The greatest chefs never stop learning—or teaching. Four Best New Chefs reflect on the passed-down wisdom that keeps them going in tough times.

By Stacey Ballis
May 12, 2020
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Libby Anderson / Tiffany Mathewson / Evan Sung / Ramona Rosales

In any time of challenge and uncertainty, it can be useful to rely on the wisdom of our mentors. The life lessons they taught us are never more relevant or necessary as when we are faced with the kinds of complicated and difficult decisions that everyone is dealing with right now. Chefs are having to reimagine their professional practice in a constant and ever-changing reality. And so, more than ever, they are finding that the teachings of their mentors are giving them strength when they need it most.

We reached out to some of our Best New Chef winners to see what lessons from their mentors they could share that they are relying upon in these complex and demanding times.

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Maria Hines, BNC 2005

Tilth

Seattle, WA

Tiffany Mathewson

Fay Nakanishi at the Mission in San Diego was a key mentor for Maria Hines. It was her first job; she was 18 and by her own admission, “all over the place.” Raw talent, no discipline. Fay took her on a walk on the beach and said “I can’t figure you out. When you are on, you are amazing, but then you get distracted and you aren’t productive.” The walk would ultimately change Hines forever.

Nakanishi had one piece of advice: “There are only three kinds of people in this world. People who watch it happen, people who make it happen, and people who ask, 'What happened?' Who are you going to be?” That simple question landed hard on Hines, who knew immediately who she wanted to be. “From that moment on I got my s*** together.” Hines says. She was a line cook when that walk on the beach occurred, but within six months, after refocusing her energy, she was promoted to sous chef. Over her career, whenever she has seen a chef with that greatness in them, with what she calls “the sparkle,” she has had that same conversation.

Thirty years since the walk on the beach, Hines is still one of the people making it happen, and she and Nakanishi are still friends. She notes that right now, it is the people who are “making it happen” who will come out the other end of these trying times successfully. For the moment, she is the chef who is “making it happen” by supporting a local women’s shelter called Mary’s Place, since as difficult as the current climate is for everyone, it is an especially dangerous time for homeless women or women escaping dangerous domestic situations.

Gavin Kaysen, BNC 2007

Spoon & Stable, Bellecour, Bellecour's Bakery, Demi

Minneapolis, MN

Libby Anderson

When it comes to mentors, Gavin Kaysen had two of the best, and the lessons they taught him continue to inform how he operates his business, and how he lives his life. Thomas Keller taught him that the first fundamental is to be generous. “Every time I am with him and sharing a meal with him in one of his restaurants, he will see an employee of his having a quick bite at the bar and will pull the GM aside and tell them to be generous and give that employee something to remember, that has always stuck with me.” Kaysen says.

That spirit of generosity is something he strives for in his restaurants, but also with his philanthropic work. His Soigné hospitality group responded quickly to the current crisis by immediately creating a non-profit organization called Heart of the House, to help bridge the gap for the over 180 employees they were forced to furlough due to COVID-19. “Our goal is to grow this foundation into something bigger and help shape our profession into being less vulnerable.” says Kaysen.

His other great mentor was Daniel Boulud, who always said, “There is no great chef or restaurant without a great team.” Kaysen remembers. “This was instilled in us when I worked for him, you can do what you want and say what you want, but at the end of the day, the people around you is what makes you or breaks you. Treat them well, be a leader, not a boss to them, and allow them to grow. And the best gift he ever gave me was letting me grow under him and then him letting me fly on my own.”

Kaysen is currently putting his own mentoring to work on the jury of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2020, currently in search of the best young chef in the world.

Kwame Onwuachi, BNC 2019

Kith/Kin

Washington, D.C.

Ramona Rosales

Kwame Onwuachi credits Brian Lockwood of Eleven Madison Park with the single best life lesson of his career. “A good leader does the right thing when no one is watching.” That spirit of making the right decisions and having that consistent work ethic is something Onwuachi leans on every day. “At Kith/Kin I am constantly making sure that I approach my job as a leader by acting like a line cook.” Onwuachi says. “I try to be the cleanest, the fastest, the best, every day. I push myself and try to model for my staff the kind of passion and energy I want to see from them.”

That line-cook mentality, working like you are hungry, like you are trying to rise up, to be the best—it shows that you aren’t resting on your laurels and it is an inspiration for your team. But also he feels better, more at ease with himself when he knows he has done the right things, done the best he can. It was that lesson that is giving him comfort as he waits to bring the restaurant back to life, because every decision he has made has been informed by that ethic of being the leader who does the right things. As part of that commitment, he has been hosting live video cooking demonstrations centered around healthy eating. He knows that everyone is both limited in physical activity and craving comfort, so he wanted to show that you can have that soul-satisfying dining experience while eating food that's good for you.

Katie Button, BNC 2015

Curaté, Buttons & Co. Bagels

Asheville, NC

Evan Sung

Katie Button cannot forget her mentor Jose Andres’ speech at the James Beard Award Ceremony where he received the Humanitarian Award saying in part, "I want you to see the world's greatest challenges not as problems but as opportunities."

“It sent chills down my spine.” Button recalls. “It simultaneously encouraged me that I can do anything that I put my mind to, and that I shouldn't let fear hold me back—and at the same time it sparked in me this feeling that I am not doing enough.”

This feeling of not doing enough has never been more prevalent than it is right now. “Life can be so full and so busy, but we do have to decide what we want our impact to be, which of the world's problems do we want to tackle. I am still trying to figure that out for myself, but I sure do have an amazing role model to guide my way,” Button says.

During this time, she is working hard on the advocacy portion of the struggle. Between the support from the James Beard Foundation, and SaveRestaurants.com there is a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that restaurants are able to survive the current catastrophe, and Button is putting her energies into that work so that the industry can both survive the moment, and hopefully come back stronger.

Chefs know that it takes so much more than just good advice to get you through tough times, it also takes self-care. The old adage about putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others has never been more real than it is today. And since chefs know that self-care starts with your body, many of them are focusing on being sure they are eating well, trying to get some physical activity, and hydrating. Hydration is always important, but especially important to keep your immune system strong. Many chefs looking to shift from soda or caffeinated beverages have turned to sparkling waters as a great and enjoyable way to hydrate. S.Pellegrino is a favorite choice, whether it is their classic Sparkling Natural Mineral Water or their lightly flavored Essenza waters, they are a delicious and healthy shift and keep chefs strong for whatever is coming next.