Monday, December 10, 2018

:: the need for a mentor ::

First published on the USBG National blog in July 2018; slightly adapted version here.

Throughout my bartending career I have frequently felt the need for a mentor. Usually this feeling is when I am approaching a crossroads or perhaps merely sensing the need for change and improvement, and a mentor seems like the easy out where someone will swoop down and tell me which direction to go. I have had many mentors throughout my bartending career, but none of them actually told me what path to take. Most of them were rather good at one or a few aspects of the trade and were willing to correct what they saw wrong, give advice when asked, or listen to my complaints and suggest ways of handling the problems. Countless times, these mentors did not even realize that they were teaching for I was observing their methods. Indeed, I have had mentors in how to welcome guests, how to patch up a bad moment and turn it into a good experience, how to deal with difficult coworkers and not be a dick; how to cut people off and kick people out with grace, etc. Many of the ones that I learned from excelled in only one or two things in my eyes, but they did that aspect of the job exceptionally well. Some I worked with (or for), but many that I learned from were my bartender and I their guest.

I recently watched an episode of Erick Castro's Bartender at Large series where he interviewed Giuseppe Gonzalez that hit on this topic. It was not even mentioned in the teaser description of the video, and I tuned into this one for I had met Giuseppe at my first Tales of the Cocktail in 2009 and bonded over the fact that we were both biology majors at the same university only a few years apart. I reconnected with him years later on Facebook after reading one of his long, opinionated rants and felt that I ought not miss more of what this man had to say.

As their banter drifted from bartenders who cannot think on their own for how to reinterpret drinks from the written recipe to taste better (or perhaps they shift the character of the drink too far to still be called the same thing), and Giuseppe got on the topic of mentoring. To wrap things up, Erick asked him for advice on how bartenders should create their own drink specs and riffs. In the last four minutes of the episode, Giuseppe griped that his workers complain to him after six months that they are not being mentored, and he explained that it is the [expletive] job. Giuseppe explained that Dale Degroff did not have a mentor – he just did it. True, Audrey Saunders was mentored by Dale, but she was independent and did both the research and the work herself as well. Giuseppe commands us to stop looking for mentorship. He suggests things: pick up a book, talk to peers, do the research, and grab bottles and experiment. Things come through work, repetition, and time. A bartender does not get that good from reading a book alone, but by holding down the job for years. Learn to listen and observe so as to do the job better over time.

At this point in my career, I am less looking for guidance in how to do the basics of the job, and more in which direction to take. While some bartenders have the advantage of well-connected bosses who set them up with the next leg of their career, most of us do not, and must rely on associates who relate needs and job openings, or perhaps utilize job boards for what is available. No one can answer the questions of what is the right next step for a person, but sometimes asking and looking around can show the opportunities and directions that exist. All too often, young bartenders hop from job to job without figuring out how to make themselves fit in better at the current spot. The continual hopping every few months inhibits the learning and growth that would likely make them better bartenders in the end. As Giuseppe proffers, hunker down and do the job and learn to do it better by repetition and adaptation.

This is not to say that one should not be on the look out for teachers, but it will often not be as formal as school (save for the first job, the first nights at a new position, or perhaps Barsmarts and similar classes). More likely, it will be from tinkering and figuring out things first hand or from observing someone doing something better and learning second hand and perhaps following up with asking questions or advice. Moreover, when the time comes, the favor should be repaid whether by offering sagacity or being willing to provide it. Becoming the bartender, bar manager, or owner with humility that people will seek out for guidance is definitely a solid end point in one's development.

Bartending in the 19th century was taught solely by apprenticeship. The 1860s saw the first bar books to come out, but it was not until Harry Johnson's 1888 bar manual that there were well laid out written instructions on how to do one's job better. These days, there are lots more books, articles, seminars, and videos to supplement the career growth that is earned the old fashioned way: on the job. One ought to utilize every avenue available; however, only some of the bartender's wisdom can be taught by a formal mentor. Determining the career path and when and where to move to still have to come from within to make sure that they are the right steps. The best that one can do is to try to take in as much knowledge from as many sources as possible and integrate them into how to improve at one's trade.

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