with lavendar feta, marcona almonds and mint

Vietnamese caramel pork jowl with green papaya

DP Romoff in action

Blistering green beans with Thai basil, chili sauce and crispy pork

Nicely done, chef.

C-CAP, The Future of Food

Standard

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about restaurants, food, where our food comes from, chefs, the people on the line doing the chopping, searing and serving.  It’s interesting when you can trace something back to its source.  These days people are into going back to the growers and the land.  But I’m interested in going back in a different direction–back to the people who may someday be cooking your food. 

Young people these days have not even a dim memory of the Home Ec classes of yesteryear.  They probably know what they know of food from television or a parent if they’re lucky.  Or maybe they have a friend or family member that works in the industry.  They know its tough work, long hours, not so great pay, but there’s something that calls them to it. 

I serve on the LA Board for C-CAP–Careers Through the Culinary Arts Profession–an organization that works with public schools to prepare high school students for college and career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry.  Each year we hold a series of cooking competitions where students use the skills they’ve learned from C-CAP instructors and industry mentors to compete for scholarships to culinary programs and community colleges across the country. 

As a past culinary graduate and culinarian I am often asked to judge these competitions.  Now…I judge at culinary events pretty regularly–Pellegrino’s Almost Famous Chef Competition, The Chocolate Salon, this weekend’s Cochon 555, but this experience is different. 

The competitors are all under 18, but they’re the most regal looking chefs you’ve ever seen, each trying to display a bit of their own style through their uniforms and cooking paraphanalia.  And, while they’re all executing the exact same dishes as their fellow students, you can see the yearning to be different and the little pops of style here and there.  They’re intense. They’re nervous.  And they’re…they’d hate me for saying this…so sweet. 

It seems amazing that kids with the entire world at their feet would choose this profession.  Whether they think it’s a safe toss, or something to really strive for, they’re coming.  Coming in droves. 

I wish them the best of luck. 

Jet Tila, Bistronomics and the “Bleeding Edge” of Asian Food in the US

Standard

Jet Tila

Having grown up in LA, the name “Jet Tila” wafted around a bit like an urban legend. I kept hearing his name, but had never tasted his food or even known what that food might look like. Until one day I had the opportunity to attend a private dinner put on by KCRW host and Angeli Caffe chef/owner Evan Kleiman. She and Jet took over a small, unassuming Thai restaurant in a strip mall on Vermont Avenue.  With two long tables, the 30-or-so of us consumed the entire space and what ensued was a crazy parade of intense, unfamiliar flavors shepherded by Jet.  Sure now he’s got his million-dollar Thai Vegas temple and has his hands in several large-scale commercial ventures, but to me he’ll always be the pied piper of Thai food.

I caught up with Jet after his recent Bistronomics 1.0.

Carrie Kommers: Where are you now?  What are you up to?
Jet Tila: In Vegas as we speak.  I bounce around between Vegas, LA and New York.  I work on two projects in New York. One is a home base for a company that I partner with called Café Spice.  We do white labeling for Whole Foods.  If you eat Thai or Indian food from the Whole Foods hot bars, that’s mine.  The other one is Schwan’s Home Service frozen food. I know a lot of chefs would say it’s a sell out, but I think there are essentially three waves of Asian food: Middle America’s still in the Lo Mein-teriyaki territory; there’s the bleeding edge where things are changing and evolving (like in LA); and then there’s something in the middle.  I’m trying to keep relevant in all three and be a businessman about it. 

CK: Tell me what the term “Bistronomics” means to you?
JT: Bistronomics is relevant modern fine dining.  Modern, not nouveau.  Modern is where the American dining palate is right now.  The category of food people know as fine dining is in decline.  No one wants to spend two-to-four hours and hundreds of dollars per person any more. Bistronomics is the technique, the history, the connection to Escoffier, but without the expense of the pomp and circumstance.  The two things that restaurant operators worry about are food cost and labor.  When you have truffle and lobster and 100-year-old oil and a giant front of house brigade, you need to charge the customer $100 to $200 a head. Bistronomics is bringing it down to a bistro setting—a menu, a server, local ingredients, reasonable prices.  An affordable way to dine “finely.”  Only a select few can execute Bistronomics.  It’s almost a birthright; you almost have to have grown up in a French or fine dining kitchen, working under some amazing chefs.

Bistronomics 1.0: caramelized golden apple, phyllo crunch, melted Brie cheese and toasted walnuts

Continue reading

Blood, Bones & Butter for Dinner

Standard

 

I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Gabrielle Hamilton before I received the press release.  I think “Prune” rang a bell, but it wasn’t until I learned about the dinner that Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne were hosting at Lucques that I started doing my research. 

I’m intrigued by collaboration.  Chefs and chefs.  Writers and chefs.  Jugglers and chefs.  Fill in the blanks and have food involved and I’m excited.  I also happen to adore culinary memoirs. Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples, Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, Jaffrey’s Climbing the Mango Trees.   Not fictional tales of women finding love over a bowl of pasta in an Italian village or “finding themselves” in an upstate butcher’s shop.  I want the writing to show me the food and the person.  For real. 

Blood, Bones & Butter has the tidal wave of a Tony Bourdain endorsement clearing its path to greatness.  But it also has a solid, genuine character at the heart of it which makes the story real and accessible–and touching, whether or not you come from the same damaged family or have taken your own knocks in the restaurant world. 

The night at Lucques felt like a nod to the long-ago family gatherings she recounts, with a spit-roasted lamb turning slowly out back and everyone in a good mood, content to be there with each other.  We all felt a little bit lucky to be part of the family for the night. 

Continue reading