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If You’re an Aspiring Chef Looking for a Mentor, Take This Advice

Mentors can help foster careers in hospitality, but finding one can feel easier said than done 

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Mentors play a particularly meaningful role in the lives of upcoming chefs. Influential mentors champion young chefs, offering them an invaluable experience that can round out formal training and prepare them for career longevity. Established chefs, especially those from marginalized communities, often credit the support and guidance of a mentor as an essential ingredient to their success. But for aspiring chefs, knowing how to identify a mentor and how to initiate a mentorship can be an elusive process.

To help shine light on on how mentees and mentors can work together to develop a fruitful relationship, Eater asked Nicola Copeland, executive director of the Chicago-based Hospitality Scholars Foundation, an organization that trains and supports culinary arts and hospitality students. In her work, Copeland bridges the gap between mentees and mentors. She offers the following insight.

On who to ask for mentorship

Copeland recommends looking to leadership, but not necessarily prioritizing impressive titles. Experience and a willingness to teach is what matters. “I would start with the chef or sous chef and see if they have time,” she says. “And if they don’t, see if they have someone that they could recommend, based on what they’ve seen from you in their kitchen, who might be able to help you get to that next level.”

For many, mentorship also means working directly with that person in a restaurant. “Try to find a chef that you admire or want to learn from — clearly, their food is something that you’re interested in — to go work in their restaurant and their space. And a lot of times it’s not even about going to work to be paid. Sometimes it’s about going to stage, and interning unpaid, and just learning.”

Copeland also notes that it’s essential to ask questions. “[Ask] ‘Why do you do this?’ Come in on a slow time and see the chef prep and work, and [learn] the thought processes behind each dish and recipe,” she says. “More often than not, especially in the kitchen, a mentor is going to say, ‘I’m going to take this person under my wing and help them.’ That can be how relationships are started.”

On when you should seek a mentor

According to Copeland, there’s never a wrong time to find a mentor. “[Whether you’re] a student, a young cook, I think at any point in your career, you are perfectly capable of looking for someone to help guide you on your culinary journey.”

On building a mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationship

“[As the mentee], your responsibility is to be receptive to information that you’re going to get, be it the technical kitchen information or life information,” Copeland says. “For the mentor, it’s incredibly important to be able to share that information.”

There are common mistakes that mentees and mentors should try to avoid. Copeland recommends that the relationship always be treated like a professional one. A mentoring chef might eventually become a big brother or big sister figure, but mentees shouldn’t rush it. “[Mentees] try to jump to that level of friendship before it naturally happens. Or mentees idolize their mentors too much.”

Mentors should understand that their role is to offer guidance, but a mentee isn’t a mini-me. “The mistake of the mentor is expecting that the mentee’s going to do everything that you want them to do,” she says. “Ultimately everybody has to make their own decisions. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to support it, but they have to make their own decisions — on both ends of the relationship. You can’t take it personally.”

On the mentorship lifecycle

Mentor-mentee relationships may last for just a few months or for a lifetime. Copeland says there’s no set rule for the length of a successful mentorship. “There’s no time frame. You set goals for yourself in terms of learning and growth. But it’s really internal to your own thought process and your goals.”

“Nine times out of ten, if you’ve outgrown that chef and that mentorship piece, you’ve also probably outskilled or outlearned the restaurant that you’ve been working in, and that may be a good time for you to look for other opportunities,” says Copeland. “Especially as a young cook, you’re not expected to be at a restaurant for years and years and years...you’re expected to move on to continue to grow. I would go as far to say no chef wants you to be stagnant because they were not stagnant; they became executive chef somehow.”

Copeland notes that the role of a mentor will ebb and flow as the mentee gains experience and grows in their own career. “When the mentee knows that they can trust themselves they don’t rely on the guidance of their mentor. I don’t know that it ends; I think that it might just become different than what it was when you began. You become friends of a sort. It just shifts.”

On knowing when you’re ready to become a mentor

Copeland points out that there’s a difference between leadership and mentorship. “Being a leader...it’s just me making sure that everybody gets where they’re going. Being a mentor, it’s about that deep dive into that personal conversation about your goals and how your current position could lead to another position. It’s helping you think more thoughtfully. Leading people doesn’t really mean sharing a lot of myself, whereas, being a mentor does.”

Copeland illustrates some of the qualities a mentor should have, noting that someone who has amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience is an ideal candidate. “An older chef, or somebody that’s been doing it for a while, has a little bit more time, has a lot more patience, has a lot more experience in the kitchen. And I would imagine that that person is probably more emotionally prepared to handle the emotional needs of a mentee. I don’t think there’s a magic number in terms of age, but I would say that there’s probably some tenure in the industry that you should have.”

On trusting the process

There are tangible steps to consider when thinking about working with a mentor or mentee. But like many significant relationships, mentorships tend to evolve naturally. “Mentor-mentee relationships happen organically. The more successful ones, they’re not forced, they happen because this person saw that there was a hunger in that person, and their wants and needs for learning and sharing information meshed,” Copeland says. “That happens more naturally than any of us really realize.”

Angela Burke is the creator of Black Food & Beverage, a site that amplifies the voices of black food and beverage professionals.

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