What it Means to Mentor

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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.

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C-CAP, The Future of Food

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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.