Preparing Boys for Life
Fords in Four: John Patterson '98
The Haverford School

In Fords in Four, we ask an alumnus four questions; he shares insights and stories. In this blog post, John Patterson '98, executive chef at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, shares the lessons he learned at Haverford about leadership and mentorship, traces his career path, and shares advice about finding your passions.  

What faculty member had a particular influence on you?

I went to Haverford from kindergarten all the way though. Thirteen years is a long time to go to one school, and it’s definitely something that I look at that has clearly shaped who I am, how I think, and what I believe. It was so important. 

I would say the faculty member who really had an influence on me would definitely be Mr. Hallowell. I had him in Form II and Form IV. It was clear he was investing in me, and that really resonated with me. I didn’t even know how to identify it until recently, that was what made a difference. As a student you’re exposed to a lot of great educators, but there was just something different about Mr. Hallowell. He really took a true interest in each individual, and it made you want to do better, and made you feel special, in a school full of lots of special kids.

His model of leadership and mentorship are lessons that have stayed with me. Mr. Hallowell taught me how to bring the best out of people, and I understand the need to connect and have a deeper understanding of where others are coming from in order to build relationships and true connections.  

I went to Haverford from kindergarten all the way though. Thirteen years is a long time to go to one school, and it’s definitely something that I look at that has clearly shaped who I am, how I think, and what I believe. It was so important. 

Tell me about your career path and what led to this job with Shelburne Farms.

The whole time I was in college, I was working in restaurants to make money and pay bills. Then I started working as a server in better restaurants, and it was the first time I ever experienced bringing food to the table and having a guest come up to me and say, “Thank you. We’ll never forget this experience. It was amazing.” That feeling of taking care of someone, bringing them happiness, and making an impact is what really resonated with me.

I ended up going to an open house at the restaurant school at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia and it was like the lightbulb went off. I signed up and enrolled a week later. Through culinary school I was working at a fine dining restaurant in Wayne. I was learning so much and it was an opportunity to make people happy, which was really what I liked to do. This was a way to bring out my artistic side where I could work with my hands to create something, but I could also give it to someone for their enjoyment. From there, I went to Blackfish in Conshohocken. I basically got years of experience in the two years I was there because it was so intense. After that, I went out to Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, then moved to New York and worked at Gramercy Tavern for three years. Then I moved back to Philadelphia and took over as chef de cuisine at Fork. I was there for about six years. That was really a growth opportunity where I went from being an aspiring chef to really becoming a chef.

Food means more when it’s coming from your backyard. I think one of the best things about coming to Shelburne is that the whole property is about educating people who come by.

My wife found this opportunity at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. We drove up, took a look around, met the inn director, and had a two-and-a-half-hour conversation. It was another one of those moments of true connection. I’ve been up here since last June, and about to go into my second season.

Food means more when it’s coming from your backyard. I think one of the best things about coming to Shelburne is that the whole property is about educating people who come by. We’re working really hard to come up with best practices, whether it’s environmental, financial, and especially, if it’s applicable to other people. What grows best where, and when? How can we impact people to eat better? How can we help them get their kids to eat healthier? We want people to leave here, go home, and practice something they learned from us. It all goes back to recognizing the landscapes, the ethos, the environment, and the natural systems around you.

How have you built your leadership style in the kitchen?

It’s been a real blessing to work in an industry that is oftentimes not the first choice for people. What you end up doing is working with a huge diversity of the population – people coming from all over the world, with different cultures, upbringings, and backgrounds. That forces you to be more flexible and to really take into consideration where someone’s coming from and the situation that they’re used to.

I think a big part of leadership, especially in this industry, is recognizing what motivates someone. I seek to empower my team members to have ownership over what they’re doing. People are motivated by different things. Some people are motivated by money and their title, but some people are motivated by learning something they can take home with them. Being able to recognize those differences so that the work that they’re doing can be relatable is so important. If you’re learning how to properly roast a chicken, you can go home and make it for your family. You’re not just working in a restaurant, you’re learning a craft, and a skill, and something that can provide nourishment for people in your family. That’s where someone can get that sense of pride and feel that what they’re doing is really meaningful.

I think Haverford students will succeed at whatever they put their mind to. You can strive to be the best, but if you’re not striving to also be happy, you can find yourself re-evaluating halfway down the line. Instead, chase something that you feel really passionate about, something that makes you feel more whole as a person – that’s really important.

What advice do you have for Haverford students or young alums?

I would tell them to travel. Take the time before you get into a career – if you’re in college, or you’re still in high school – to travel and leave the United States to see everything else that is out there. Haverford is so special, but it also isn’t very relatable, as it can be a very privileged environment. A lot of great things can come out of that environment, but there is a need to be exposed to different people and opportunities. Getting out of the country can help you discover what inspires you, what moves you, and what fuels you.  

I think Haverford was by far the most intense environment I’ve ever been in, kitchens included. The School prepares you to constantly strive for the best and accept nothing but the best. I think Haverford students will succeed at whatever they put their mind to. You can strive to be the best, but if you’re not striving to also be happy, you can find yourself re-evaluating halfway down the line. Instead, chase something that you feel really passionate about, something that makes you feel more whole as a person – that’s really important.

Shelburne Farms photo by Marshall Webb. 

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