Here’s a new take on chef retention: When a promising cook resigns, just say no. Don’t accept the resignation. That was the approach taken by Chef Gavin Kaysen, owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, when he was executive chef at Café Boulud in New York City and dealing with an aspirational young protégé. Executive chef Aaron Bludorn, who has sat at the helm of Café Boulud’s kitchen since Chef Kaysen returned to his home state to open Spoon and Stable, started as a line cook at the soup and salad position.
Bludorn’s ascent to the No. 1 position was due in large part to the mentor relationship that developed between the two chefs—not unlike the way Chef Kaysen’s progression to executive chef and ultimately to restaurant ownership was fueled by the guidance and support of his mentor, Chef Daniel Boulud.
“Aaron flourished and quickly moved to the fish station, but about a year into his program with us he told me he wanted to move on,” Chef Kaysen says.
How did you react?
I asked him what he wanted to do, and Aaron said, ‘I’m from Seattle, so I’d like to cook here, then maybe at Momofuku, Gramercy Tavern, and Eleven Madison Park or Per Se—then move back to Seattle and open a restaurant.’ I said, ‘Well, if you’re a cook in four different places and you move back to Seattle, what does that make you in Seattle?’ He understood: If you’ve been a cook at four places, you’re still a cook. His goal was to be a chef, so I said, ‘Well then, you can’t leave’—and I walked away.
Did that convince him?
He questioned staying with us another time or two, but he knew Café Boulud was an exceptional opportunity. Although when he started, he was much more talented than making soups and salads—it was just all we had at the time. The humility of somebody accepting that role and not thinking, ‘Well I’m better than that; I should start at a higher level.’ He took that position with a lot of pride and passion—and it paid dividends back because at just 29 years old he was the executive chef at a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City.
At some point, was it clear that he was there to stay?
About year three I knew I would be making a move in a couple of years … so I kept trying to coach him and teach him the business. It’s not always about cooking: It’s about management; it’s about leadership. He grew to the point that he became the executive sous chef at the restaurant—that meant he was in the No. 2 spot and on the right path.
How do you realize when a cook is someone you want to invest the time in to mentor and help grow?
You can tell pretty quickly how much people want to push themselves, and you can tell it from simple things. Let’s say I work a station with an employee and I write the mise en place list differently than how it was normally written—and the next time I look at that employee’s mise en place list it’s written exactly like I did it. Just seeing the little details that someone picks up on is important.
What would be your recommendation to other chefs on how to foster a mentor relationship?
It just happens over time. … My mentorship with Daniel stems from a letter I wrote asking if I could do an internship for one week. It’s just a matter of time, but you have to be ready and willing for that, both as a mentee and the mentor. You have to be willing to put trust into someone.