Chef Justin Leboe on what it takes to be a good chef, the money and getting out of the kitchen

Helping young chefs develop perspective and skills

There are definitely advantages to being a new grad: the world is your oyster and you haven’t become jaded from negative coworkers or a toxic work environment. On the flip side, what you may have are debts from student loans, little working knowledge of your area outside of what you’ve done in class and almost sympathetic looks from industry veterans that seem to pat you over the head with “there, there” every time you want to do something new.

Being a young chef is especially hard, when the starting wage is low, there are no grants or funds to help further your professional development, and television shows convince you that you should be a rock star already.

To help young chefs get a financial leg-up, broaden their horizons and gain kitchen experience in leading restaurants, David Hawksworth, with the help of sponsors like TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege, hosts an annual competition through the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Foundation, where the winner will receive $10,000 and a stage at a top international restaurant to develop their professional skills.

Last month, the foundation took chef David Hawksworth to Calgary, where he and chef Justin Leboe presented TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege cardholders with an exclusive fundraising dinner at Model Milk Bistro.

Chef Justin Leboe, who started working in the kitchen as a dishwasher when he was 13, and has cooked his way to the top at numerous prestigious restaurants around the world before opening Model Milk Bistro and Pigeonhole restaurant, has fostered the success of many young chefs. Here’s what he says about work ethics, illusions of working as a chef and what really carries you to success.

What are some of the things young chefs need to keep in mind before going into the industry?

You have to learn how to walk before you can run. There’s no shortcut to being truly great at something. Nobody sees the years of hard work that goes in but they just see the end result when you’ve arrived. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell came up with the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert. Everybody always holds Mozart as an example of someone composing great music when he was 13 or 14, but he’d already been doing it for years; he had the 10,000 hours. Wayne Gretzky was a prodigy because he’d been playing in his backyard since he was four. These guys had the advantage and the support to be work in their field long before anyone else had realized there was even going to be a field there. Good food is no different.

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

“Never take a job for money.”

I was working for a chef in Vancouver who was the captain of the Canadian Bocuse d’Or team for years. He taught me that it’s not necessarily in your favour to take a job basically because somebody is going to pay you more money than somebody else. If you put your head down, put the work in, study your craft, hone your skills, figure out how to discipline yourself and develop a work ethic, then your money will follow.

I made $12 an hour when I turned 30, now I own two successful restaurants. If I hadn’t listened to that piece of advice and looked at which jobs gave me the best chance for the future, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.

Was there a time when you wanted to quit? How did you get over it?

The toughest job I ever had was when I was living in Los Angeles. I was the chef de cuisine of five-star hotel in Beverly Hills. It was just such a grind, all the time, six days a week, 40 weeks a year. It was, literally, the most demanding, squeeze-every-last-penny-out-of-the-business job I ever had. When I left, I was just completely burnt, completely done. I thanked the chef, thanked the executive sous chef and gave them my notice, and they’re like, “Well, where are you going? What are you doing?” I said that I was done and can’t do it anymore.

I moved back to Vancouver and I was doing some odd jobs in kitchens for friends of mine, and about three months later, I realize it was still in me and I wasn’t ready to quit yet. In hindsight, that was still the worst job I ever had, but it was also the one job that taught me more about what it means to be a manager, what it means to run a business and what it means to be a chef than any other job I’ve ever had.

When new cooks come to you and say they want to quit, what do you tell them?


I’ve had a kid who tried to quit after first the three weeks, and I flat out said, “No.” I pushed his notice across the table and said, “Come back in two weeks; you haven’t been here for long enough to formulate an opinion. Just ask me again in two weeks.”

He came back in two weeks and said, “I don’t want to quit.”

Then there are other kids who try to quit after two weeks , and I’m like, “You’re probably right.”

What’s one piece of advice you want to give to young chefs?

Get over how your food looks on a plate, it’s only important to your Instagram followers.

[Young chefs need to think about] the structure of the dish, the balance of textures, how it tastes, whether you have an understanding of the techniques you’re using or you are just winging it, whether or not the dish makes money and whether or not you can execute in a timely fashion. You can be a fantastic cook and put one dish together that’s absolutely stellar, but if you can’t walk out of your kitchen for four days and have your weakest cook execute that, you’re not a great chef. That’s the challenge.