Almost every top chef will have at least one story about the person who took them under their wing and taught them the tricks of the trade. In fact, there are few industries where the mentor-to-protégée relationship is so established and protected as it is in the culinary world.
These relationships can have immensely good results. Angela Hartnett who trained under Gordon Ramsay, for instance, went on to help launch his new restaurant Verre. After being awarded an MBE, she started her own restaurant Murano and is one of the country’s most respected chefs. She still cites Ramsay as one of the biggest game changers in her career, and as a result, is happy to pay that forward.
Ferran Adrià who was chef at El Bulli, which has won the top restaurant in the world five times, has gone on to mentor and train some amazing chefs such as Oriol Castro, Mateu Casañas and Eduard Xatruch. He’s also looking to see how he can train new talent. “I want the new generation to be better than we were – they already are, but I want them to understand what they’re doing, not just to do it for the sake of it,” he said, talking to the World’s 50 Best blog.
The mentor-protégé relationship can also be a critical one when you don’t come from a well-connected background. Adria started off by washing posts, while chef and TV personality Gizzi Erskine, who trained under Ian Pengelly, worked as a body piercer before moving into food.
For Erskine, she cites three key figures in her life who really made a difference between working as a jobbing chef to taking her career to the next level.
The first is John Downey, who owns the food collective brand Street Feast. “We were both doing similar things bubbling around the underground food scene in London and he gave me a lot of opportunities. We shared studio space together and he gave me the opportunity within Street Feast to run huge events with him.”
Another was Soho House owner Nick Jones, who gave her the first pop-up restaurant opportunity that got her into the press and created buzz about her.
The final is her business partner Mark Francis-Baum who she runs Mare Street Market with. The vibrant foodie hangout with a vintage record shop and edgy florist.
“He’s one of the biggest movers and shakers in this industry,” she says. “He’s young and grounded and cool. He’s given me more faith in myself. He instilled confidence in me so I’m ready for it now. It’s funny how someone can just flick a switch in your head. Because I couldn’t even process the idea of Mare Street Market for years – 10 years – and then last year, he said: “We’re going to do this.””
Taking initiative as a young chef also has its rewards. Erskine has her own story of someone she helped, who is currently working in Mare Street Market.
“Her name is Zana, and when she was 16 or 17, she saw me on TV and sent me a Twitter message saying ‘I love you I want to be like you’. I responded and said to go to catering school and if you can’t afford that, go to work in restaurants.
“We kept in touch the whole time and the second I opened this place up – I asked her to come on board. She has now just been promoted to junior sous chef at the age of 21 and she’s brilliant. She took my advice and she’s been in my sphere for the last four or five years. What she did was really cool and really brave and she’s one of the best things about our kitchen. She’s the life and soul of that room.”
Above all, the mentor/protégé relationship is not just about what a more experienced person can teach a younger person. It works both ways and as chefs from Adria to Erskine will attest – the delight is in learning things even when you are trying to teach someone.
American Express understands the importance of powerful backing. That’s why the company has joined forces with music legend Nile Rodgers and culinary innovator Gizzi Erskine, to launch Backed By, to give one budding musician and one food entrepreneur the chance to take their ideas to the next level. Keep an eye on Backed By for more on Nile and Gizzi’s backing experiences.
Promotor: American Express Services Europe Limited has its registered office at Belgrave House, 76 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 9AX, United Kingdom. It is registered in England and Wales with Company Number 1833139 and authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.