Posted: Oct 03, 2018
The chef behind Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, Esters Wine Shop & Bar, and Tallula's—and author of 'On Vegetables'—on mentorship and changing times.
I love being a mentor, and it was out of necessity that I had to grow into one. I have two restaurants, and another one coming next spring [the highly anticipated Birdie G's]; I can't be in three places at once.
Each place needs to run without me, and there has to be a voice in the kitchen. If it's just someone regurgitating my food, it's not going to feel the same. It's a matter of each place working to create a unique language that is based on my philosophies and beliefs, but is still the creation of the chef. It's a lot easier for someone to make sure dishes are being executed when they're not trying to maintain what they think I want the place to be.
This also coincided with having a child, so I was learning both at the same time, and I think it had a lot to do with how my mindset and my style changed. Sometimes I feel like I've gotten too soft, but I think the food is getting better and better, and I'm less and less in the kitchen at this point. It's awesome. Now the best compliment is hearing someone say, I had the best meal I've ever had at Rustic Canyon—or Tallula's—the other night, and me knowing I wasn't there. It's very calming.
To keep everyone engaged, and keep everyone inspired, to let them try things out, and make mistakes or not make mistakes…I think it's trial and error. I don't want a sous chef to just be there to do the ordering and babysit and make sure everyone is doing what they're supposed to do. They're there to learn too, or else they’d just have their own restaurant.
So, I try to listen. I try to give everyone the opportunity to talk, whether it's about frustration or something else that's going on. I want everyone to know that they're not powerless—that just because something is a certain way doesn't mean it has to be that way, even if it's the way we've always done it. Right now in the industry, everything is being examined to see what we can improve. There’s so much room for improvement.
I don't want to stand in the way of creativity. I can give my feedback on things, but it's about finding what role you need to play with each person to help them and to help the business. My mind is always changed; I only know what I know, and it's nice to have people who have worked for other chefs who have other ways of doing things, of thinking about things.
There are little things you look for [when someone is the right fit]. If, once dinner service is over, they want to leave and not stay for breakdown, for cleaning, that's usually a red flag. I think it shows someone wants to be on the team, and they recognize that this is a team, and they're not going to leave before everyone leaves. For someone to do that right from the beginning shows a certain kind of initiative and a certain, I don't know, belief system.
A great leader is someone who makes people around them better—and that doesn't start when you get the title of sous chef or executive chef. There are characteristics and traits that set you up for that. They’re someone that other people shouldn't see as competition, but as motivation. I've come up in kitchens where there was hazing for new people, and sabotage of your stations. In my kitchens, if someone is ready and set up for service, they're helping someone else get ready. I love seeing that.
If you’re on a station and not getting hit, but someone else is, we jump over. Everyone is cross-trained, and everyone knows that if I'm sending someone over to help, it's not because you're doing a bad job: it's because you're getting killed, and you need help. I think in our industry, people have been trained to not ask for help and to just push through, but sometimes? You need help. It's okay.
[I ask about what it means to mentor someone like Saw Naing, pictured above, who arrived at ChefsFeed Indie Week in Richmond, VA immediately after receiving news of his promotion to executive chef of Tallula's.]
Someone like Saw is not doing great because of my mentorship: He is him. It's a pleasure to work with people like that. He blows me away sometimes with his dedication and his leadership, and everyone in that restaurant respects him. To everyone in that restaurant, he's Chef. That became more and more obvious, and that's why he is the executive chef. My chef de cuisine at Rustic, Brittany [Cassidy], is coming back to help me open the next restaurant. I feel like I have lots of kids in that way.
I've definitely had times when I didn't feel I was able to mentor how I would have liked, and I took it really hard. I still do have times where something isn't quite right, I don't know how to fix it. I don't always have all the answers, and when I have stark frustrations they're usually with myself. But even I have a mentor—Josh Loeb, my partner at Rustic Canyon and Tallula's, is Obi-Wan Kenobi for me. He's really good with people. More and more, I just try to emulate what Josh would do.
By Jeremy Fox
October 1, 2018
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