Good morning, friends and neighbors!
Mentoring has become a bit of a catchphrase recently, hasn’t it?
A buzzword, thrown around by people in suits at “networking” events where attendance and business cards are expensive and the beer is cheap.
What do you think of when you hear that word? Most people probably think of someone they met who’s a bit farther along in their field and gives them their number for when they get in a tight spot.
In the kitchen, “mentor” means something fundamentally different. It’s the difference between learning a business and learning a craft.
It’s one huge reason the culinary industry is still around- and it’s not straightforward or easy.
Getting Your Hands Dirty
The other day, I put up a short article on LinkedIn offering the bones of what will be a short eBook I’m working on, tentatively titled “The Sorceror’s Apprentice: Baking, Mentorship, and What the Apprentice REALLY Learned.”
The idea came from my father, the last time I visited home. I’d been cranking away at my larger book, “More Than A Meal: Philosophy from Behind The Pass” for a while, and asked my dad if he wanted to look at the draft.
He agreed, but then he brought up an interesting point:
“Hey son. I just had a thought. Since you’ve been a baker, you’ve worked in a LOT of different places. Every place you’ve been, you’ve noticed how things were run, and what you liked and what you’d improve. Why not write THAT down? That’s something people would really like to hear, and at worst it’ll be a good set of notes for you when YOU run things.”
The fact is, it’s pretty true.
If you have worked under people- different people- for long enough, and you haven’t noticed differences in style, motivation, energy, delivery, and leadership, you haven’t really gotten everything out of that time.
Since I’ve been working, I’ve noticed that the people who inspire and drive me aren’t always the ones in highest authority. They don’t always have the most power, and they definitely don’t flaunt the power that they have.
Mentors don’t just teach “skills,” or “the job.” A good mentor teaches you their philosophy, their reason for being, and expressing that zest through the work you share.
A good mentor teaches you how to LIVE.
They don’t sit on a mountaintop (or an office, or some other remote place) and hand down wisdom from on high- unless of course their job involves oratory and making sure a chair stays put.
A mentor goes in and gets their hands dirty.
“Look at this. See that?”
“Feel that- that’s how you want it to be.”
“Work with a flow. Get out of your own way.”
Behavior over Skills
I have spent MUCH more time in my career being an apprentice rather than a mentor. I have helped train students in the past, and I’ve found that the things that make the best mentors (and apprentices, for that matter) are habits and behaviors- not certain skills or traits.
In the article, I listed seven behaviors that my best mentors and teachers have shown, as well as seven behaviors that the most successful apprentices I’ve had (and ones I tried to culitivate in my time.)
In brief, they are:
A mentor can be extraordinarily successful in the kitchen- but if they belittle and bully their apprentices and the apprentice leaves, they aren’t a mentor.
You can teach an apprentice how to handle a knife perfectly- but if they don’t have the discipline to use those skills well, or can’t be relied on to finish their work, it’ll be a hard road for them to go anywhere.
By far, however, the one thing that can make or break a mentorship for a mentor is embodying what you teach.
Teaching the Craft of Living
On the surface, those words seem pretty straightforward- “Don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t demand anything of your student you wouldn’t demand of yourself.”
If that was all it meant though, I could just say “don’t be a hypocrite.” Embodying what you teach strikes at something deeper and more important- an element of mentorship that’s a bit less obvious when it’s out of the context of a craft.
Embodying is important because as a mentor, your apprentice is always learning from you.
Not just when you work together or are in the same room. A good apprentice watches how you handle business. They watch how you carry yourself. They watch how you interact with others- superiors and subordinates.
They watch how you work. How you move. How you treat THEM.
They see when you put in extra time. They see when you make excuses. They see when you pass the buck, and they see when you take the fall.
This is because, in mentorship, the apprentice is trying to see their future in you.
If you are checked out, your apprentice won’t give a shit anymore either.
If you make excuses or cut corners, your apprentice will see that as acceptable.
If you promote the toxicity of your field, don’t be surprised when your apprentices pick it up, or find another mentor.
If you show no enthusiasm for your work, you can’t hope to engage theirs.
To follow the path, look to the master, follow the master, walk with the master, see through the master, become the master
-Hsin Hsin Ming
In my time, I’ve had a lot of mentors. All of them taught me skills, but the best ones- even if they themselves weren’t perfect, had off-days, or were feeling tired themselves- still taught me not just how to be a baker, but how to LIVE as a baker.
How to work, and how to do work I could take pride in.
They’d drill me to learn my skills and take me to task for falling short- but they’d also remind me to go home and take joy in other things.
My mentors- the BEST mentors- didn’t just teach me the craft of baking.
They taught me the craft of LIVING.