Long-term professional development often involves working and growing with peers.
The book Kitchen Confidential (Harper, 2001) by Anthony Bourdain describes how he become a professional chef and how he continues to support the community of professional chefs. No one issues membership cards to professional chefs but they are not difficult to recognize. They wear funny looking hats and white tunics. They carry a set of knives that no one else is allowed to touch. Their fingers bear scars from calling it too close with those knives
When chefs travel, they meet with other chefs. They eat together. They share techniques. Were it not for this Sharing, we would not enjoy the broad, international array of foods on our tables (because chefs turned one another on to sources of exotic ingredients). When a top chef wants to move to a new job in a particular location, he tells a few chefs, the grapevine spreads the word, and within a week he has several job offers.
In the book, Bourdain describes starting out as a dishwasher in a restaurant on Cape Cod. Then he lands a job as a fry cook. From that point on, the chef running the kitchen he’s working in is looking out for his career. When will the kitchen worker be prepared to advance from washing lettuce to making salads? What does she need to know to advance to pastry chef? How can the chef help the dessert chef advance to sous chef? Good chefs take developing their staff very seriously. They see that their apprentices learn to create satisfying yet economical food.
Anthony Bourdain decided he needed to accelerate his development so he attended the Culinary Institute of America for formal training. This enabled him to understand the interrelationships of ingredients and cooking and customers. The curriculum at CIA taught him frameworks for various cuisines; he learned practices that would have taken years to learn on the job. And indeed, when Bourdain went back to cooking, he rapidly advanced up the ladder to become a chef.
Chefs are a community of like-minded individuals who identify with one another, advance the practice of their profession, and help new entrants join the profession.
Ten years ago, the common wisdom was that you could not establish a community of practice. If you found one that was working, the best you could do was to nurture it. It was like truffles. They grow wild. You want truffles, you put a pig or well-trained dog on a leash and encourage it to dig around the roots of oak trees in southern France or northern Italy.
The authorities were wrong on both counts. Half the world’s truffles are cultivated on truffle plantations in Spain. Thousands of corporations have established thriving communities of practice that advance both their members and their shared body of knowledge.
Knowing the tricks of a trade does not make you a professional.
Beyond acquiring know-how, a professional hangs out with other professionals, builds relationships with others in the profession, and contributes to the collective wisdom of the profession. Most importantly, the professional knows deep inside that she has joined the profession.
A cook becomes a chef when she feels she’s a chef. Professional firefighters, insurance salespeople, plumbers, accountants, and architects don’t just master subject matter; they become members of their profession.
Experience is the best teacher. You can’t become a chef without working and learning in a kitchen.
Many professionals accelerate the rate at which they gain experience by enrolling in formal courses. Formal learning, where an outside authority chooses the subject matter, is a great way to see the big picture of a new field, master its concepts, get to know the ropes, and learn to talk the talk. Mind you, formal learning doesn’t teach everything. No chef has every recipe in her head; that’s why she has cookbooks.