Mentoring By Example
Linda T. Kennedy
January 19, 2012
Although he wears chef’s attire instead of a suit and a tie, you won’t find many differences between Grand America Executive Chef Phillip Yates and other executives running successful organizations. For one thing, Yates leads 47 chefs with a key ingredient rarely found in today’s competitive marketplace: the belief that successful management includes mentoring those with less experience.
“Mentoring is just always a part of my day in the kitchen,” he says. “Without the great chefs I have, I couldn’t do it by myself. If I don’t train them to see the vision I have, then really, you just have people that come in and just cook and produce. I always want to see more out of people. No one wants to be in a kitchen where people are being told ‘no’ when someone has a good idea. I want to listen and make it happen.”
As a matter of fact, listening to the Grand America team is where Yates’ success at the hotel began. Yates was first hired in 2007 as executive banquet chef; his primary responsibility was to cook for the hotel’s employees. Yates took the post seriously, listening to the employees’ thoughts about the on-site cafeteria. “The first thing I did was bring in a fresh salad bar. I think I would put that salad bar up against most restaurants,” Yates recalls. Now the employee cafeteria also offers a two-week rotating menu with new offerings every day. “My chef told me ‘when I start hearing compliments about the food, you can move on.’”
Along with the compliments, the Grand America Hotel noticed Yates’ proficiency in organization, creativity and production—three critical skills needed in the hotel’s kitchens. Yates ascended to the executive role in September 2009. Now he is a leader entertaining leaders, overseeing the entire culinary orchestration related to events hosting state and international dignitaries.
On any given day, Yates and his team prepare up to 5,000 meals; on Valentine’s Day this year, Yates’ team served more than 900 made-to-order meals. And when a specific cuisine is requested, Yates consults with other local specialty chefs to duplicate authentic recipes. Making those things happen, he says, requires adaptability.
“You certainly can’t run a facility this size sitting at the desk and not getting in there and showing by example and being able to adapt and change for any request that comes to you.”
Unlike many other executives, though, Yates leaves his work at the office, letting his wife interpret beloved recipes from his days growing up on a Texas ranch.
“Country-fried venison, mashed potatoes with pan gravy, English peas from my mother is my favorite meal, par none,” says Yates. “When I go home [to visit his mother] I’ll eat that at least twice a week and my wife has learned to make it.”
He reserves his second-favorite meal, barbecue, for family and friends.
“I have always loved food. When you get in this business, you see a lot of people out of school and they aren’t quite sure this is what they want,” he says. “But when I went into my first professional kitchen, I knew that is where I wanted to be.”