Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way; On Paying it Forward by Chef Julia Kendrick Conway

Recent events nationally have served to remind me that we, the infamous and populous “Baby Boomer” generation still think that we are driving the bus, whether at home, at work, or in public service and politics.  Being one the tail end of the generation as it is commonly defined, I find myself at odds with the older members of our large and diverse cohort.  Often, I identify more closely with those of the next group, oddly labeled “Generation X”.  When I entered the university and the workforce, computers were beginning to appear on the scene, radically changing the way that business was transacted.  Earlier members of my generation furrowed their brows and shook their heads at invasion of technology into their workplace, often refusing to consider doing anything differently than they had been doing it for years.  This was as true in the kitchen as it was in the office or the classroom.

In the societal and political realm, our generation was known for the hippies, dropping out, progressive ideology and social consciousness.   However, many of us shifted focus in the 1980’s on jobs, money and upward mobility.  The “me” generation discovered the power bestowed by the dollar.  Onward we rushed toward fame and fortune, spurred on by the media’s portrayal of a glittering life in the fast lane.  Those who made it to the top of the pyramid often pursued executive management or public office, and the continued rewards of power and influence.  But being the territorial animals that we are, we retreated into our silos and began, as we got older to vigorously defend what we felt was rightfully ours.  Weren’t we the ones that worked day and night, often without recognition, to eventually arrive at this hallowed state?  All of a sudden, we started sounding an awful lot like our parents, disparaging the younger generation for their lack of commitment, ambition, discipline and drive.

I hear it every day, in the kitchen, among my peers, in person and on social media, “What are they teaching those kids these days?  Don’t they understand what it takes?”  We cling desperately to our declining influence, refusing to embrace new ideas and new ways of operating.  We just can’t believe that these younger people are ready or able to take their place in “our” world.  This was recently evidenced by the fact we had two 70-year-old Presidential candidates, each one vigorously defending their own experiences and point of view, wagging their fingers at the population at large, each convinced that they, and only they had the answers to all of our problems.  If the younger generation voiced disagreement, they were shamed and treated like children.  I don’t have to wonder why tens of thousands of them “sat this one out”.

But back to the kitchen.  The majority of our entry and mid-level workforce are younger than 30.  Even the ranks of executive chefs in top rated restaurants are getting younger and younger.  The back-breaking, all-out work required to stay at the top of the game becomes more and more difficult on our minds and bodies as we age.  But who is going to follow us?  We cannot bring ourselves to believe that these “kids” that we perceive as having no discipline, no understanding of our rules and no work ethic are ready to step up and take our place.  This is where the dissonance comes in.  If we cannot and will not teach, embrace, mentor and guide those on our teams, they will not be able to acquire the experience it takes.  We have to give to get, pay it forward in order to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

A couple of chef friends, one on the west coast and one in the east, proudly announced that one of their core team members was moving up and out, on to bigger and better challenges.  One was off to culinary school, the other to an up and coming restaurant in a large metropolitan area.  Most of us would be gnashing out teeth at the thought of losing someone like that, yet both of my friends were excited that these bright, talented young people were embracing the challenge and moving on.  In the days before the Food Network and celebrity chefs, young cooks were mentored, taken under the wing of an older and more experience chef, taught skills, techniques, methodologies and discipline of the craft on a daily basis.  In today’s kitchens, there is a bottleneck of chefs that hoard their knowledge and experience, reacting out of fear for their own well-being.  I’ve been told “…if you train them, they will just leave and you will have to start all over again” or “they just want my job, let them figure it out themselves!”  This attitude gets us nowhere.  It is too easy to forget what it felt like to be the younger, less experienced members of the team.  If we look back honestly, we have to admit that there was someone, probably more than one person, who took us under their wing and shared their knowledge and experience to help us succeed.  It is critical to our success and the success of not only our businesses but our nation to come to terms with the fact that we, as a generation are aging.  Like a piece of equipment or a container of spices, we are “dating out”, our usefulness beginning to decline.  And notice I say beginning, as there is still time to build the kind of teams that can be real legacies of what we have contributed.  Our craft, our industry, our nation is a continuum.  As one group lays down the tasks, another is there to pick them up and move forward.  Our generation is so mired in its own self-importance that we cannot recognize our place as a link in a larger chain.

So, what can we do today?  Start small.  Reach deep inside to find the patience to explain yet again that supposedly simple task to a bewildered prep cook.  Find a way to say thank you, even when someone does something differently than you were taught to do it.  Reward your team members for asking questions rather than being annoyed that they do not understand.  Step aside and let a younger colleague have a shot at the brass ring.  Our generation has accomplished a lot, but let our most enduring legacy be that we were teachers, that we inspired, that we encouraged, that we helped build the foundation on which the next generation of leaders will stand.  Instead of ridiculing or fearing change, embrace their enthusiasm and new ideas.  Ask questions rather than assume you know all the answers, and really listen to what they have to say.  Yes, I know, mentoring is hard work when you have a business to run, an event or service to get through, a long busy season or a mountain of prep to complete.  The essential truth remains, we cannot criticize those who will take the reins of the future when we were unwilling to help shape their experience in a positive way.  Step up, pay it forward, be the change you want to see, and if you can’t be it, teach it to those that will follow.  Don’t cling to the past, reach for the future, and then reach down to help someone else take the next step.  


Click for more from Chef Julia Kendrick Conway and her series- A Chef’s Journey. Find her on Facebook.

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