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« Silicone Molds, in the {sweet} kitchen. | Main | Pastry Kitchen Portrait. I »

09 November 2007


Great piece on teaching and mentorship, Shuna.

I don't know if this is going to make you feel better or worse -- but the culinary school problem (turning out grads that don't know anything for profit) isn't only limited to your industry. I was inspired by some of your culinary school pieces, saw my own prior industry in it, and wrote a piece taking a stance against the for profit model of education that is ruining several industries.

I have taught students and, unfortunately, these schools are not teaching critical thinking or hard work. In fact, they encourage the attitude amongst some students that their opinion is worth the same as fact, and their opinion is worth the same of a seasoned professional.

I've been baffled as to why this is, but ultimately the only thing I can come up with is that perhaps students with unrealistic expectations and an unrealistically high regard for their knowledge base results in more money for the school.

So, worrying that I've depressed you further, I was hoping to let you know that I think you are reacting to a wider societal problem and pastry is only one of the victims.

Thanks for such an inspiring piece and for not being afraid to say what you think. Its given me lots to think about. Thankfully what I'm currently learning at culinary classes is from an excellent teacher but I can see where this could all go wrong if we are not mentored well when we escape from school.

And incidentally, I think I can wholeheartedly agree with Risa when I say that my industry is very similar(chemistry). We have Phd's and even people with postdocs that set themselves on fire because they dont understand the materials they are dealing with.

I'm giving you a standing ovation. I love your direct, brutal style of telling these things that some people in the business seem to be forgetting. And then kids get out of school into an unforgiving business and get eaten alive. I guess then they'll remember the mean teacher that was an ass...

Thank you so much for someone just starting in this world it's so great to have your experienced missives. I really appreciate it, so much.

Pretty much word for word everything you said could be said about my field (Architecture). How it eats its young. How it sells the dream, and the title, but offers something else entirely. How the people who should be teaching aren't and the people who aren't really supposed to be are. How it physically and emotionally breaks you down and builds you up again. How it assumes that you are happy to work 18-hour days for weeks in a row. How we love, love, love it with a sad-eyed lover's passion, but also recognize it kicks us in the teeth. How more than anything I love to teach and to manage, but those who are taught/managed don't always know what you can offer, or that the things they think matter don't. How everything we do is a team effort and can't be done without a whole crew of people - from the back office guys to the carpenters - but how egos floursish wildly anyhow even in the absence of recognition and pay. How what you see in the media is a lie. How sometimes we leave the field, but always long for it. And how at the end of the day, there is nothing more satisfying EVER than making something and having it there in front of you for people to enjoy.

I am a dedicated and pasionate (and deeply amateur) cook (with a tiny dabbling of pro work). But until I read this essay I never realized how close the professions were.

Your style reminds me a lot of my yoga teachers. Well, some of them, anyway. Some are very sweet. But my favorite, a guy named Manouso who teaches in Glen Park (so I only get to see him when I visit SF) is known for being brusque, for being vehement, for yelling, for always talking loudly, for being direct, borderline insulting students during class... but if you stick it out with him, there is this core essence of compassion (as they say, true compassion is ruthless) and everything he does is very obviously in the service of his students, not his ego, and not a result of some uncontrollable anger.

I wanted to ask him (but he's mobbed, I never have much time to talk one-on-one) what the practice is for becoming a teacher who can employ anger or intensity to help convey imperative (because it does!) but have it come from a place of compassion, instead of what I feel like I do, which is to vent my anger because it is cathartic to me, makes me feel better, or because I lose a little control and let it out with my temper, and can only rationalize it after the fact: "Well, that'll help it stick." Or, "It's good I yelled, because it's a very important point and he was letting his fear or insecurity stop him, and needed a shock to move past it." But while that may be true, it was not the intention.

I'll ask you, too: How do you employ vehemence, anger, intensity, in teaching with the intention of compassion, instead of just a rationalized-in-hindsight cathartic letting-off of steam?

I would like to figure it out. I think it's a hallmark of a great teacher, that ability to use a wider range of tools with the student, but all with compassionate intent.

As I read your blog, by the way, I paradoxically find myself wanting to quit my job and work in the restaurant industry both much more, and much less, simultaneously. :)


I know that anger or yelling is a style that does not become everyone. Michel Bras rarely screams in his kitchen. Most of the chefs who do use anger, were taught that way.

Time and experience shows you how to know from those who do it as a way of testing and pushing their charges and those who do it as a way to justify their position.

Personally, I've worked with people who were ruthless, but always with a reason. And I am very grateful for what I learned with them. And those who just did it as a way to say "I'm the boss here". They also taught me something, though.

I learned the most from my worst (and very last) SOB boss. He was truly a horrible man. And one of the most deeply unhappy people I have ever met. I was both scared of him, and felt more deeply and viscerally sorry for him than anyone I've ever known.

From him I learned what NOT to do. I learned that if you compromise your true nature in order to meet someone else's expectations you end up not only unhappy, but not able to do a good job. I learned that compassion is not weakness, and that strength comes not from force but from internal steeliness. I learned both to be very flexible and in dealing with people, and very inflexible in terms of what I will and won't compromise on. I learned principles are nothing if you don't live them.

I learned that after all is said and done you still have to live with yourself at the end of the day, and that no reward, or threat, or judgement is worth doing something that would give you pause when you are alone with yourself.

Great post, Shuna. Really.

Going into culinary school at 30, i was one of the oldest students in my class, aside from two of them. I understood, not being 18, that I was going to get out of school what I put in. So I got a shit-ton out of school. There are some of us out there who have dreams rooted in reality. You know I love you to death but generalizations about culinary students should be re-examined.

While you talk about the kids out of school who were lied to by their admissions board, and I agree with that, consider that some of us are in a place in our budding careers where we WANT to be good, we don't mind taking our lumps and being a grunt and knowing we have years of dues to pay to get where we want to be. But when we have high hopes because we aren't broken and jaded by this industry and work at a place where the management couldn't rub two shits together to care one cent about any of their crew... what then? what do you do when the management sells you on their restaurant and how fantastic the food is, how they're a big family, how communication and teamwork is essential... blah blah blah... only to be lied to by them? only to be gossiped about by the owner and GM? to be sexually harrassed by the chef? what should we put up with? when do we start hating ourselves? when do we get to work with adults instead of feeling like we're back in goddamn high school? can i have a chef who wants to be at work? can i have a chef who doesn't say "I hate this place" when i'm standing right there? can i have a place where the owner doesn't blame me for the chef's mistakes? can i have a place where i don't have to cover the chef's ass? what the hell?

am I, as a line cook, asking too much?

now, i'm not scared of anyone. NOBODY. i don't give a shit who someone is. everyone takes a shit every day just like i do, so who fucking cares. everyone has insecurities. i agree with you about respect -- but when an owner and a chef don't understand that without cooks THEY ARE FUCKED, then why should I respect them?

Viva Las Vegas.

I don't need a chef or owner to babysit my ass. I can be shown what to do and do it. I can be told what to do and do it. They can ask me "can we do this?" and I'll say yes before I even think about what they're saying, AND THEN I DO IT. What I need is a chef or owner to do is act like a GD human being. I need them to give a shit about what they're doing and realize their shit attitude trickles down. But when all they care about is money and exposure, I'm the idiot.

sorry for the trash mouth, but then again, I am a line cook.

Not much to say, except that im going to share this with all my peers. You just said what ive been agonizing over for the past year. Thank you.

It's interesting that everyone is talking about angry management styles and harnessing anger. I've worked for two people. One was mean, always turning to anger as a motivating factor. Sure that got it done, but people under his charge were miserable and resentful. Now I work for someone who I so nice it seems impossible, unreal. But it isn't. And you know what...there is not a single person that works for said individual that wouldn't go to the far corners of the world to help her or fulfill her requests.
Certainly being a kind manager is harder, and it inherently puts a manager in a vulnerable position.
But when did we all stop valuing niceness? Why should we aspire to be angry angry, daunting and challenging? Can we get the same results by being pleasant, supportive and nurturing? My recent experience has shown me that one can obtain results that are even better.

Amen, sistah.


Yes, indeed. thanks for your insights as well. I do know that these issues are not limited to my industry. Cooking professionally is what I know so I only speak to that.


Wow, setting oneself on fire! I imagine it's a great way to learn one lesson. Or learn a lesson once.


This I love:
"I paradoxically find myself wanting to quit my job and work in the restaurant industry both much more, and much less, simultaneously."

You raise important points, ones too difficult to address in the comments section.

I will leave it to my present and past assistants to say whether my impression of myself is true, but I consider myself a strong and patient boss. I am neither a screamer nor a "humiliator." It's rare that I become angry at my charges.

I was treated a very different way by most of my previous chefs/ pastry chefs.

But, as I've said, THIS is the style I work with because I can go to bed at night.

One of my biggest faults?
I care too much.


Well said! I, too, have learned something from everyone-- even the really mean chefs/ pastry chefs.


Your comments here are extra ordinary. Thank you so much for taking the time to set them down in this forum. I am quite grateful. Wow is about all I can say.


It is an honor to have your eyes and mind here. Thank you for reading and for commenting. I hold your own perceptive opinion in very high regard. Thank you & you're welcome.


I hear you. I am harsh on the cul. sch. students. I know they are all created in-equally. But, for the most part, the culinary schools themselves are to blame...

also, I appreciate you back-- but you know the answers to many of your questions... Hold yourself and your skill level and your passion in higher regard and seek restaurants which are professional.

If Vegas has none of these kitchens, go elsewhere. I know its not easy to struggle somewhere, but many people line cook in SF and get by. It's not impossible in SF or NYC or anywhere else.

If you keep doing what you've always done you'll keep getting what you've always got.


Great, glad to be of service. We are comrades, for certain.


I have never stopped valuing niceness. I'm always a little skeptical if that's all a person is, but to each their own management style. I had to choose a method (see above) that would insure I could go to bed every night without huge regrets.

I've had all sorts of bosses. But the ones who've inspired me weren't always mean or nice, they were themselves and found a way to push and educate me.

This is what I hope to do: To push, educate and inspire.

Shuna- At some point, I wonder if you will take this energy towards teaching and start your own cooking school, or teach at one of the fine ones that still remain.

We have many simlar issues and frustrations in training young physicians.

I remmebr a particularly tough mentor of minw - I could not undrestand why he was so hard on me and not on others around me. Then he told me - You are a diamond in the rough and I have to chisel away at you to get the diamond out. The others - they don't have your potential, so I just ignore them and let them be.

It's the tough mentors who teach us the most.

Hang tough.

i may have to print this up and show it to prospective new employees.. :) great read . thank you :)

m. butler @ myspace

Very interesting stuff Shuna!

I'm going to take a different direction from everyone else to start with - I sadly think what you are saying is even more true and prevalent than you are thinking - and it explains the truly dramatic drop off in the overall experience at many restaurants - especially those that aspire to a finer dining experience. For reasons to do with poverty, necessity, lack of formal training, this applies much less to ethnic restaurants. Anyway - I think that I truly dislike many restaurants under ten years old because the effect of too much dilution of training and teaching has hit them hard. Older restaurants have older and wiser people in charge. There was a reason that an apprenticeship in the old days lasted seven years. 9 months or a year doesn't cut it.

On to part two....I also agree that this is happening in many fields. I see it everywhere, from people in my industry to my kids at school. I see that people doing the teaching either do not care or do not know enough to teach well. And I see countless 'students' who have bought in to the lie that they can learn anything at all quickly and easily with no effort. Whether it is dicing an onion, writing a letter, shooting a free throw, whatever, the more you do it and the harder you work at doing it well, the better you get. Sure I CAN dice an onion - but at least I know I do it slowly and not really very well. Sure I can shoot a free throw - eventually. But you better believe I can write a great article, first time, no edits, in complete, complex sentences, stepping through the pertinent points one by one and wrapping up neatly. And I can do it better now, twenty years in, than I could even a year ago, let alone ten or fifteen years ago. And I can help someone else do it - but only if they want to learn.

The point is that Shuna is teaching THE important lesson here - the one that makes all the others possible. If you aren't open to learning and growing every moment then you are wasting your opportunities in life. Please don't waste your energies on anger, Shuna. Be glad that you helped the person. Be glad that you helped the rest of us.

It's so true. It has taken me years as a chef to learn it but, this isn't the life for walk-ins; this about living and breathing kitchens, and so few people seem to realise that.

Thanks for your inspirational words.

Please check out my blog if you would like to read more from the true side of the kitchen.

I am an Australian chef and when training (4 yr apprenticeship), I was ripped off royally by a lot of chefs who were looking for cheap (slave) labour. What amazes me is that this is one of the only industries that doesn't demand but *expects* you to work for free. Thankfully, this practice is now outlawed in my country. However, it never ceases to make me cringe when my American colleagues say, "Oh yeah I trialled for six months at have to work for free if you're going to get anywhere."

Well, you don't. This is a lie that a lot of kitchens sell. And it's an insult to the trainee. Kitchens need to remember that respect is earned too.

Fortunately for me, the kitchens I ended up working in I have found to be supportive, nurturing and ultimately a gift to my career. I don't need to work for a prick to know what one is.

And I don't believe you have to be brutal just because you think the industry is. That, in my view, is a cop out. Likewise, you don't have to work for an anarcho kitchen because you think it's a rite of passage. It's not.

Let's face it, the reason why people think they're pastry cooks because they can bake a cake is because the media is telling them that they are. Cookery bloggers who have never worked a line in their little lives are suddenly esteemed as qualified and seasoned cookery professionals (not pointing the finger at you, btw) when they are anything but and some aspects of the cooking industry are actually endorsing this. (When you look at the top cooking blogs 95% aren't written by industry pros. God forbid, even a movie was made about one of them. Puhlease).

I think it's high time that we, as part of that industry, start owning a bit of the responsibility for the appalling state our industry is currently in rather than pontificating about it.

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