Now that we’ve identified just how priceless a mentor can be, but how does one find their own?
Mentors can be elusive for many. It’s not often something pursued or thought about. It’s a very unique and specific relationship, and there unfortunately is no “Tinder” for finding one. That’s not to say it’s as hopeless as Tinder, as the backbone of bartending culture is largely premised on the idea of apprenticeship.
Bartending has a long tradition of mentorship, especially given the fact that teaching and mentoring is what allowed the craft to come back from the dead in the early part of the 21st century. Without the efforts of dedicated pioneers and teachers, so many people would never have been exposed to the magic of Agave spirits, or the delights of a Negroni.
Even if you personally are working in a small market, the wonders of the internet put a mentor only a few clicks away. Ideally, there are a few leaders in your market you can approach, but lacking that, an internet connection and a penchant for self-learning will get you exactly what you’re looking for.
How to Find a Mentor
It’s not always that mentors are elusive, it’s that people aren’t actively looking for them. Approaching the world with that in mind is the first big step in finding a mentor. It’s rarely as simple as approaching someone and asking, “Will you be my mentor?” By asking informed questions of those around you on a consistent basis, you’ve placed a homing beacon on yourself. While you may come across your mentor as a result of a conversation in the walk-in, via email or over beers after a shift, advertising that you’re looking to learn will speed up the process.
A mentor is just as likely to come looking for prospective student. Once you’ve established trust and a rapport with your special someone, you can freely pop the question. Identifying how valuable the relationship has been for you thus far is a great icebreaker and it lets your mentor know that you value not only what they’ve given you up to now, but what they can give you in the future. A great deal of the time, however, the relationship is an unspoken understanding. Just remember to always express gratitude.
Finding a Mentor on the Job
If you’re lucky, there might be a wonderful mentor already on-site at your current place of employment. It’s not always the case, but the senior or Lead bartender is often the perfect candidate for the task. After all, they were once wearing your shoes. Even if the relationship never blossoms into a mentorship role, picking the brains of your colleagues and superiors can only help you become better at your job.
Many managers also likely have wisdom to share, even if they have hung up their bar tools and switched them out for spreadsheets. As an added bonus, enthusiasm tends to be rewarded, whether it’s in knowledge or more lucrative shifts.
Asking to help with the beer, wine or liquor order is a smart way to spark a lot of great things. Quizzing the Somme on their pairing thoughts or asking the Sous about flavor profiles are all great ways to start a dialogue.
With any luck, your curiosity will generate and stoke excitement and passion in others, leading them to approach you with new information. This can grow into a beautiful opportunity for life-long learning and personal growth.
Looking Down the Street
As the bartending craft has grown, it’s spread across the globe. A cocktail list is now de rigeur for even the most unassuming of restaurants. Cocktails are everywhere, a testament to the power and importance of a long-dormant tradition.
Odds are, you’re not the first person on the scene, and that there’s someone in town who’s been at it longer. The veterans of the industry are not only a wealth of information, but also have countless entertaining and valuable stories. If you’re new to the trade, learning from your city’s leaders will not only help you grow as a bartender, but it will also help you carve your own path.
Established restaurant groups or leading cocktail destinations are filled with these kinds of people, and it’s more than likely that you drink at some of the same bars they do. These relationships can help provide some professional security should you suddenly find yourself out of a job, but most importantly, those post-shift conversations can provide some truly pivotal insights.
Make friends with the people in other restaurants. Crack a joke or two with the bartender or server from down the street or buy them a shot. Jameson, Fernet or Chartreuse will generally get you into their good graces in short order. This can all go really well with a compliment, or even better, a question about a cocktail, a tough guest you saw them charm or a technique. This is especially true if you’ve been admiring their abilities from afar. Just read the crowd first – sometimes we just want to be left alone after a shift.
A World Away
Some of the greatest places to look for answers are the pages of trade magazines, internet forums, websites and social media. Research the smartest people in the room and approach them with educated questions specific to them. Many are excited to share their experiences, because it validates their own success and gives them a chance to pass on their knowledge.
It’s as easy as sending an email, or responding to a comment in a thread. Being active on message boards or websites can lead to some important conversations. The contact information of your favorite blogger or writer is usually fairly easy to find. A question about a specific bar program can be sent directly to a bar manager, and that information is often listed on a restaurant’s website, although a phone call works just as well.
Looking beyond your immediate market can be an incredibly important choice, especially if you find yourself in a position to move in the future. You might have to wait a few days for a reply, but the type of people who excel in the industry are often incredibly organized. Clearing out an inbox is often a way of life. Keep it simple and brief though; time is at a premium for many of these people.
Getting in touch with experts can be as simple as an email or phone call.
Picking up the Phone
Ideally, a phone call would be set up in advance over email, but if there’s an issue finding the contact information for the person you’re trying to reach, a quick call to the restaurant will sort you out. Just ask if it’s possible to have the email of the Guru in question from whoever answers. Be sure to give your name and explain why, and be courteous. You never know if the person on the end of the line is who you’re looking for.
When it comes time to talk over the phone, come prepared with your questions written down and notebook and pen close at hand.
A Word of Caution
Not everyone you meet will have the time or desire to mentor you and help you along your journey. It’s important not to take this personally. Some people might not have enough space under their wings for one more, or they just may not be in the right headspace to help. This may change in the future, so always be cordial. Those who are continually searching will eventually find what they need.
Dig Deep, Then Dig Deeper
No matter what you’re looking for, there’s likely someone out there who’s been in your shoes. Blazing trails can be thrilling, even vital sometimes, but it’s important to know when you’re re-inventing the wheel. Go mining for answers and never stop. There may not be anyone who can answer your questions today, but eventually, you’ll become the expert you were looking for. Self-learning can be just as important as having a teacher, and there’s no better way to learn than to try and answer difficult questions.
A Priceless Commodity
If the stars are aligned, you just may find your mentor. The bar world is full of them, tracing a long line back to Jerry Thomas and beyond. Whether they’re working the same shift as you or working the same part of town, they’re out there.
For those in small markets, a quick pilgrimage to the next city may work just as well as a quick email to the next time zone. Always come prepared and treat others’ time with respect, even if they can’t spare much of it. Some of these initial contacts can blossom in the years to come.
However you come by them, a mentor is truly a treasure, and they can enrich your life and career beyond measure. They can be the difference between a good career and a great one, a good life and the best life. Keep searching with an open and humble heart and the answers you need will present themselves.