The Power of Restaurant Mentors: Industry Insights & Inspiring Stories
May 10, 2023
How real restaurateurs have grown their careers through community.
Restaurant mentorship is essential for success in the hospitality industry. It’s a challenging line of work — constantly evolving and endlessly fast paced. There’s always more to learn, and there’s a big appetite for improvement from people who are curious and passionate.
That strong hunger for growth is met with an equally strong sense of community in the industry. It’s common for restaurateurs to help one another and rely on their fellow operators. And hospitality professionals connect frequently with each other for support no matter where they’re at in their journey.
Where To Look for Restaurant Mentorship
When you think of mentorship, an arrangement in which two people — usually one more experienced and one less experienced — are connected might come to mind. Typically, this type of mentorship is structured with a regular cadence of meetings or check-ins.
It’s how Food & Wine's Best New Chefs mentorship program is set up, with extensive planning and organization. The program was launched five years ago “when we sensed that sheer cooking skills alone were no longer enough to earn a chef respect in the restaurant industry — the demands on chefs as business owners, leaders, and role models had changed,” said Melanie Hansche, who heads up the program.
Each September, the new class of Best New Chefs meets in New York City for a half day of professional programming.
“We curate a private session hosted by industry leaders as well as BNC alumni to address several topics pertinent to the industry today, from self-care and work life balance, to scaling a business, branding, leadership, and cultivating a positive team culture,” said Hansche.
Post-programming, chefs are surveyed to find out what they’d like to focus on professionally. Then, F&W plays matchmaker, pairing people in their new class with their industry contacts.
“Once we introduce them, we let the mentors and mentees carve out their own cadence on what they want their partnership to look like for a 12-month period,” Hansche added.
Another model of mentorship is one among peers that’s more spontaneous and informal. This type of mentorship focuses less on a more established mentor coaching a more junior level mentee and instead leans into finding guidance and support from contemporaries.
Rohini Dey is one of the leaders in the space. In 2020, she founded Let's Talk Womxn, a collaboration of women restaurateurs. What started as a group of 15 women based in Chicago has grown to over 700 women in 13 cities nationwide.
“Our Let's Talk Womxn restaurateurs mentorship for each other is nonstop and real-world. We interact as peers in each city to share our best knowledge and referrals with both our monthly deep dive sessions and open access to each other,” said Dey.
Amanda Flores, Director of Operations for the Flour+Water Hospitality Group, is also leveraging the peer-to-peer model through the Bay Area Restaurant Collective. She facilitates the group that’s made up of all kinds of hospitality professionals — from first-time restaurant owners to seasoned, independent restaurateurs to managers in restaurant groups that have three to four spots.
“This is not a formal mentor/mentee program, but rather a group of 12–15 restaurants with a shared commitment to fostering growth and cultivating a supportive environment, which might include equitable compensation, community benefit, and diversity efforts,” said Flores. “We meet quarterly to share experiences and learn from each other.”
Stella Dennig, co-owner of Oakland restaurant Daytrip, is part of the Bay Area Restaurant Collective after connecting with Flores a little over a year ago. “For me, mentorship has been huge because I did not come into the industry from a traditional path,” said Dennig. “I didn't have any mentors going into this, I didn't have any role models. I didn't even have community in this industry, really.”
San Francisco’s Lazy Bear is also creating community and facilitating mentorship with an annual event rather than a quarterly or monthly meetup. The restaurant, which is a James Beard 2023 semi-finalist for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program, hosts a yearly Women's Day networking reception for female chefs, sommeliers, servers, managers, porters, and any other women in the hospitality industry.
“At Lazy Bear, we have a number of women in leadership positions, and it is amazing!,” said COO Colleen Booth. “I launched this event to bring industry females together to find inspiration, solace, and resources to each other and to grow relationships across multiple establishments — to encourage camaraderie, and acknowledge the need for mentorship in our industry.”
3 Stories of Restaurant Mentorship
Here are three examples of mentorship and details on how these relationships developed. Each story shares a different pathway to finding a mentor either through online networking, family, or professional connections.
Will Coleman & Myriam Nicolas
In Summer 2022, Will Coleman (TV Personality, Chef, and Founder of BOLD Spices) reached out to Myriam Nicolas (Owner of Brown Butter Craft Bar & Kitchen) through Instagram. Coleman was new to New York and searching for restaurants to partner with for a Juneteenth pop-up. The outreach has turned into a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Being thousands of miles from my hometown, Detroit, Michigan, I've found it crucial to have people in my corner who inspire me to be a better leader and human,” said Coleman.
“I'm grateful that Myriam has made herself available for me to call her whenever I'm searching for inspiration or insight about the restaurant business, raising capital, and all of the critical information needed when being a business owner.”
It’s been a two-way street, with Nicolas finding equal enjoyment and value in the connection, too.
“I love being able to share my experiences with younger people coming behind and being a source of support,” she said. “I am more than happy to share what I know so that they don’t face the same challenges.”
She describes her mentorship style as forthcoming and frank, informing mentees about things she wished she’d learned earlier in her career — anything to make their journeys easier.
Her advice on finding a mentor? Follow in Coleman’s footsteps with an outreach strategy.
“Find someone you admire or someone doing what you aspire to do and simply reach out to them. That simple! You would be surprised as to how receptive most people are to helping and sharing their knowledge.”
Marc Forgione & Larry Forgione
Sometimes, the best mentorship you can find is under your very own roof. For the past 30 years, Marc Forgione has learned from his father, Larry Forgione, and notes that a father-son mentorship has its own unique set of benefits and challenges.
“There's pros and cons. Obviously, I think the pros outweigh the cons,” said Marc. “For example, it's a lot harder to disagree when it's not only your mentor but your dad. And if I do, I have to hear about it at the next family gathering or during the holidays. But at the same time, I've had a front row seat to one of the greatest chefs of all time, and I'm so grateful for that.”
And Larry agrees that a family dynamic can feel different but ultimately, his goal was to teach new chefs — no matter who they were — through total immersion.
“When my sons Marc & Bryan came to work, they were treated the same as any other young cook,” he said. “Of course the overall relationship was different, after all they had unlimited access to my guidance, but anyone could seek my advice without limitation. We provided an atmosphere filled with talented chef de parties & sous chefs that would respectfully show them how my kitchen works. They were also surrounded with only the best of ingredients, interesting and often unique ingredients locally and nationally sourced. I used to say that a young culinarian needed to learn by ‘osmosis’. They needed to become a sponge.”
Amanda Flores & Paige McNeil
Often, mentorship can come from your manager. Amanda Flores, Director of Operations for the Flour+Water Hospitality Group, knows the responsibility she carries as the manager of multiple General Managers. And with the responsibility comes a lot of excitement as well.
“I love recognizing talent and helping people shine,” said Flores. “It’s extremely gratifying to support my team’s growth and evolution, witnessing how they approach their work and bring their distinct perspectives and skills to what they do. I feel so much pride when we get to grow as a company, creating opportunities for many of the super special individuals within it to grow, too.”
Flores oversees Paige McNeil, the General Manager at Penny Roma. The two meet weekly to discuss everything from staffing concerns to facilities management.
“These meetings have evolved so much over the year and a half we have worked together,” said McNeil. “ Initially, I approached with a ‘tell me exactly what to do!’ mentality, but now, with her guidance and some extra experience under my belt, I am able to come to our meetings and say ‘here's what I am thinking’ or ‘this is where I am stuck, how would you proceed.’”
Flores shares that her style is to lead with encouragement and inspiration. “I also like to teach people the whys and hows, so they learn how to make decisions themselves. I want our GMs and leaders to take pride in their work and have fun while they are at it!”
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