Mentors and Motivation: Chef Suzette Gresham

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suzette gresham chef of acquerello
Suzette Gresham, co-owner and Executive Chef, Acquerello

When you read articles about influential Bay Area chefs, you expect (deservedly so) to see Alice, Judy, Hubert and Jeremiah, to name a few. In motivating culinary students to constantly stay curious, I spend a lot of time making sure cooks of today understand who came before them. One name I share often is chef Suzette Gresham of Acquerello restaurant. “Suzette Gresham? Who’s that?” Part of me is always disappointed in this response. Then I realize I get the privilege of introducing them to this amazing woman.

Suzette is important to the world of food not only because she is a woman who persevered in a 1970s male-dominated field, but more so because of her ability to mentor and manage like no chef I’ve met. She’s tough and her expectations are high, but if cooks are able to be her students, they are rewarded with a mentor for life (just ask chef Kim Alter, who constantly sings her praises).

I wanted to know what made Suzette tick, what made her keep working as tenaciously as she has for so many years and continue to give so much to the cooks in her kitchen. Her early influences certainly impacted her own personal management style, and her advice is sage whether you’re working in a restaurant or outside the food world entirely: be the bigger person, be the curator of your own experiences, and invest in your education on all levels.

Who was your most influential mentor and why?

A past, perhaps unknown chef in today’s world, but certainly not forgotten, especially by me: Mr. Alec O. Cline. As national secretary for the ACF [American Culinary Federation], his titles and accolades were lengthy, but his daily demeanor was humble. He has since passed away, but I try to emulate the philosophies that he modeled for us every day. He was the culinary director at Canada College in Redwood City, California, when I met him. He was slight of stature and yet unmistakable with his handlebar mustache. His sense of humor was abundantly sprinkled with a dash of mischief, and his wit was razor-sharp. I may not remember him for his culinary skills, but he is permanently etched in my mind for his integrity and intellect as a person and a chef. He always made us think, whether in a culinary situation or in our personal lives.

What motivated you to decide to cook professionally?

The decision to cook professionally is a never-ending, ongoing affair for most of us. You’re never quite sure if you have arrived or not, depending on your goals and aspirations.

I was never self-motivated to “cook professionally.” I thought it was an impossibility for a woman in the 1970s. Ultimately, it was a simple suggestion from the manager at the cafeteria where I worked, in order to pay for college, that started the wheels spinning. He asked if I had considered being a chef or entering the food industry. I laughed and said, “Women don’t do that,” and he said, “You should.” His comment resonated with me. Could I? The fact that a man had suggested this to me made it seem as if there was a possibility, no matter how remote. Just that little show of support began a search on my part. With only one semester at my current college remaining, I graduated at the insistence of my mother, but only with the agreement that she would allow me to check out the food technology program at Canada College in Redwood City. Once there, I knew that I had found something that I enjoyed, but I was still unsure that I could achieve being a chef.

What is important for cooks, just starting in this industry, to understand?

It is a lengthy process. The process begins to seem like a pathway to a future. First, curiosity about food sets in. What if you take something that you really enjoy and pursue it? Is that even possible? You certainly can’t predict the outcome at the beginning, but as your interest is piqued, you begin to investigate. Somehow you realize that even investigation leads to making a commitment of some kind, in order to move forward. Do not be afraid—make the commitment. If you have a tendency, ability or slightest thought that you might be good at this, delve into more. Realizing what you don’t know, begin a quest for knowledge.

Desire sets in. You may have a drive to succeed, even though you’re not sure at what. It is a very tenuous journey with one step leading to another almost without you consciously acknowledging it. Self-doubt is strong and debilitating. But for some of us, the desire to squelch that doubt is greater and the joy of proving others’ preconceived notions wrong is motivating. Sacrifice rears its head. How far will you go? What are you willing to risk or invest? You are tested on many levels. But something within keeps getting stronger. For me, at that point, I could only hope, work and maybe even dream a little. I didn’t know if I could even be a chef. Sometimes, like an athlete, you strive for your personal best at whatever that might be, no matter how unclear or undefined. I wanted to forget what people labeled me and prove that I deserved to be there. Acceptance was fleeting. I had to trust and follow my heart.

As a chef/owner, what is your priority as a mentor to others? 

Listen. Educate. Encourage them to dream. Find their personal reality inside their dream and expose the pathway. Make them think. Remind them of their progress. Help them define success in their own terms. Keep going! Don’t give up!

Any last words of advice?

Please get perspective and make sure your expectations are realistic. Work in this industry to ensure that it is what you want, before you condemn it. Invest in your education on all levels. Eat, taste, drink, cook and read all the time. Be the curator of your experiences. Don’t be a jerk; help others. Remember, you do not need to make other people look bad in order for you to look good. Do the right thing, even if it is at your expense. Be the bigger person. Don’t be petty and keep score.