We survive the August heat by putting our feet up, pouring a cocktail and sharing stories. Francine and I have been thinking about the people who come to us for advice, so it’s only natural to reminisce about the advice we've been given by people in our own lives.
Although we have had many mentors throughout our life, we singled out one each: The power of women supporting other women (Francine) and the importance of a spiritual mentor (Suzanne). We don’t choose these mentors, they come at precisely the moment we need them. While mentorship is a frequent relationship in the business world, we believe that mentors in personal lives are even more important. So first we'll tell you our mentor stories, and we hope you will share your own—no matter what side of the equation you are on.
Of the many people who made me the person I am today, the great Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate fame was my first real mentor. I was the catering director of her legendary food store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side from 1981 until 1983, and what Sheila taught me during those years provided my income for next 2 decades.
In those early days of the American food revolution, our office was a third floor walkup above the store on 73rd Street off Columbus Avenue. We had meetings in the bathroom and kept files in the tub. I remember the year Sheila spent hunched over her desk (a door suspended over file cabinets) illustrating The Silver Palate Cookbook, which sold several million copies and changed the way cookbooks looked and felt forever. She was smart, she was funny, she was fearless. But most of all, Sheila Lukins was a worker, scooting around the kitchen in her burgundy Ferragamo pumps, mixing and tasting and throwing herself into the fray until she went upstairs to the office to work a full day, leaving us all exhausted.
In those early days before lifestyles could be purchased from catalogs, people had to rely on taste. And like many other New Yorkers, I relied on Sheila’s. A few lessons learned: Mix shouldn’t match, luxury is a flower that dies well, and just how expensive simple can be. And when I had my own catering business, she never stopped showing me the way: “Sheila, they had a real Picasso,” I told her, describing a painting I had seen in a client’s apartment. “Bunny,” my mentor replied. “Don’t say real.”
To make the Four Seasons Fancy Cake I had to unmold a bowl of Bavarian cream onto a sponge cake and I was scared.
Father Ralston, Episcopal priest and college professor, walked in the kitchen and saw a bold move was in order. By way of introduction, he grabbed the copper bowl out of my hand, flipped it over the sponge and voila! Perfection.
Together we wrapped sheets of chocolate around the cake. A simple enough task, but from that moment on my life pivoted. As one of the most popular professors of history, classics and theology at the University of the South (Sewanee), Father Ralston had a way with teaching. He opened a gateway to learning for me, and out rushed Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Flannery O’Connor, Civil War history, tenors singing high C’s, the beauty of antique silver, the way to hold audiences with rapt attention.
His way of communicating complicated subjects made me feel smart academically. But his real gift was making me wise about life. He taught me little lessons like why two martinis are better than one (he appreciated gilding the lily and seizing the day), what is the perfect bourbon and what vessel to drink it from, and how to make dinner conversations so charming, captivating and bold that the stories keep on living. But the big lessons were ways of behaving in the world—the importance of sharing love, having purpose, and how to give complete attention to another person.
Although he passed away in 2003, Father Ralston still remains my main mentor. In my home, I live with his Georgian silver punch bowl and flatware (enough pieces to serve a battalion), his collection of silver cups. In my heart, I live with the knowledge that mentors can and do live forever. One priestly thing he told me when my beloved father died is the dead love to be remembered. So Father Ralston, dear mentor, I remember you every single day.
Francine is a two time James Beard Award-winning journalist and mentor/advisor to CEOs. Suzanne is an accomplished writer and public speaker, regularly presenting on Social IQ in her quest to make gracious living available to everyone.