At a certain point in a chef’s career, they must pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation of culinary leaders.
While there are several forms of mentorship—which can ultimately fulfill different roles throughout one’s career—many chefs attribute their success to these types of relationships.
“Everything I know is the result of good mentorship,” says Gerald Ford, CMC, Founder and Culinary Director of Legit Concepts and contributing editor to Club + Resort Chef. “I wouldn’t have had a vision for my career if it hadn’t been for mentors who traveled the path before, who said it was possible.”
Ford shares tactics chefs can use to become effective mentors—and ways mentees can make the most out of these valuable relationships.
Club + Resort Chef (C+RC): What makes a good mentor?
Gerald Ford (GF): John Maxwell talks about a great mentor and a great leader as someone who knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way.
A mentor needs to be able to see the big picture, show you the big picture and help you understand how to get there.
Some people fall into mentorship a little more naturally. But it is still a learned skill. It’s a skill you develop the more you do it.
Being a good mentor requires being selfless and accepting that the information you will give someone is helping propel them beyond where you are. You’re trying to make it better for those who follow behind you so they can get further and faster in their career.
C+RC: How do you do that?
GF: I try to figure out where my mentee is and their true struggles. If they don’t recognize exactly what’s causing the struggle, I help them figure that out.
And then relating as much as humanly possible. Life experience helps to be an effective mentor. And it’s not for the sake of comparison; it’s for the sake of empathy. And having the good fortune of being able to look back at it and say, “What would I have done differently? Or what did I do that worked? What did I do that didn’t work?”
As a mentor, these are my four favorite questions: What’s working? What’s not working? What do you need to start doing? And what do you need to stop doing?
The more I know and learn about you the more specific I can make that question. And I can figure out where your focus is. Just asking questions is one of the most important pieces. “Tell me about your day-to-day. What are some of the challenges in your day-to-day? What’s your biggest obstacle?”
That’s a big mindset shift for mentorship—asking questions as opposed to feeling like you always need to have the answer.
Being able to hold people accountable is a critical piece as well. It’s one thing to give advice, but a mentor needs to hold you accountable when you’re not doing what you’re saying you’re going to do.
C+RC: How can a mentee ensure they get the most out of that relationship?
GF: Showing up, asking questions, and then demonstrating results.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be great results, but it’s frustrating as a mentor when someone comes to you and asks you for information, advice or a path, you give it, and then they come back asking for more information, advice or a path, and they still haven’t executed on the last piece of information.
That’s not to say that they need to take that path, but they haven’t even addressed it. They’re looking for steps beyond when they haven’t completed that first step.
People ask me about the Certified Master Chef exam, and usually, one of the first questions, if I’ve never talked to them about it before is, “Have you downloaded the manual?” If they haven’t, I say, “Please download the manual and then reach back out to me in a month with the questions you have about the manual.”
It’s not that I don’t want to answer those questions, but there’s a lot of information in there. You can utilize my time effectively based on your questions about the material, not the existing material.
There’s an entrepreneur I follow. Her name’s Sunny Lenarduzzi, and she talks about lazy questions—where you would find the answers with little research.
We’re accustomed to too much information. And people expect that to be the case.
For the Master Chef exam, or the Culinary Olympics or even having a great kitchen, there’s a lot of personal responsibility in that. It’s about helping people switch their mindset from “Are you going to give me this information?” to “Let me point you in the direction of where to look.”
Because ultimately the journey you’re trying to set off on is long and arduous. Let’s see if you can walk to the forest’s edge.
C+RC: Is there any general advice you always give?
GF: There are a few principles I always follow:
- For every level, there’s another devil. It doesn’t matter where you are. There will be a struggle.
- It’s important to approach everything with a beginner’s mindset. Curiosity keeps things fun.
- Only give up on the things that are wasting your time.
- Question everything.
- Remember to ask yourself if what you believe is true.
Number five, that’s where self-awareness comes in. It’s important to look at the things you do daily and question if that’s the best way.
C+RC: If someone hasn’t met the right mentor or mentee, how do you suggest they develop those relationships?
GF: There are a few ways.
There are a lot of mentors I’ve had that had no idea they were my mentor. There’s so much good information in books, be it Charlie Trotter talking about lessons in service or Thomas Keller’s words, systems, and processes at The French Laundry. Books can be mentorship if you’re open to receiving them that way.
There are some great online programs, too. It’s amazing what you can find on YouTube.
Competition is a phenomenal way. You’ll get feedback and develop yourself as a culinarian. There’s also an inlet there to pick up a new mentor.
You can try emailing or reaching out—putting yourself out there.
I’ve never met a chef who wasn’t interested in helping a younger chef. The extent to how much they’re willing to help, or the amount of time they can give, depends on how much you invest in the relationship. Mentorship is a costly relationship in the sense of time and energy.
If you send me an email with 300 questions, and I don’t know you, that’s a very challenging email for me to answer. It’s hard for me to invest that time until we build that relationship.
C+RC: As a professional coach, do you find that people are often unclear about the difference between coaching and mentorship?
GF: I do. Mentoring and coaching are similar yet different. When you’re working with someone as a mentor, it’s a casual conversation. It’s professional development, but it happens on its own time.
The coaching relationship has consistent parameters. Not only are you mentally invested, but you’re also personally and financially invested. You’re able to create a structure that accelerates that mentorship component.
It’s an investment in your growth at a point in your career when good information is hard to find.
You’re investing in me, so I can invest back in you and build your programs together. If you’re trying to implement new systems, my team and I can come back to you, hand you the data, and then we can work through the implementation, as opposed to figuring it out on your own.
In our business, we go through the earlier years of our career having many mentors, teachers, and people telling us the right thing to do or the right way to go. Then, all of a sudden, that stops.
Everybody talks about a 10-year plan and, “Where do you want to be in 20 years?” Well, once you hit 30 or 35, nobody’s asking you that question anymore.
It’s an important question to continue to ask. If you’re not talking about what’s working, you could waste time on things that just aren’t working and not even recognize them.