From Student to Mentor: Becoming the Teacher

 

This article is part three in a series discussing the importance of mentorship in bartending. Previously in this series on mentorship, we discussed the importance of a mentor, and how and where to approach one. In the next article, we’ll discuss how to grow and nurture a mentorship.

We know how to find a mentor, but how does one go from being the student to the teacher?

As your career progresses, you may find yourself in a position where you’re being asked questions and advice by those less experienced. There’s little more rewarding than the respect of your community and colleagues, and there is a certain thrill to that validation. While it can be tempting to roam around town and begin dispensing advice, there’s a right way and a wrong way to become a mentor.

 

Mentor vs. Know-it-All

Mentorship is a natural progression in a relationship based on an equal exchange of ideas. It’s a role that needs to be grown into. Before you can give out answers, you have to have someone asking you questions. If you’ve skipped this step, you’re running a very real risk of doing damage to your career: no one likes a know-it-all.

Owners and management aren’t fans of being lectured any more than colleagues are. It’s even less impressive when the information given by “experts” is incorrect. Not only are these over-eager and would-be mentors missing the point of mentorship itself, but they’re doing a grave disservice to the community by spreading disinformation.

 

Start with Yourself

There are always moments to shine in the chaos of restaurants, but as we said before, it’s never a good look to be a martyr. It’s also never a good look to allow management to take advantage of your enthusiasm. Be smart, but be fair. Your free time is yours, and especially in a trade where outside research and study is vital to pushing your career forward, it’s an invaluable commodity.

Keep your work and personal life separate and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Doing so enables you to be your best possible self. Not everyone you work with is going to be on the same page, but as a leader, it’s your responsibility to makes sure the entire team gets to the finish line. Stressful moments are par for the course, and keeping yourself equipped to handle them will always make you stand out.

 

Earning Respect – The Old Fashioned Way

From the first day you step foot into a job until the last, foster a healthy work environment and step up when needed. If you feel the need to vent about a work or personal situation, do it after-hours and/or in the company of close and trusted friends. While restaurant work has a huge social component to it, the people who are able to recognize the difference between work and play will have the most success. The rumor mill is one attraction of the restaurant carnival you won’t often see mentors riding.

The best mentors are those who are known for making sure things go smoothly, whether it’s an offsite event or an understaffed shift at work. There’s a lot of sacrifice, because there’s always slack to pick up. Don’t be a martyr, and don’t go the extra mile with an expectation of praise. Whether you know it or not, people see these kinds of things. Your commitment to team and healthy dialogue goes a long way towards winning the respect of your co-workers.

As your reputation grows, a natural curiosity about you will develop. Bartenders you’ve never met from across town may approach you with questions. This is another great opportunity to be a part of the team; ask questions about that part of town, take an interest, and always remember that a strong community helps every bartender.

 

Growing Beyond Your Market

Major cocktail events all have a lot of moving parts, and some have a crack team of bartenders behind it all keeping things running smoothly. You can take your leadership skills on the road by applying to be a part of the logistics team at these events. Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, San Antonio Cocktail Conference and Paris of the Plains Festival in Kansas City are all great events, and are led by incredibly capable and welcoming bartenders.

Off-site events are always a great way to sharpen your skills and expand your network. Similarly with regional events, even if they’re not attached to the glitz and glamor of larger, heavily sponsored ones. Simply attending these events will undoubtedly give you some new leadership tools.

Another great example is Camp Runamok, put on by Lush Life Productions. Camp in itself is an incredible experience, but senior campers have the opportunity to apply to become part of the leadership team. Bar Institute, another Lush Life program, happens in cities across the United States every year, delivering seminars across the country.

 

Learn, Share, and Keep Learning

Being a leader doesn’t just mean being the first in and last out, or shooting off across the country for an exciting event. It can also be as simple as working to establish yourself as an authority on any number of topics.

Have a passion for Single Malts? Read, taste, visit blogs, taste some more, comment on threads and discussions on Facebook. Attend local educational events hosted by brands or your local USBG. If you share your knowledge freely, you’ll quickly become seen as an authority on the subject.

As your experience grows, you’ll be faced with questions you don’t always have the answer to. These are some of the best moments to learn from. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but focused interest in anything from Tequila to Viticulture to being active in your local USBG chapter can all yield invaluable experience and wisdom.

 

Building A Reputation for Humility

This is probably one of the most important points, and any bartender worth their salt applies it to every aspect of their career. Humility is the hallmark of any great leader.

In my old market a few years ago, there was a young bartender who became known for carting around a stack of books with them. They would sit at bars around town, placing their stack of books on the bartop, and lecture or quiz bartenders. Eventually, they even got around to reading the books. This person built a solid reputation – but it wasn’t a good one. Instead, he was known for being a know-it-all and crowing the answers to questions no one had asked.

That being said, as a young bartender, the discoveries of technique and recipe are especially thrilling. It can be very tempting to allow your ego to become a little inflated. (It happens to the best of us.) Growing pains are never a comfortable and easy process to go through, and there are countless barland stories to be told about humbling moments.

The best mentors I’ve had touch my life are without exception incredibly humble people. Great mentors take their lowest moments and use them not only to teach, but to keep them grounded.

 

Making an Impact on Others

While it’s tempting to let everyone know exactly how much you know during pre-shift, or a brewery tour, or a seminar, it’s often best to let others have the floor. If you know the answer, the question isn’t necessarily for you. Sometimes it’s best to encourage those with less experience to step into the spotlight.

I remember countless moments with more seasoned bartenders who, rather than lecture me on technique or boast about how they had just been featured in an article, they asked questions about me. Those conversations left an impression on me, and made me think even more highly of them.

If you wish to be the teacher, you have to know your student. Being a mentor isn’t about you, it’s about creating a positive impact on others and the community as a whole.

 

Be Gentle and Supportive

Your first protege isn’t going to be an ace. Someday they might be. It’s unlikely you’ll ever be approached by someone with a skill set comparable to yours; your goal as a teacher is for your student to surpass your own abilities.

Mentorship works in tiers. Like a champagne waterfall, mentors have mentors, and as you gain experience, so do those you teach. A mentor is someone who can offer the voice of experience. That level of experience can be terrifying to younger bartenders. As cool as it is to even be on the stick, bartenders, especially younger ones, are often jealous of the especially charming, the fast or the truly innovative bartenders. Don’t be aloof. Share your experiences and be an active teacher.

The best bartenders always want to be better, and that often starts from day one. They may have literally everything about bartending wrong. They may be sloppy, forgetful or don’t know the difference between one expression of Cognac from the next.

If they have passion for the job, can show up on time and sincerely want to give the guest a good experience, as Anthony Bourdain said, “Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.”

It’s important to be gentle and supportive and nurture raw enthusiasm into teachable moments. That excitable and clumsy kid could be running their own program in a few short years, keeping the cycle of mentorship going for the next generation of bar aces. It’s up to you to help get them there.

 

Hard Work and Humility

There are countless ways to position yourself as a mentor, but the themes remain constant. Hard work and humility are the hallmark of leaders in the industry. Understanding that the majority of the job is definitely lacking in glamour is a big step.

Bartenders know how the sausage is made, from walk-ins to prep areas to tear down. Dreaming of success is putting the cart before the horse; those moments are built on hours and hours of consistent and dedicated work. Remember to be the voice of reason you needed as a younger bartender.

Establish yourself as a voice of reason and authority. Analyze your failings as much as your successes. Introspection will make you a more honest teacher. If you’re lucky, you can help someone avoid your own mistakes (like letting a tin of egg-white sours fly across the dining room, or allowing a guest to abuse a co-worker without stepping in.)

We all make mistakes. The first step in becoming a mentor is identifying your own shortcomings and being humble enough to help your own learning experiences to those following in your footsteps.

 

 

From Student to Mentor: Becoming the Teacher