The president of Bocuse d’Or talks about how guiding young chefs is crucial to the future of this industry.

Mentorship is an essential part of any successful career, but especially for young chefs. This is why Chef Jérôme Bocuse, son of the famed Paul Bocuse, the founder of the Bocuse d’Or global culinary competition, has served as executive vice president of the board of directors at ment’or and is now the president of the Bocuse d’Or. A firm believer in the importance of mentorship, Chef Bocuse works to provide education, connections, and leadership to young American chefs.

What does being a mentor mean to you?

It’s a very rewarding experience. When you are a mentor, you are a guide for the mentee, and you feel proud to be a role model for them and to inspire them to become what they want to become. It doesn’t mean that you are trying to copy and paste what you are.

But before anyone is going to be mentored, they need to be inspired. You can mentor or guide people, but if that’s not what they want to be, you are not going to be successful.

What makes mentorship so important?

Mentorship is very essential. I still need mentorship, and there is always somebody who does things better. All your life, look for some kind of guidance, and you’ll always learn from something—that never ends. And mentors are not always in the kitchen. There are people that inspired me in life in general, not only on the business side, but also in the way they interact with people and run the business as well. I can get mentorship from a businessman running a company or from a chef to improve a dish. Seek guidance from different fields, and that helps you grow.

Was your father a mentor to you?

The father and son relationship is not always the easiest in a mentorship. I am a father. In the past, I was really involved as an athlete in some sports, like snow skiing, when I was young. I could have said to my son, “I have great expertise in snow skiing, I was a snow instructor, and I was on the national team,” and tried to teach him, but I feel that it’s sometimes not easy to teach a skill to your son because he doesn’t look at you the same way. Sometimes it can work, but it’s not easy to have a father and son relationship versus an instructor or guide relationship.

That being said, I have a lot of admiration for my father, and he does inspire me, but as far as my father teaching me and guiding me—it’s a little more difficult. But one of the reasons I admire my father is because all his life he stayed on track. He was strict in the kitchen and had a lot of discipline, and at the end that paid off. That definitely inspired me for the rest of my career.

Who have been some of your mentors?

I have several mentors, and they are not always in the kitchen. These are people who inspired me in life in general not only on the business side, but also in the way they were interacting with people and running the business as well.

I admire Steve Jobs for his success in running his company and his belief in simplicity. He once said, “Focus and Simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” I believe this applies to life and work in the kitchen.

I also admire Sir Richard Branson, not only for his business leadership and philanthropy, but also for his method of mentorship. He once wrote, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and by falling over.” I believe that applies to everything from athletes participating in extreme sports to chefs in the kitchen.

How have you been able to pass on your experience to other chefs?

I mentor a little differently than other chefs. Like Branson, I like chefs to experience and make mistakes by themselves in order to learn the right way. I have a hard time believing in telling them “This is the way you do it, and you have to do it this way and no other.”

I want them to fail. I want them to feel it and understand that this didn’t work. I want mentees to take responsibility, and I tell them to try things and go and get feedback from the dining room. That’s how they grow. I don’t want them to be a soldier; I want them to be managers. I want them to be entrepreneurs. I want them to understand.

What type of mentorship does ment’or offer young chefs?

There are a lot of chefs who don’t have exposure to the network. The real value of ment’or is being there to talk to some known chefs who are already established and have made names for themselves and to take advantage of that and be inspired.

We have a diverse Culinary Council. Some chefs will be inspired by Tom Colicchio, or Daniel Humm, or by Grant Achatz, or Wolfgang Puck. We have a large panel with different styles of cuisine, and we provide great diversity. We have a great network of chefs, and we can open doors for chefs in this country who don’t have the connections to be able to get established.

We are also able to open the door, and we’re able to support chefs financially, with a fully paid internship or “stagier.” At the end, we get great satisfaction because the chefs come back to us and do a presentation on what they learned during their internship, and you almost have tears in your eyes because it’s very emotional. You really feel that you changed their lives forever.

What are the qualities young chefs need to have to be considered for ment’or?

They need to have solid motivation to start. When I see a young chef who is on time at work and wants to progress in life, who is really into his job and wants to make it and go through the steps, that’s when I push him to ment’or. If someone doesn’t care much or is just there to collect a paycheck, I am not going to be so supportive. It starts by being inspired by being willing to go to the next step and progress in your career.

We’re here to guide them as mentors; we’re here to help them, but at the beginning it’s not going to fall from the sky. They need to have that willingness to make it. It’s not a one-way relationship. We’re here to help, but at the end, there is not much we can do if that person is not striving for the same goal as we are.

It’s important that they understand that there is a process to go through. I see a lot of chefs that have two years of culinary school with an AOS (associate in occupational studies) degree, and they want to be chefs doing molecular cuisine, but they can barely cook an omelet. They have to understand that there is a process, and you have to be patient, and you have to climb the stairs one by one. That’s how you’re going to get a solid foundation.

What have been some of your other mentorship experience outside of ment’or?

We use a labor pool here in Florida. A van picks up homeless people on the streets who have nothing, and they go to a center and get a shower and clothes. Then this company brings them to us, and most of them do cleaning and dishwashing in the restaurant. I have had a few workers that were always on time, and you could see they wanted that job. After a year or so, I said to them, “I am going to hire you. You won’t have to go this company taking most of the money.”

Now they have a real job. Today, one of them is an assistant pastry chef. Another one is the head receiver, and those people, they say “Boss, you saved my life.” And I say, “No, you saved your life. Because of the way you behaved and the way you really wanted to do well, you got it. This wasn’t me. I was here to facilitate it, but it all started from you.” I was very proud, and those people have a job, a roof, a family, and a car, and 10 years ago, they didn’t have anything.

This is mentorship. They see something, and we’re here to guide them we’re here to help them, but at the beginning it’s not going to fall from the sky.

Chef Profiles, Feature