Mentorship: A key ingredient in the kitchen

By Liana Robberecht

My first unofficial mentorship began early on in my life. An elderly Japanese man took me under his wing and taught me how to use chopsticks and fight with a noble spirit. Mr. Miyagi didn’t know it at the time, but together, he and I would inspire millions.

While it may have started with the famous movie The Karate Kid, mentoring relationships have been a constant life priority for me, both as a mentor and a mentee. Opening doors for upcoming talent is one of the most rewarding things that you can do in your career. I’ve known too many “leaders” who horde success and opportunity close to the chest. Whenever faced with a promising protégé, they should be asking instead, “what can I do to help?” Expanding your own network to include up-and-coming talent can never be anything but a positive experience. Be it personal or professional, having someone model leadership and communication skills, deliver meaningful feedback on a regular basis, and provide the right connections at the right time can make all the difference to young professionals.

Leadership and communication are perhaps two of the most useful skill sets that you can learn. They are transferable to almost every industry – they are empowering and they are invaluable to success. In the kitchen, the ability to take charge, make split-second decisions and effectively communicate to a large, high-strung staff makes you a great leader. But what if you built up every member of your staff to espouse the qualities of a great leader? What if you invested in each and every human on your team, understanding that that empowerment would not only key everyone up to their peak performance, but also drive them to accomplish more for you? That’s just what mentorship is: an investment in your people. I bet that if I tell you what I already know, you’re going to do great things and we’ll both benefit. ‘Cause baby, there’s a lot to learn.

The food and beverage industry offers a unique set of hard-to-navigate challenges for young chefs. Food is highly emotional. Not only does a chef put his or her whole heart into their creation, but a diner brings their heart to the table. It is an industry that is reflective of two people’s emotions at a very specific, highly randomized moment in two strangers’ days. That’s a lot of pressure, guys. No matter the time and precision spent creating a dish, if the diner has an off day – they may not enjoy each bite as intended which can be crushing and disappointing. A mentor can help with keeping your emotions in perspective and keeping your confidence up one service at a time. Balancing the emotion that goes into cooking with a solid foundation of technique is a uniquely personal journey and one that is greatly benefited from someone more experienced who can shed light onto whether this was merely a mismatched set of taste buds, or a legitimate area for improvement. Another Miyagi moment: never put passion in front of principle. Even if you win, you’ll lose.

It is very important to choose a mentor who is the right mentor for the right chosen area for improvement or guidance. Mentors come in all areas and walks of life – you will not find them under 1-800 dial-a-mentor.  You have to put the leg work in.  Pick someone you admire in your field or associated to your field that you feel would be a great influence. A mentor’s role is not to “fix your life.” A mentor’s role is to give you the ability to tap into yourself and unlock your potential through the mentor’s own past experiences and advice.   Join a like-minded association. I belong to Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) in which I’ve been a member for over 10 years. Through this association I have found and established many mentors that have become my personal friends.  This is an association where mentorship is a key part of their mission statement.  I have dealt with many professional issues in the past and present and have received guidance through WCR.  Through mentorship I have become more aware of not only my strengths but also my weaknesses that I still seek mentorship and executive coaching for.  I believe this has made me a stronger leader for my role as executive chef at WinSport, located in Calgary, Alberta.  My experiences and foundation has grown to the point where I can now pass along my learnings to other mentees, as I am fortunate to have evolved into a mentor for others.  Mentorship becomes full circle.

I am a strong believer in life-long learning. Whether you are an established chef or an apprentice, there is always something you can learn from everyone. New techniques, cooking methods, food sourcing, sound boarding, creating menu experiences – the list goes on and on. The most important thing to remember is to keep yourself open to those teaching/learning moments. Never hesitate to give someone a leg up. Never turn away from an opportunity to incorporate someone else’s hard-learned lesson into your own philosophy. To paraphrase my first mentor one last time: “it’s okay to lose to an opponent, but never to fear.”

About the author:

Liana Robberecht is Executive Chef at WinSport in Calgary, Alberta. In 2011, she was named Chef of the Year by the Alberta Foodservice Expo and Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News. To learn more about joining Women Chefs & Restaurateurs please click here.

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