I think if anyone was to experience my cooking they would tell me to stick to my day job as a coach, which is what I’ll most definitely do! However, despite my limited talents in the kitchen I love watching cookery programmes and, in particular, I always remember watching a series on BBC2 called The Chef’s Protégé which I found to be hugely inspiring given my passion for helping young people to believe in themselves and their potential.
The Chef’s Protégé saw Michelin Star chef, Tom Kitchin, return to Perth College to select the cream of the college’s catering students in a competition with similarly celebrated cooks Theo Randall and Michel Roux Jr. In the show, each chef was looking for a young student to coach, mentor and inspire with a view to them eventually becoming their protégé. Tom’s protégé, Jamie McKinnon, went on to win the competition which speaks volumes for Jamie and Tom.
Given my interest in food and my passion for inspiring young people, I was delighted when Tom agreed to answer questions around youth coaching and mentoring in the hospitality industry. What added to the excitement is the fact that Tom’s renowned restaurant, The Kitchin, is only a stone’s throw away from where I used to live at The Shore, in Edinburgh! What shines through in Tom’s answers is his immense passion for cooking and his desire to support young chefs in becoming the best they can be. There are some great coaching themes throughout as well – being true to yourself, pursuing your goals and dreams, confidence, staying true to your core values, learning and growing, taking action to fulfil your potential and being the best you can be. To name but a few!
Who were your own coaches/mentor(s) both in life and in cooking and what were the most valuable lessons you learned from them?
I worked for Pierre Koffmann for 5 years and to this day he is still my mentor and one of the most respected chefs there is. From day one when I arrived in his kitchen at just 18, he has inspired me like no one else. Working for him was one of the hardest, most challenging things I’ve had to do, but it taught me how to be a chef – he taught me to cook from the heart, to appreciate fresh, quality produce and to truly respect that produce in my cooking, and above all he taught me to keep pushing to achieve your goals and dreams.
What did you particularly like about the way that they coached/mentored you?
Since he started cooking, he has never been swayed by fashion or trends in gastronomy. He cooks what he likes to eat and I admire him for it. He is strong and confident and has this incredible appreciation for food, flavours and how to combine them. His knowledge of food stretches beyond anyone I know and every day I strive to learn more, seek out new ingredients, continue to innovate in my cooking – never sitting still and always continuing to push to be better.
I’ve taken many of his qualities and developed them in a more modern kind of way, but the core values are still very much the same. I still think about the hard days during my times working for Koffmann, days I thought I might give up, but I’m always reminded of the time he took me aside and told me he saw my potential. He told me to keep going as he believed in me and that really drove me to keep pushing and working hard to succeed. I try to tell my young chefs to stick it out if I believe they have talent, the same way Koffmann encouraged me to keep going back in the early days.
What was it that made you want to be part of the The Chef’s Protégé series?
I do get approached to do a lot of TV projects, but unfortunately I’m not always able to commit, because it is so important for me to be in my kitchen for each and every service. The Chef’s Protégé felt like an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down though. From the beginning I thought the concept of the programme was incredibly inspiring. As soon as I was approached to get involved I knew I wanted to be part of it. I’m always looking out for ambitious youngsters who have the motivation, the drive, and that sparkle in their eyes to do well. It was great to work with Chef Koffmann again too – even though we still speak every few days, it’s great to get together and I still see him as my mentor to this day.
In terms of coaching/mentoring, what did you enjoy most about doing the series?
It was great to watch a younger generation of chefs learn and develop right in front of me. My protégé, Jamie MacKinnon, was in London for the first time in his life – that puts it all into perspective for me.
The thing I enjoyed most was taking these kids on a journey and bringing them into a world of cooking they just couldn’t have imagined. It was incredible to watch them grow throughout the processes – seeing their faces light up when they tried something new, or entering a professional kitchen and witnessing it in the heat of service. Watching those with potential push themselves to be the best they could be was a real privilege and very humbling.
What do you think were the most valuable lessons that the young chefs took from you?
As a chef you’re going to face so many ‘bridge’ moments in your life, by which I mean moments where you think you can’t continue, that it’s easier not to go to work, not to continue what you’re doing because you’re under so much pressure. You have to be very mentally strong to work in a Michelin star kitchen. Many chefs in this country are very demanding people because that’s how we were trained, and that is what will make the next generation of chefs. You have to stay hungry, stay focussed and continually push yourself to be better every day.
How important is it to you to continue bringing young people into the industry through mentoring?
So important. They’re the future of the industry.
My wife Michaela and I both come from very strong, training focused backgrounds in the hospitality industry and put huge value on the importance of mentoring employees and developing each employee’s individual abilities to create a skilled and passionate work force with a shared vision for the business. We spend a lot of time with all of our staff, helping them grow and work towards being the best they can possibly be. Investment in training and skills is crucial for the continued success of our business, and indeed any business.
Thank you so much to Tom for taking the time out of an extremely busy schedule to answer my questions. His passion for food and desire to support young chefs is truly inspirational. I would also recommending visiting The Kitchin if you’re ever in Edinburgh!
As you may know from my recent blog posts, I am now down to the final 50 in the worldwide competition This Is Your Life Change whereby six successful participants will fly to Fiji to work with a team of coaches on their secret dream. My dream is to positively impact the lives of 10M young people worldwide with a particular focus on supporting those who are vulnerable and/or disadvantaged. I would hugely appreciate if you could vote for me before May 30th by clicking here and entering your name and email address. I’d also be very grateful if you would be open to sharing the link via email and social media – thank you!