No matter how far you get in life, you will always remember your mentors. Every chef has at least one mentor, someone who taught and looked out for him or her when they were coming up in the culinary field.
Many along the road have helped me, and I feel a huge responsibility to help others in the way that I was.
From my many mentors, I learned something different.
I remember Bengt, my good friend and one of my first mentors while I studied cooking in Sweden. In my teenage head, I thought he was super old; he was about three years older than I am.
We were from the same neighborhood and since he had a car, he would give me rides home after the shift.
But Bengt was important in my life for far more than a ride home. He taught me about the way a kitchen works.
The shouting, he explained, was not from anger but just as a way of communicating orders and instructions in the hectic, fast-paced environment around us.
I love seeing Bengt when I’m out in Sweden. Today, he’s got a fabulous restaurant called Linnea in Gothenburg.
One of my other mentors was Tony, who helped me get my externship in Switzerland. He not only helped me through learning German and French when I knew so little of it, he also taught me to understand the culture of the kitchen and the importance of its rigidity.
Paul was the first great British chef I ever met. I couldn’t even fathom the idea before I met him.
What we shared was that we were both outsiders in the traditionally French kitchen we worked in – me, the young black Swede, and him, British and more talented than any of the other classically trained French chefs around us.
We were both outsiders, and he helped me tremendously.
Through Paul, I learned that it was no longer just about Gothenburg, but that we were on the world’s stage. He prepared me for France and where I am today, for serving top-notch customers and world leaders.
My mentors stretch over many countries and continents – Sweden, Switzerland, France and, now, America.
In the US, I look up to chefs like Leah Chase, Alfred Portale, Jonathan Waxman and Daniel Boulud.
For me, a huge part of opening Red Rooster was leading and inspiring young cooks. Some of the folks in our kitchens have never worked in restaurant like this.
Along with Andrea, Jimmy and Mike, we work collectively to mentor the young men and women working with us.
Five years from now, I hope opening in Harlem will be the norm and I hope to see our team leading their own crew of chefs, sous chefs and cooks.
I’ll be proud to see that day.
Thankfully, this industry is changing constantly. It’s no longer the male-dominated field I came in to and racial barriers are breaking down day by day.