This year's Nestlé Toque d'Or is drafting in chef mentors to guide its talented young competitors, prompting us to take a look at the importance of mentoring in kitchens. Rosalind Mullen reports.
It's a quirky truth that you can trace many of Britain's top chefs back to the rarified atmosphere of Michel and Albert Roux's kitchens at Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn. A quick flick through the archives reveals they have inspired everyone from Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White to Pierre Koffmann and Mark Dodson. What's more, they in turn have gone on to inspire others - Ramsay, for instance, has set fêted chefs such as Angela Hartnett, Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton on their accolade-strewn way.
So, is finding the right mentor all about being behind the right stove at the right time? If you take your cue from Hartnett, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Murano restaurant, you would certainly try to take some responsibility for it. In what can now be seen as a shrewd move, she pretty much chose Gordon Ramsay as her mentor back in 1994. Having undergone trials in various top restaurants, Hartnett decided to work in his famously tough kitchen at Aubergine "because he seemed the most passionate".
As she explains: "He works to huge standards, makes you decide what you are good at and then puts you in the right direction. He taught me that when you run a restaurant you're only as good as your last meal."
Ramsay's abrasive management style is notorious, but Hartnett's resilience paid off and she has gone on to launch several restaurants in the Gordon Ramsay empire. What's more, she is still learning from him: "With someone like Gordon he'll take an idea and turn it on its head," she explains.
"When we opened Murano, everyone was telling me to price the menu at £30 a head, but Gordon said 'It's too much, Angela'. And do you know what? He was right. He sees the bigger picture."
As an employer herself, Hartnett sees mentoring as an important means of retaining staff and making sure they have the right skills. Nowadays chefs have to be more financially accountable so they have to understand about profit and loss and bar costs, as well as ingredients.
"You can't [personally] mentor 20 people but I try to be even in my mentoring. It's a pleasure to offer someone a job that takes them to the next level. Everyone wants to learn, otherwise you become stagnant," Hartnett adds.
So, has her relationship with Ramsay evolved into mutual respect? "I hope so. It would be difficult to have a mentor if you didn't like them," she says. "But you need to think for yourself and respect each other - otherwise the mentor is just making decisions for you."
That's certainly true for Michelin-starred chef Andre Garrett at Galvin at Windows on London's Park Lane, who cites one of his mentors as chef-patron Chris Galvin. "He plants a seed in your mind and lets you learn on your own," says Garrett.
Their relationship is a prime example of how mentoring can be mutually beneficial - Galvin knows he has a well-trained head chef to help grow his empire, while Garrett knows his career is in good hands. Over the years, the two have become friends - Garrett even took Galvin to see their mutual hero Paul Weller at Brixton for his birthday. "But he's still the boss," Galvin says.
The pair met in 2000 when Galvin was executive chef at Orrery and Garrett was sous chef. It was Galvin who encouraged the young Garrett to enter competitions and who coached him. "Chris gave me a great opportunity when we worked at Orrery. He gave me a clear idea that he wanted me to take over as head chef - that he saw something in me," Garrett recalls.
One thing Galvin has instilled is the need to continue the mentoring tradition. For instance, Garrett coached Armand Sablon to become the 2007 Roux Scholar, mirroring his own achievement in 2002. He also oversees a formal mentoring programme whereby his senior chefs are assigned a group of trainees.
"Mentoring is vital to a good kitchen," says Garrett. "But while you often end up working with people on a one-to-one basis you shouldn't single people out."
Of course, it's not all about Michelin stars. Mentoring is a valuable tool for raising the standards of chefs across all kitchens, although not all bosses realise that.
"There is a shortage of good chefs, yet not many people are passionate about developing youngsters," says Herbert Berger at the City's 1 Lombard Street restaurant.
Berger's commitment to mentoring extends to working with colleges to give students practical training. And he doesn't believe in handpicking only the best. "Every youngster needs a figurehead or father figure to help them through the process of learning," he says.
Neither is it just youngsters who need guidance. He cites 25 or 30-year-olds that come into his kitchen but should be moving on to a higher level.
Berger's mentor was Michel Bourdin, whom he worked under at the Connaught for five years. "He developed me and put me in the right places," he explains.
Following on from his own positive experience, Berger's advice to young chefs is to work for a mentor for two to five years and use their contacts to move on and build a career.
"You shouldn't make rash decisions based on the fact someone may offer you more money or you think the grass is greener. You should listen to your mentor - even if you don't like doing it - because they can give you valuable advice," says Berger.
Certainly, a good mentoring relationship will last for a career. Many protégés stay in contact with their mentors and even become friends or provide stages for each other's staff, share tips on suppliers and so on.
One of Berger's protégés was Daniel Doherty, 25, who is launching Meantime Brewery Company's Old Brewery in Greenwich as head chef. Doherty joined the kitchen at 1 Lombard when he was just 16, having won the Academy of Culinary Arts scholarship, and his mentor guided him from commis chef, to demi chef, to chef de partie, to senior sous chef by the age of 21.
Even so, it's not always an easy ride for a young chef in a big kitchen, as Berger himself admits: "Daniel didn't have an easy time here, but he's done well."
That chimes with Doherty's memories. "Herbert Berger was imposing. I haven't met anyone since who has that knowledge," says Doherty. "It wasn't all roses, but I don't regret it - it was essential. People who don't have a mentor can slip too quickly between jobs and without doubt I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. A lot of my ethics and recipes go back to his initial lessons."
It's also given Doherty the confidence to go his own way. "I didn't follow the paths that he would have chosen. He wanted me to take the Michelin-starred route," he explains.
Nevertheless, it's evident that Doherty is always aspiring to the standards set by his mentor. "We are not close but I drop in and see him, or keep him up to date with my movements via e‑mail," he adds. "I have never known him come to a restaurant where I was cooking - but I would like him to."
THE SAVOY SOCIETY MENTORING SCHEME
Having set up its own scheme after recognising a looming skills shortage, the Savoy Society Mentoring Scheme has now celebrated the graduation of its first group of alumni.
Each of its 15 hospitality management students was paired with a mentor who provided guidance, influence and access.
One student, Petrina Johnson from Sheffield Hallam University, says the scheme has already benefited her in many ways. "Just having that guidance, advice and support gives me a lot of personal encouragement, making me want to aim higher in my career," she adds.
A good mentoring relationship will last for a career. Many protégés stay in contact with their mentors and even become friends or provide stages for each other's staff, share tips on suppliers and so on
OXFORD BROOKES UNIVERSITY MENTORING PROGRAMME
Gareth Banner, general manager at the Hempel hotel in London, is one of the industry figures involved in the inaugural mentoring programme at Oxford Brookes University. Its aim is to match final-year undergraduates with a senior industry figure who provides ongoing advice and support.
"I am passionate about the benefit of mentors and my style is a hybrid of learning from things I have seen done effectively and ineffectively," Banner says.
Ed Cooke, graduate trainee at contract caterer Lexington, is among the first students at Oxford Brookes to benefit from the scheme. He graduated last year with a degree in hotel and restaurant management and chose Chris Durrant, CEO of Beacon Purchasing, as his mentor.
"I wanted to find out about contract catering and I knew Chris had been at the top of his game in that sector. I didn't know much about it and he answered all my questions. He opened my mind," explains Cooke.
Durrant also acted as a sounding board when Cooke was applying for jobs. "He knew Lexington's CEO, Tim West, and he made me feel confident I was on the right track to apply for a job here," recalls Cooke.
When his graduate training year is up, Cooke hopes to move into a restaurant manager role and he looks forward to any advice from Durrant.
"Mentoring is valuable. I don't know if I would be where I am today without it," he says. "But if you don't put anything into it, the mentor won't be able to give anything back. It's good to keep the relationship going."
SIX TOP CHEFS TAKE ON TOQUE D'OR
Competitions are a great way for chefs to get involved in helping aspiring youngsters. This year's Nestlé Toque d'Or is using mentors for the first time. Five colleges will go forward to the Grand Finals in June and each team will create their own restaurant for a day at the BBC Good Food Show Birmingham, using support from Michelin-starred chefs including Alan Murchison, Simon Hulstone and Will Holland.
Murchison says he's keen to give something back, having benefited from strong mentorship early in his career.
"Raymond Blanc is well documented as being a great influence on a number of chefs, including me, but Simon Haigh is a real unsung hero because he has such a wonderful nature," he explains.
"I got a lot out of working with him at Inverlochy Castle. He is such a level-headed, calm guy that really gets the best out of his team. I admire his skills."
Early in his career Murchison's behaviour was what he describes as "challenging" and looking back he is grateful for Haigh's level-headedness. "He got the best out of me," he adds. "Being calm, he helped me focus. He also encouraged me to move to the south of England."
Without Haigh's support Murchison says he may never have moved to work for John Burton Race, which in turn led to working at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.
He's now keen to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. "We get the [students] at a very early stage and when you see their eyes light up, it's incredibly rewarding," he says.
The Toque d'Or mentors and their colleges are:
● Phil Fanning (head chef, Paris House) - West Anglia College
● Simon Hulstone (head chef, the Elephant) - Petroc (North Devon) College
● Andreas Antona (chef-patron, Simpsons restaurant) - Birmingham College
● Will Holland (head chef, La Bécasse) - Warrington College
● Alan Murchison /Chris Horridge (10 in 8 Fine Dining Group) - York College
Neil Stephens, managing director at Nestlé Professional, says: "To gather together such a superior mentoring panel is testament to the success of the Nestlé Toque d'Or competition and with this year's high calibre mentors we are looking to the students to make the [competition's] 21st birthday year the best cook-off yet."
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