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My Dinner With Julia: The Role of Mentors

08/22/2013 05:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013

As August 15 was Julia Child's birthday, I thought it fitting to tell the world about the time the great chef slept with me.

It happened in 1996. I pulled up to her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take her to a charity event we were attending in Providence. That city's mayor, Buddy Cianci, was honoring her, and I had been asked to serve as her escort.

By this point, Julia was in her mid-'80s, and we had been acquainted for many years. I had gone to other events with her and enjoyed chatting with her, but I never had a chance to talk to her one-on-one and get to know her.

I peppered her with questions from the moment she got in the car. It was rainy and dark, and for the first few minutes she was right there -- my childhood idol -- firing answers back. Then, before we hit the highway, she didn't respond for a minute or so. I looked over, and saw she was asleep.

"Jesus Christ," I said to myself. "How disappointing."

Not to be too crude, but it was like being after a girl and finally getting her in your bed -- only to have her fall asleep.

When we arrived, I woke her up. "Okay. We're here, Julia."

She opened her purse, powdered her nose and her cheeks and applied a thick coat of red lipstick. Then we went in and she came instantly alive. She greeted everyone enthusiastically: the front of the house people, the event people, several guests who noticed her. And then she made a beeline for the back. "I want to see the kitchen! I want to meet everybody!"

Now, I've hosted many famous chefs, foodies and others at Davio's over the years, and no one did what Julia did in that kitchen. She greeted every single person. The chefs, the salad guys, the dishwashers, the pastry chef, asking and answering question after question. Ten minutes earlier, she was asleep, and now she was up and giving these people her full attention. She was having the time of her life.

We all ate dinner together and had a fun evening. When it was time for us to leave, I thought to myself, "Okay, my questions -- here I go!" But once again, before we even made it to the highway, she fell asleep. That was okay. I had already learned a restaurant lesson that I will never forget: the most important thing you can give people is your time and attention.

I'd been watching Julia since I was 14 and I knew all her dishes, but nothing has taught me as much or as served me as powerfully in my career as watching her give herself to everybody that night.

Today, Julia is gone, but I remember her fondly as an important mentor in my life. Mentors are everything. It's hard to make it in restaurants -- or anything else -- if you don't have them. Why? Because none of us are born geniuses. It's arrogant to think we know everything. People often think it's hard to find a mentor, though. Especially in business. They think that mentors can be only one person -- a mom, dad, grandpa, coach. Just one, singular great and powerful person who impacts your life on a daily basis and like no one else possibly could or ever do again. But I offer a different thought: Mentors are everywhere and can be anyone if you only pay attention. I didn't see Julia Child every day, but I consider her one of my biggest mentors because she taught me one, vital lesson (and probably a baker's dozen of other, smaller ones).

There is no set-in-stone definition that a mentor has to be someone who consciously takes you under your wing and shows you the way. The people I consider my mentors -- some 10 or 20 people -- didn't necessarily do that for me; rather, they are people whom I have simply looked to for wisdom, people who have knowingly or unknowingly influenced me in some way. Mentors don't proclaim whether they are mentors to us or not. We define who our mentors are. We just have to find them first.

Happy Birthday, Julia!