Mentoring talent is part and parcel of the hospitality game, discovers John Burfitt, but the role can be far more complex than teaching basic knife skills or just being the boss.
Apprenticeships have long been one of the cornerstones of the way the hospitality industry functions, with in-house training marking the transition of kitchen and management skills from one generation to the next.
But being a boss and being a mentor are not necessarily the same thing when it comes to bringing out the best in the skills of an apprentice chef.
According to Thomas Woods, head chef of Melbourne’s Woodland House restaurant, the two roles can often be significantly different.
“The mentor is more of a role model than a boss—they should be on hand for the training as well as guidance for just about anything the apprentice is concerned about,” Woods says.
It is a view backed by Southern Cross University food and beverage lecturer Gianpiero Battista, who claims the modern mentor needs to step up to play something akin to a parental role.
“You can never forget that these kids have finished school early and often need other skills beyond just technical culinary skills,” Battista adds.
“They may need assistance on all kinds of life matters and you may need to become a kind of parental figure to them, not just a teacher or boss.”
Mentoring has undergone new evaluation and development for both the apprentice and the mentor in recent years, with such programs as the Apprenticeship Advisory Service by Restaurant & Catering Australia.
The R&CA Apprenticeship Advisory Service project is funded by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education through the Australian Apprenticeship Mentoring Package.
According to its mission statement, the aim of the Mentoring Package is ‘to increase the retention rates of Australian apprentices, particularly in the first twelve months of training, in order to improve completion rates and support the supply of skilled workers in sectors and occupations where there is a current or emerging skills need’.
It is also intended to encourage employers and supervisors to create positive employment relationships to support their apprentices.
While an apprentice is on the team in most kitchens, Gianpiero Battista says there needs to be an awareness that being a mentor is not a role that suits every head chef.
“Some chefs can be so secretive and see the young chefs in their kitchen as competition,” he says. “If you think like that, then you should not be a mentor. Teach them skills and manage them but then get someone else in the team to mentor them.
“I also tell young chefs who find themselves in that situation of not receiving full teaching to leave. There is no point being there when someone less secretive could be
teaching you what you need.”
One of the key elements to establishing a successful workplace mentor-protégé relationship is determining from early on what both parties are gaining from the situation. “It is so important to have a clear understanding of the particular outcome,” says training development specialist Jacky Morgan of Eternal Sunshine Solutions.
“You need to think about, ‘What do I want to get out of this relationship?’ and that goes far beyond having an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. You need to know the skills you want to develop, the knowledge to impart and the behavioural change you want to see, and then know how to use this relationship with the younger chef to achieve that.”
“You can never forget that these kids have finished school early and often need other skills beyond just technical culinary skills.” Gianpiero Battista, Southern Cross University food and beverage lecturer
Thomas Woods was mentored by the acclaimed Jacques Reymond, and is today co-owner of Woodland House, where he is mentor to third-year apprentice chef Cameron Williams.
Woods believes the key to being an effective mentor is evaluating the skills set of the young chef, working with a clear strategy to develop that standard and always guiding more by example than by direction.
“You have to watch carefully to understand their strengths and weaknesses and guide them from that point, rather than by just throwing them in the deep end and hoping for the best,” he says.
“And you can’t just say you are the king of the castle as you shout directions at everyone. You have to be doing the job, and doing it effectively, to show the younger chef the way to do it.”
There is one word Cameron Williams mentions a number of times when talking about what makes Woods a good mentor: Patience.“I get the feeling with Thomas that he wants to teach me, rather than feeling he has to,” Williams says.
“I hear from my TAFE classmates about their bosses who just want them there to do the job, not because they want them to grow up to be good chefs and learn how to do it the right way. When I hear some of their stories, I realise how lucky I am.”
Justin Miles of Adelaide’s Windy Point Restaurant and Cafe first met James Lawrie in 2008, when the former took over as executive chef and the latter was an apprentice. Six years on, their mentor-protégé relationship has continued long after the pair worked together, with Lawrie now the Stadium Club chef de uisine at Adelaide Oval. Their successful business relationship was created, Justin Miles says, by both having plenty to learn within the dynamic.
“Any mentorship role is truly successful if there is a great exchange between individuals—a mentor also needs to be willing to hear an alternate viewpoint in order to be part of the development,” Miles says.
“One-sided diatribes are autocratic, not educational environments. A protégé needs to realise what they are expecting from the relationship in order to gain knowledge. My relationship with James has certainly grown and it fills me with enormous pride seeing his ongoing success.”
James Lawrie says it was a combination of honest feedback and direct guidance that has kept the mentorship strong. “The key was managing the development through a series of short discussions,” he adds. “Face-to-face contact is a good tool to level the playing field and remove potential barriers, accelerating both student and mentors confidence in the relationship.
“Now that I have moved on from a working relationship with Justin, our continued mentoring relationship has been an enormous assistance.
“If I had to take away one lesson, it would been to learn how to fail well and not to frown on failures but to utilise the strengths to develop the correct paths to success.”
Despite reports to the contrary, the shift in generations between Gen X and Gen Y has not produced a workplace gap that cannot be bridged. It has, adds Justin Miles, created a better focus on the importance of mentoring. “I have seen a growth in a more personal approach,” Miles adds. “I feel as if the style now reflects a more creative and experience-based path to success, giving young chefs more options to develop the tools they need to navigate their future career.”