Divine innovation

I don’t think of myself as a foodie, exactly, although I have been so accused. I am a serious diner, though, and believe there is nothing more divine than a thoughtfully prepared meal at a great restaurant with someone you love. I also admit to being hooked on that TV cooking competition Chopped. But a foodie? I am afraid there is just a lot more cacciatore in this Jersey boy than cordon bleu.

Last weekend I indulged my fondness for dining by attending a fundraiser for a nearby cancer research center. The featured speaker was Ruth Reichl, the distinguished food writer, longtime editor of Gourmet magazine, and food critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. I am a fan. She talked about why America now has the best restaurants and the finest chefs in the world. Which has not always been the case, she admitted, with Paris historically acknowledged as the sacred capital of haute cuisine and a number of other countries—Italy, China, Thailand—traditionally known for outstanding regional cooking. But cooking, like so many other things, is now a much more global affair than it has ever been, and America has become its center of gravity. Why? The reason, Reichl said, is the same reason why American medicine is respected around the world as the very best. The reason is mentorship.

What a concept. Reichl maintained that just as our finest physicians and researchers freely impart their knowledge in one-on-one mentoring relationships with medical students, interns, residents, and postdocs, and among themselves, so do today’s great American chefs—young and old—commonly work as mentors for one another. They generously share knowledge, swap techniques, exchange young students as sous chefs, and often even partner to develop creative and innovative new restaurants and cuisines. Unlike the old-world model of the master chef who jealously guards his recipes and methods, covets his Michelin stars, and performs the role of the unapproachable and domineering maestro, the American model of the master chef has become defined as one of a sharing and nurturing teacher and learner all at once. In short, a model of mentorship.

I don’t know if Reichl is right about the American food scene, but I like her point. And I think she is onto something in drawing the analogy with American medicine. That night the case was dramatized in the testimonies we heard from a number of remarkable cancer researchers who embody the principle in the scientific breakthroughs they have made in concert with their collaborators. As each spoke, it occurred to me that the constellation of exemplary mentoring in American medicine and cuisine should be extended to a third star in the heavens: American colleges. And nowhere is the ethos of mentoring more highly valued or assiduously pursued than among the faculty and students at the University of Puget Sound. It’s so real here, you can taste it.

We have heard a great deal about the recognized preeminence throughout the world of American higher education in terms that echo closely the ways we talk about the high quality of American medical care. The two are, of course, closely linked. Our great researchers and physicians are generally trained in our most prominent colleges and medical schools, taught and mentored by their accomplished elders who are often at the vanguard of breakthroughs in medical care, in understanding the mysterious etiology of complex diseases, in developing treatment protocols, and in discovering drugs and imaginative cures for previously incurable maladies. The achievements of American medicine and those of the best American colleges and universities are one and the same.

They are linked by mentorship, but also by  innovation. Innovation is often represented as a characteristic quality of American medical research as well as the principal advantage of adaptable American enterprise, which has enabled our economy to dominate the world through a series of economic upheavals—from the agrarian economy of the 18th century, to the industrial revolution of the 19th, the manufacturing economy of the 20th century, and the information economy of the present era.

And yet, despite these elements held in common with American business, and despite the worldwide recognition of the superiority of American higher education and American medical care, both are often seen as out of step with economic realities, with costs rising disproportionately and the price of their services increasingly unaffordable. As we face this paradox squarely (and we have to), we must also bear in mind that the source from which the lifeblood of innovation and adaptability in American higher education and medicine flows—and the not-so-secret ingredient in American cuisine—is mentorship. Mentorship consumes a great deal of personal attention, thoughtfulness, and time. It is, therefore, expensive, but its first fruit—innovation—is invaluable. The challenge for us all is to determine how much innovation is worth to us, and how we will pay for the mentoring that makes it possible.

“Mentorship” comes from the mythological Greek figure Mentor, the old friend of Odysseus who served as the wise teacher and guide to Odysseus’ son Telemachus when the warrior headed off on his great adventures. Mentor took the place of father, teacher, and loyal friend for young Telemachus back in Ithaca in the absence of brave Odysseus. It was a divine calling. In fact, on at least two occasions, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, made this explicit when she assumed the guise of Mentor to inspire in Telemachus (and later in Odysseus) acts of courage and character. What real mentoring makes possible is heroic and almost divine, like those occasions when the goddess became the man and appeared to Telemachus and Odysseus to inspire great things in them. The true mentor conveys something wise and valuable to someone who needs it, which enables something entirely new and unprecedented to happen as a result: like the callow son growing into a man of authority and wisdom, or the lost father triumphantly returning home and setting things right.

On Commencement Day, as I see each graduating student walk toward me in cap and gown, with a sense of triumph, face full of hope, and hand outstretched to receive a diploma, I flash back on younger faces arriving only four years earlier at this same spot in Baker Stadium, ready to set off to meet the challenges before them. And I think of all the one-of-a-kind mentors they encountered here on campus, mentors who brought them from that innocent time to this present moment of accomplishment. All, like Telemachus and Odysseus, have been tested, had wounds cared for, and hunger satisfied by mentors. But true mentorship doesn’t just guide and nurture, it creates the possibility of innovative action. Like in a young student realizing her real potential and stepping out to take on the challenge of a productive and creative career she never imagined for herself. Or a young doctor discovering the gene that cracks the code to a killer disease. Or a young chef who opens up a really great new restaurant with an innovative twist on an old dish. Which reminds me of a little place on Capitol Hill in Seattle where the pasta is simply divine. Time to make reservations.