The list of responsibilities keeps growing: menu planner, budget manager, concept developer, quality controller, purchaser and negotiator, trainer, and of course – accomplished cook – this is the job description for a restaurant chef. But, beyond all of this lies a macro responsibility, one that defines the chef’s position in the larger business of food, and that is being a mentor who creates an environment for and nurtures the potential of young cooks to make their own mark on the restaurant scene. Yes, as chefs, we need to look beyond each cook as a person to fill a slot on the schedule. You have an opportunity to feed their passion, plant the seed of creativity, expand their knowledge, and push and pull them to improve and grow.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
-Steve Jobs (founder of Apple Computers)
As chefs, we have a responsibility to involve young cooks in those experiences, repeat them frequently enough so that it sinks in, encourage them to reflect on those experiences, take them apart and put them back together, and assess how they fit (good, bad, or indifferent). The aha moments will come for those cooks when they start to see how those experiences, combined with others produce something new and unique. Creativity comes from a process that is part of who they are, not something that they are necessarily born with. Seeing this come to fruition is quite possibly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of being a chef.
Building up to this “enlightenment” requires that you set the stage. You must teach and train the fundamentals, the processes, the flavor profiles, and the history behind cooking a certain way. Simply telling a young cook to “plan a feature for tonight” will likely result in less than stellar results or something that is far too similar to everything else they do from practice. Creativity without understanding first is reserved for a very small percentage of people with some unusual talent that is hard to fathom.
TEACH – SHOW – WATCH – CRITIQUE – SHOW AGAIN – PATIENCE – REPEAT
Practice makes perfect and practice makes a cook competent and comfortable. These are essential ingredients in the creative process. It is important to understand the value of each step listed above. As a chef/mentor you must understand that each step is equally significant.
Teaching comes first because it helps with understanding. The cook needs to understand “why” they are doing something a certain way. “Because that’s the way I want it done” is not a reasonable answer to the question “why”. Is there a reason for a process, the type of equipment used, timing, steps in flavor building, or using one specific ingredient over the other? If there is, then let them know and provide supportive resources to demonstrate that reason. Until they know “why” they will never be able to adapt, and adaptation is instrumental in creativity. Provide reading materials or links to articles that will reinforce what you say – it is important!
 SHOW (TRAIN):
Very few things in life will sink in and become innate unless they are practiced. Unless they are practiced until the results are what they should be then the process will never rise to the level of a skill. Showing requires that you stand side-by-side with the cook and walk them through the process that they were taught. Showing requires that you present them with a benchmark of excellence – a model to emulate – an example of what you expect. Showing also requires repetition, the more you do it together, the more real it becomes.
It’s time to let the cook fly on his or her own. The cook must be in a position to practice what he or she has been taught and shown. They must be put in a position to sink or swim, make those mistakes, fail if they must, and mentally record where things went wrong. They must be given an opportunity to succeed and learn how to differentiate success from failure.
There is, as I have often pointed out, a major difference between criticism and critique. The result of the “watch” phase is to point out where the cook can improve. The difference between criticism and critique lies in how this is presented and whether you work with them through the process of improvement. Simply stating it is “wrong” will never result in improvement – only resentment.
 SHOW AGAIN:
Reinforce through re-introduction of the benchmark and working through each step again with the cook by your side. Present this as positive reinforcement. Ask the cook to repeat each step and explain why it is done. This connects the dots with teaching and training.
The cook needs to understand that skill comes over time and they will rarely catch on immediately. Patience is part of the game. The same applies to you. The cook needs to crawl before he or she walks, walk before a run, and run many times before they step over the finish line.
This is an ongoing process, an integral part of the chef’s job. Reinforcement through the process will help to mold the possibilities for all young cooks you work with. Additionally, it will demonstrate to other potential employees that your kitchen is one that invests in people – an open loop eco-system of teaching, training, mentoring and development. This will be your greatest contribution to the profession and to the restaurant where you hang your hat.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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