You Can’t Teach Character- But You Can Teach Love.

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

My most recent trainee was… very new. He’d been in the industry as a food runner and barback for years, but he rarely every worked in an actual kitchen. His experience with baking amounted to “making some stuff with his stepmom,” but he was ready to learn and to take on a position as my assistant- an entry level position- because “it would be fun.”

After about two months, a few outbursts about how difficult the work was and “we should get paid more for this,” he is leaving for health and family reasons.

I don’t blame him. This is a hard field to just “start” in, it IS a lot of work, and it is absolutely not a good field to work in if you have distracting/debilitating health issues. The outbursts got on my nerves a few times, if I’m being honest (and those of our boss.) No one becomes a cook or baker to make a lot of money. If he felt he could make more money elsewhere, the response was “there’s the door. Do yourself a favor and go- but stop insulting us.”

As it turned out, in the last few weeks of his working with us, his attitude and production greatly improved. He started asking more questions, and working more quickly. The other night, I pointed this out and he shrugged:

“I don’t know, man… It sucks. It’s work, but I’m really starting to enjoy it. You taught me a lot, and I like it… it sucks I gotta leave now.”

I can’t teach someone character, or work ethic, or discipline. That needs to come from within them- but I do believe it’s possible to teach something that will encourage them: The love of the work, and the craft.

Love Is Where It All Starts

I’ve mentioned before that my love of food and cooking started long before I worked in a kitchen. My family loved food- between my parents teaching me to cook, my mother and sisters teaching me to bake, and my grandmother showing me what hospitality meant, I can’t imagine an outcome where I wouldn’t have the best associations with preparing and eating food.

That’s really where any career in food should start- a love and respect for food and preparing it. Before notions of work ethic, discipline, artistry, and ambition can even form- the first and most basic thing that must exist is a love for food.

There must be a love for its feeling. The emotions it can conjure. The colors, textures, and flavors. The science of it, the business, the economy, the history, the lore. The experience of feeding others with the work of your own hands. The experience of giving of yourself and your talent.

There must be a respect for the food itself. The places it’s grown, the people that provide it, and the thousands of tiny differences possible. A need to make every bit possible count, and to respect even the poorest ingredients.

There must also be a love for the act of cooking. Not just the work– but the environment of the kitchen. The pace and people and temperament of the kitchen. The experience of constant activity, constant productivity- and the ability to lose yourself in the whirlwind of it all.

Why is it all of that so important? Because that is what keeps you doing the work.

Love Is A Primary Motivator

Discipline and work ethic can take you anywhere. Artistry has many forms, and ambition- well, that speaks for itself. Before all of that, it is a love and respect for food that will make you want to learn to crack eggs different ways for a different product. It will make you do the research to figure out a perfectly smooth cream cheese icing, and a pie crust that flakes just so.

Love is what instills a pride in how you work, and a desire to do your work better. It is a primary motivator.Even the most annoying, thankless tasks in the kitchen- if you have a love and respect for what your are working with and why- can feel worthwhile and necessary. Maybe not enjoyable, but needed.

Chef Marco Pierre White raising a fist

Some time ago, I was reading a book about Kaballistic philosophy, and came across a fascinating analogy for why people need purpose- and why, despite what people say, no one stays with a job “just for the money.”

“Imagine you have a job moving boxes from one conveyor belt to another. The work isn’t hard, and it pays well enough that you can live comfortably- you won’t get rich, but you are able to meet all your expenses easily. All that is required is spending eight hours a day, five days a week, moving boxes in an empty room- a conveyor belt brings them in, another takes them out through a wall. You work alone, and can break whenever you like.

One day, you decide to see where the boxes go. Walking out of your room, you figure out where the outgoing belt ends, and open the door… finding an exact set-up of your own room. You and whoever works in this room just pass the same boxes back and forth to each other all day. They go nowhere, they do nothing. You are literally paid to just waste your time.

Do you keep the job?

Portait of a person with puzzle pieces covering their face. They have one piece removed, and appear to be studying it.

90% of the people I know- including those whose financial situation requires them to take jobs they don’t like- have said “No, I would quit immediately.”

Money is not a sufficient motivator. Love and purpose are necessary- to justify spending their time on Earth.

Mentorship and Instilling Love

Being a mentor doesn’t just mean teaching your craft to an apprentice- it also means teaching the craft of living– not just being a baker, but of being someone who makes their living as a baker.

I’m going to blow my own horn for a minute here. When I teach and train people in the kitchen, I’ve been told that three things in particular make the skills and concepts I try to teach stick:

  1. My patience and eagerness to answer questions (the “Edge” method of teaching)
  2. Explaining the reasoning for each step- once you are aware of each steps impact on the final product, you stop deeming them “unnecessary” and skipping them a “shortcut.”
  3. My excitement and love for the work is infectious.

One thing I dearly wish all mentors would remember is that apprentices see their future in you. If you don’t care about what you’re doing, they won’t either. If you seem “checked out” and waiting to punch the clock, they will cut corners and check out too.

The author in a black suit, with a red shirt, black necktie, and striped apron  speaking in his kitchen.
Screenshot from one of my live bake-along videos. Because I do those, y’know…

But even as my last apprentice knew he was going to have to leave (for whatever reason) he put out excellent work to the end and asked questions- because if you can show you love your work, they will too.

You don’t need to be ultra-happy and bubbly all the time (I’m definitely not), but demonstrating your love of your craft can take many forms- from spouting random things you learned about food and food history (I’m currently reading Harold McGee for fun. Send help.) to just looking up the answer to a question they have. There’s no sin in admitting you don’t know something, and demonstrating that you still have plenty to learn can be exciting.

In our case, the other night I googled what causes blood in eggs- he had cracked three in a row. Turns out, it’s because of a defect in the formation of the egg, and they are totally safe to eat (although unkosher.) It is not a sign of failed fertilization.

Next time you find yourself dealing with a difficult trainee, or losing your grip on what to teach, start simply-
teach them how you love what you do, and how they can too.

Stay Classy,

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