Big Brother- Mentoring in the Kitchen

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

In the space of a year and change, I have trained ten people in some way at my bakery. Some just to pick up a couple tasks left hanging while I’m gone, others to be assistants and stand-ins so that I can take a day off now and again. They were professionals, students, coworkers, wanna-be lifers. A few were just honestly curious- like the dishwashers that wanted to learn to pipe pate au choux, or the barista with some time to kill who wanted to try a couple recipes for themselves.

A bunch stuck around for a while- some got let go. Every one of them learned something though- and I learned that I’m really good at being a big brother.

Animated GIF of Uncle Iroh from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” sitting in front of a fire drinking tea.
Somewhere along the way, I was called the “Uncle Iroh” of the bakery.
Not gonna lie, that’s some high praise.

That makes perfect sense, because I AM a big brother. When I was six, my little sister Lauren was born. We spent more of our childhoods fighting and arguing than talking. She’d steal my toys, rips the covers off my comic books, and pester me while I played computer games. She was, for all intents and purposes, a goddamn annoyance.

In all fairness, I was much the same for my older sister Stephanie. I remember when some of my “friends” in high school met her for the first time and said, “Wait, you’re THAT Matt Strenger’s sister? But… you’re so cool!”

It might just be one of those things that growing up involves- you’re trying to be big in a world that is way bigger, and you can’t stand having anything small around you. I wonder sometimes if that isn’t a root of some cooks bellyaching about their trainees or new guys on social media.

In college, my relationship with my little sister changed- I was finally out of the house, as was Stephanie. Lauren had it all to herself- and she missed us. She would tell me later that watching me play Starcraft and Diablo (badly) on our parents computer was one of her fondest memories of growing up. She remembered us arguing and terrorizing each other, sure- but she also remembered the couple of times I’d stick up for her.

You really don’t have to be the biggest guy to mean something in the world. You just have to have a big heart for the people that need you.

When someone new comes to train under me, I make a promise to them-
Do your best, work hard, respect yourself and the work, and I will move heaven and earth to help you succeed. Show me you give even half a rats ass about learning this job, and I will make sure you learn it as well as I can. No hidden tricks, no secret knowledge. If you become better than me, then that just means I’m an awesome teacher and taught you well.”

I am not a screamer- nothing good comes out of it, and it makes me feel like shit as much as whoever I’m screaming at. That’s no way to teach.

On my break one day in the bakery, I was dozing slightly when I heard one of my assistants open the oven and say “Oh Goddammit.” There were hurried footsteps coming to the office, but then stopped short. I learned later that, seeing me dozing, they didn’t want to wake me up.

My break ended. “Ok, so what happened?”

My assistant indicated two very dark Apricot tarts. “I… uh.. I forgot to set a timer, Matt.” The tarts weren’t ruined per se, but they were what I half-jokingly call “cosmetically unsellable,“ meaning “You and I would eat that in a heartbeat, but the shmucks that are gonna buy slices of it from our customer don’t know any better, and our customer knows THEIR customers.”

”Yeah, that’s not gonna work. We have the materials though.”
”Yeah Matt, already started making new ones. I’m sorry.”
I poke at the chestnut-brown crust and overly tanned fruit on top. “It’s alright. Get it done, set a timer. I’ll pull it out if you need to leave at the end of the day.”

Sometime later, as the tart comes out of the oven, I show my assistant “what done looks like.”

“Farther than this, you’re getting into unsellable territory. Those guys are picky.”

”Thanks Matt. I, uh.. didn’t want to get you angry.”

”Dude, you fucked up. You knew you fucked up, you owned it, told me, and took steps to correct it. Yeah, it’s gonna cost some money- but we had the product on hand to fix it. Shit happens, just learn and don’t do it again. Why should I be mad?”

If I have done my job well, and I have assistants that want to be worth a damn in this industry, they’ll critique their work harder than I ever could.
They’ll have chefs, employers, and a whole industry looking for excuses to grind their souls in to the dust and stomp on their hearts in order to “toughen them up” and “give them a skin.” I don’t need to join that crowd- what I gotta do is make sure they LEARN, and that fucking up isn’t a problem as long as you learn and keep moving.

When I got back to my own work, my assistant joked that he wouldn’t know what to do if I yelled at him. I said “Eh, I’d probably just give you an ‘I’m not mad, just disappointed’ talk.”

“Uh… isn’t that what I just got?”

“…Not even close.”

Animated GIF of Gary Oldman from the movie The Fifth Element screaming “I am very disappointed!”

I’m not so far up my own ass that I’d call myself anyone’s mentor. Kinda like chef- or “big brother” for that matter- it’s not a title you claim for yourself or a role you try to fill. You become a mentor when someone realizes they can learn from you, and when you decide you’ll help them learn. After 28 years of being a big brother, I’m still not entirely sure what that position entails. I should probably ask Lauren about that.

What I do know for certain is that if I am in a position of knowledge and experience, I have a responsibility to pass that on. That if I have less-experienced people looking to me for answers, I should have them- or I should be honest about not having them.

In any case, I should be building a kitchen where no one is afraid to ask questions, for help, or how things work. Getting knowledge is hard- asking for help getting it should be as easy as breathing.

A while back, I started working on another book that was initially just notes to me on everything I learned about leading and managing a kitchen over my career. After a while, some chef friends expressed interest in reading it for themselves. Look out for it next year!

Stay Classy,

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