Mentors in the kitchen

Selector Magazine
September/October 2016

For those of us lucky enough to learn how to cook at our grandmother’s apron strings, cooking was absorbed; similarly to language and tastes, it was a lesson by osmosis more than structured learning.

In a commercial kitchen the concept is largely the same, if the execution is a little harsher! The traditional kitchen brigade, a model created by Escoffier at the turn of last century, is formed around the idea of the military. Rank is everything but you all work shoulder to shoulder, you learn by stealing with your eyes and your ears. In the kitchen, it has always been the chef’s role to teach and, the role of the apprentice (the word derived from the French verb apprendre) is, literally, to learn.

Escoffier got many things right and, along with his battery of stocks and sauces, his French brigade system has long been considered the cornerstone of professional cooking. When done well it is a beautiful system that shares the strengths of wisdom and knowledge with the energy and vitality of the younger members. Training in a traditional French restaurant is still lauded by even the most avant-garde chefs. It is a model for mentoring.

In Australia, our culinary scene was forged a little differently. A melting pot of nationalities and culinary influences existed in the years following WWII, but the drinking and dining scene remained heavily regulated. In throwing off the shackles of the temperance movement we also began to see revolution in our kitchens.

A handful of Australian chefs were leading the way: Tony and Gay Bilson opened Tony’s Bon Gout in 1973, a restaurant as revered for its food as for the political conviviality shared at the table. In 1975 the couple took over Berowra Waters Inn. In 1981 Damien and Josephine Pignolet opened the classic French restaurant Claude’s on Oxford Street, after years at The Pavilion on the Park and Butlers. (In 1981, Gay and Tony parted ways, with Gay joined by Janni Krytsis at Berowra, while Tony returned to Sydney to run Kinselas.)  Stephanie Alexander was turning heads in Victoria, Cheong Liew was doing likewise in Adelaide. Gay Bilson notes in her book, Plenty, “The inchoate notion of an Australian cuisine began to take shape, not from the soil up but from the commercial kitchen down, heralding a new era of public dining.” In the decade from 1970 the number of licensed restaurants tripled nationally.

The distance from continental Europe meant these pioneers had little choice but to learn through books and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they largely chose the French. Gay Bilson recounts: “(Tony’s) bible was August Escoffier’s Guide to Modern Cookery and it probably still is. He had never been out of Australia, let alone to France.” Theirs was a gang that largely learnt from books and from each other, and from a voracious appetite to create.

Maggie Beer recalls meeting Stephanie Alexander in 1984, after a number of years cooking, and realizing the importance and joy of that shared knowledge and experience: “I had someone who was willing to show me her operation to help me learn and shared with me the important food writers of the world. It was a time when there was little knowledge to be drawn on as is possible today and in those early days there was never money for travel to learn from others.”

As these chefs learned, they also gathered others around them and began to teach, to share, to collaborate, to nurture. From their kitchens amazing talent was spawned. It is here you start to get an understanding of the profound role mentoring has had on Australia’s culinary scene.

Alex Herbert, who plied her trade under Gay Bilson and Krytsis at Berowra Waters and later with Beer, before owning her own restaurant, believes it is as much about context as the cookbooks: “A good mentor is someone who doesn’t just share their knowledge, they will teach you how to make a bavarois but they will then give you the cookbook so that you understand the context. Gay and Janni were my cookbook mentors.” Later, while cooking in South Australia with Beer, Maggie took her into the garden and the fields, to give context to the produce.

“Everyone learns differently,” Beer explains, “however nothing is more powerful than person to person sharing of knowledge.” There is no question that the great restaurants leave an indelible mark on the chefs that pass through their kitchens; that DNA can be seen in many different guises: it could be a temperament, an endless questioning, a discipline, an approach to creativity, or a collection of cookbooks.

The mentoring relationship is often symbiotic and the greatest reward can be watching your apprentice move on in the world. Tetsuya Wakuda famously began his time in commercial kitchens as a dish washer at Bilson’s Kinselas in 1983. “I was very lucky to meet both (Tony Bilson and Armando Percuoco) at the beginning of my career. They both encouraged me to grow not just as a cook but personally,” says Wakuda, “Tony taught me French techniques that have been the foundation of my food style.” That balance between professional and personal growth is a common factor among the best mentors.

“The Oxford dictionary calls a mentor 'a trusted experienced advisor'. In many ways a good chef will be that to an apprentice” explains Damien Pignolet. “The generous chef has always been the one to shape a country's culinary hallmarks - providing that in one to one transferal of information, method and technique, he or she is honest and never holds back.”

In 1990, Pignolet created the Josephine Pignolet Award, which is given to one young Australian chef each year. “Nothing comes near the quality of knowledge an experienced and passionate chef can offer an apprentice if the latter has ears to hear and eyes to watch,” explains Pignolet. Created in honour and memory of his late wife, Josephine, who was, incidentally, Pignolet’s apprentice when they first met and fell in love, the Josephine Pignolet Award serves to build connections with chefs and restaurants around the globe. The list of winners reads like a roll call of Sydney’s best.

Among them is Mark Best, the 1995 winner, who recently closed his much loved fine dining restaurant Marque after 17 years in Surry Hills. Best celebrated the closure with an alumni dinner, gathering together a cast of incredible names who had passed through his kitchen. Among them were four other Josphine Pignolet award winners - it appears mentors begets mentors.

“I provided a structure and environment to unlock their creativity – I teach them to be creative, it is not something you are born with – you have to use a technique – you have to be taught and that is something I have learned and I have passed that on” states Best. “I think you can see that where then they are able to take their own path.”

In today’s kitchen the rules and hierarchy have relaxed a little. Access to chefs around the world seems much easier as the internet and social media draws us all together. And yet we live in a world where it often feels we are drowning in information, yet starving for knowledge; we may be heading to a time where we need to focus back on the shoulder-to-shoulder. Mentoring is not just about learning how to work, but how to navigate the world and there is a lot to learn from those who came before, not just from Escoffier’s kitchen model, but from all knowledge that is shared via apron strings.