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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Good People Doing Good Things

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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

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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.

FOOD FAN/ATIC

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I’ve taken my fair share of photos while dining out. I am in the business after all. While there are times when I find myself wanting to document where I’ve been, something special I’ve eaten, or a chef that I’ve chatted with, I’m usually trying to be as understated as possible about it, not wanting to be seen as an LA food paparazzi.

But there are plenty of people—those who trample a far more aggressive trail through the food community than I—who painstakingly stage photo after photo as their Moscow mule grows tepid, their ramen cools and their dining companions wonder whether it’s bad form to start eating before the images have uploaded to the web.

Some chefs make their opinions about this kind of behavior very public.  Whether it’s a question of food quality (eat it while it’s hot), decorum, or simple courtesy to fellow diners, there are those chefs who thumb viral media in the eye and prefer to simply have people eat their food.  They post cryptic signs at the host stand warning diners that photos are not allowed, or their post-opening rant gets quoted in the blogs and their vitriol zips its way around the net.  But do people listen? Do they care?

The makers of Evernote Food think not.

Designed as a virtual food diary of sorts, this iPhone app (one of many in an ever growing market by the way) lets people “preserve and relive their food memories.” While it does allow users to interface with their social media channels, it is primarily marketed as a tool for tripping down a gustatory memory lane. Sure, food writers may like this so they can be tech savvy about their note taking (“great lager for sushi”), but for the rest of us, they’re encouraging a kind of culinary experience that…well…loses much of the experience.

You may argue and say that you enjoy a meal well photographed as much as a meal that’s simply eaten and enjoyed.  But I have to hearken back to a day when the people around a table spent as much if not more time actually chewing, tasting and savoring than they did dissecting, contemplating and debating. Today’s diners are certainly more food adventurers, so perhaps it’s only natural that they’d want to document every bite and sip just as they would capture a backpacking trip to Ecuador. Perhaps I’m showing my age. Perhaps I’m just tech-ed out. But a blissfully device-free meal at L’Orangerie or Citrus would be just my speed right about now.  And I wouldn’t even blog about it.