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From Apprentice to Executive Chef: A Culinary Mentor’s Journey

Author: Executive Chef Thomas Fois

In the bustling world of professional kitchens, the journey from novice to expert is often paved with culinary mentorship. For Chef Thomas Fois, this path began with a passionate dream and led to a successful career as an Executive Chef and F&B Operations Manager. His story is a testament to the power of guidance, resilience, and the transformative impact of mentors.

Early Beginnings

My culinary journey was unconventional. Unlike many aspiring chefs, I couldn’t afford the prestigious CIA Hyde Park. Instead, I enrolled in a Culinary & Hospitality Program in Brooklyn. This decision marked the beginning of my adventure, one defined by determination and the pursuit of excellence. My first exposure to culinary mentorship came from my culinary and pastry professors. Two stood out for their passion and charisma. My initial culinary professor, a young Italian-American and part of the US Culinary Team, exuded natural talent and enthusiasm. His teaching style was dynamic, and his energy was contagious. The second, a seasoned chef nearing retirement, brought a wealth of experience from his days in one of NYC’s top restaurants. His wisdom and practical advice were invaluable, although I didn’t fully grasp his sentiments about the sacrifices of the profession until much later.

Real-World Challenges

Stepping into the professional world was a reality check. My first mentor, a tough Irish chef, taught me the importance of discipline and resilience. On my first day, he sternly corrected me for addressing him by his first name instead of “Chef.” He said, “It’s Chef Rob, not Rob – and when you reply to me, it’s Yes Chef/No Chef. Is that clear?” Yes Chef! His rigorous standards and high expectations were a daily challenge, yet his lessons on station setup, improvisation, and creativity were foundational. He often reminded me, “Thomas, good guys finish last! Hurry up, let’s go!” The day a box of supplies flew past me for not substituting a missing item was a lesson I never forgot. He drilled into me the importance of never leaving a gap, always finding a solution. This tough love was a critical part of my culinary mentorship experience.

The second mentor, an Italian chef, was a stark contrast. Known for his role in elevating Italian cuisine in NYC during the 90s, he led with kindness and respect. His daily ritual of cooking a meal for our elderly dishwasher set a tone of harmony and respect in the kitchen. His leadership style created a positive environment where we thrived collectively. His departure was a deeply emotional moment for the entire team, underscoring the profound impact he had on us. This mentor demonstrated a different aspect of culinary mentorship, showing that empathy and respect are as important as technical skill.

The French Master

My final significant mentor, a French Master Chef, was initially the most challenging. His relentless scrutiny of my sauces and soups was daunting. As his Saucier, the pressure was immense, knowing that the quality of the entire dish hinged on my work. His strict adherence to standards and meticulous nature were intimidating, but over time, I realized the depth of his knowledge and the value of his mentorship. Despite his gruff demeanor, his teachings were pivotal, and I am forever grateful for his influence. This phase of my career reinforced the importance of high standards in culinary mentorship.

Career Highlights

Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working in various prestigious establishments. From the Metropolitan Club in New York City to the Banyan Tree in the Maldives, each role has been a new chapter in my culinary journey. As the Executive Chef and F&B Operations Manager at Global Hospitality, Inc. in Vietnam, I oversee high-end meal production for international airlines, airports, retail chains, and hospitals. My role at Poulo Condor Boutique Luxury Resort and previous positions at the Imperial Hotel and Six Senses in Vietnam further honed my skills and leadership abilities. In each of these roles, culinary mentorship played a crucial part in my development and success, whether I was receiving guidance or providing it to others.

Culinary Mentorship Conclusion

Reflecting on my career, I recognize that my most significant lessons came not from institutions but from the chefs who mentored me. Each one, with their unique style and approach, contributed to my growth and success. The culmination of their guidance was realized when a chef I mentored reached out years later to express his gratitude for the knowledge and confidence I imparted. His success felt like my own, affirming the importance of giving back through culinary mentorship.

 

Food for Thought

Here are some questions to talk about:

  • How has culinary mentorship impacted your career?
  • What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your mentors?
  • How do you approach mentoring the next generation of chefs?

Share your own stories of overcoming challenges in the kitchen through the guidance of a mentor.

Useful Links

  • Culinary Institute of America (CIA)
  • James Beard Foundation
  • American Culinary Federation (ACF)
  • Michelin Guide
    • Michelin Guide
    • Read about Michelin-starred restaurants and the chefs behind them.
  • LinkedIn – Chef Thomas Fois

"To all Chefs out there: Be Real, be Humble, be Kind.
Share your knowledge and give back.
The culinary world thrives on the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next.
May your journeys be as rewarding and enriching as mine.
God bless you all on your culinary paths."