Cover Quinso chef-owner Antonin Bonnet

In his culinary career spanning three decades, Bonnet has mentored some of the world’s best chefs. We sit down with him to find out what traits he looks out for in today’s hungry cooks and the feeling he gets when they reach their goals

Chefs achieve greatness with their talent, passion for food and cooking, and perseverance to be the best at what they do. It also helps to have the right mentors who help feed their ambitions and guide them as they navigate the tricky world of F&B.

For Julien Royer and Kirk Westaway—two of Singapore’s celebrated chefs who respectively run three-Michelin-starred Odette and two-Michelin-starred Jaan by Kirk Westaway in Singapore—they see that in French chef Antonin Bonnet. Their one-time mentor is the former executive chef of the now-shuttered Michelin-starred French restaurant, The Greenhouse, in the UK, and now helms his own Michelin-starred Quinsou in Paris, France.  

Royer remembers Bonnet as “a fantastic cook with a unique touch and style… someone who truly has a deep understanding of Mother Nature, life cycle and agriculture in general”, and working with Bonnet was a “great learning experience”. Westaway agrees, sharing that Bonnet introduced him to the “importance of produce, elegance and refinement”.

It’s been more than 30 years since Bonnet entered the culinary world, and since then, many of those he has mentored—Royer and Westaway aside—have achieved culinary success.

As he continues to share his knowledge with the new generation of chefs, often tapping into his personal experiences that shaped his own culinary career, he shares with Tatler Dining the attributes hungry young cooks need in order to succeed in life and the feeling he gets once they see them achieve their goals.

In case you missed it: Here’s What You Can Expect From Chef Julien Royer’s New French Restaurant, Claudine

How would you define the job of a chef mentor?

Antonin Bonnet (AB): As a mentor, chef and leader, you need to lead by example. You need to show your team that you understand the process, you know which direction you’re heading to, and you’re taking charge of it.

What is good leadership in the kitchen?

AB: Good leadership is about empowering the right people and surrounding yourself with the right talent. And if you have the right talent, let them express it and allow them to take responsibility. You need to give them enough freedom while guiding them in their career. Sure, at one point, they are going to fly away from the nest, but that’s OK too.  

Good leadership is also a two-way street—you teach and mentor the young chefs; at the same time, they create something new for you which you keep in this repository of knowledge and new recipes.

Read more: Kitchen Inspiration: Pesto Shines in These 6 Recipes

How would you describe your leadership style?

AB: I aim to inspire culinary excellence in the kitchen through sharing of knowledge, reciprocity and goodwill.

Speaking of mentorship, tell us more about working with Royer at The Greenhouse.

AB: It was a pleasure working with Julien because his level of cooking was already so high. He had much more freedom than any others. There was much more creativity and he was coming up with full recipes at the time.

He only stayed for a year... the good ones often never stay long enough. I wish I could have enjoyed it more at that time. If I had the chance to work with him again, I would do it slightly differently and give him much more power in the kitchen.  

What about Westaway’s time at The Greenhouse?

AB: Kirk was a chef at The Greenhouse for about a year as well. He worked really hard and he had a lot of determination; it’s impressive to see what he has achieved in 10 years. To gather enough energy and technicality, and then define himself with his cooking—it’s a significant achievement.

What do you look for in today’s young chefs?

AB: First of all, they must love food and enjoy cooking. The best chefs for me today are the ones who cook the best staff meal. That said, one way I can recognise if somebody is going to perform is if they cook food for the staff. My only test would be: “Can you cook something for us, please?”. Something simple. If you see that they put their heart into it and are actually enjoying and paying attention to the seasoning and the cooking, it means that they will follow through. It’s 99 per cent accurate.

What is the feeling you get when the chefs you’ve trained succeed and do well?

AB: I’m really happy if they become successful. And, there’s some pride in being a part of their journey as well, knowing that I was lucky enough to share some time and they’ve become part of the family. They’re like my babies somehow. There’s no jealousy and there’s no envy. I'm just super proud.

The nice thing is that they give back. We still engage professionally; we exchange tips and that’s amazing. You create your own network that kind of protects you after that—you can help them; they can help you. It's the nicest thing; each time Julien and Kirk come to Paris, they visit.

Ex-banker and founder of Women Venture Asia Harmin Kaur is a foodie at heart, and shares her food and wine discoveries on @harminkaur_

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