Tag Archives: Top Chef

Having An Abundance Of Talent And Failing

Foodie Friday! I’ll caution you that there are some Top Chef spoilers ahead so if you’ve not watched last night’s Restaurant Wars episode, you might want to come back later. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Top Chef and the pinnacle of every season is when the chefs divide into two teams for restaurant wars. Last night’s episode, which resulted in the elimination of one of the more talented chefs (who is also a fan-favorite) reminded me of a great business point.

As the chefs divided up into teams, it was very obvious that one team had four of the best chefs left in the competition. Several were James Beard Award winners, all have opened successful restaurants (several of them have multiple restaurants), and because this season is an All-Star competition, a few had advanced to the Top Chef finals in previous seasons. The other team had talent but if Vegas was setting a betting line on which team would win restaurant wars, there was no question which team would be the favorite.

When the smoke cleared and judgment had been rendered, the favorites lost and it wasn’t really close. The other team’s food was better executed, their service was more organized, and the menu was more inspired. All of that raises the point that talent alone isn’t the determining factor for success, which is our business point today.

What was evident watching the teams prepare their food was that the losing team was disorganized. They each knew what dishes they were making but other than the chef leading the team, none of them seemed to understand why the menu was the way it was nor how the flavors needed to complement one another. Teams that do well depend on an understanding of roles as well as tasks to avoid clashing, overlapping, or conflicting.

Chef Kevin, who was in charge of the team, designed a meal to be served family-style, with many dishes exiting the kitchen at once. While that works when you’re serving your own family, having to serve a full restaurant put an amazing amount of pressure on the kitchen, and not surprisingly, the service was incredibly slow. They needed to turn over tables in an hour but this style of service took longer and patrons were sitting for 90 minutes, which resulted in a backed-up restaurant. It’s nice to have a vision but had Kevin considered the team’s ability to execute his ambitious vision multiple times an hour, he might have altered his plan. That might have been the result of overconfidence, which often is a problem for the very talented. When you believe that you are unbeatable and that your successes will continue, you can get sloppy, lose concentration, or in the worst cases, slip into arrogance. Was there some of that last night? Just maybe.

Bad communication can often lie at the root of why talented teams fail but that seemed OK in the kitchen. However, the front of house staff wasn’t properly briefed because Kevin wasn’t thinking about that task and never told the chef whose job it was to do the briefing to stop what they were doing and get to the front of the house. It’s never enough to have a great plan. Without great execution, you’re lost.

I wouldn’t say the better team won. I’d say the team that executed better won. Their vision was more simple, their product was innovative, and most importantly, they maximized the talent they had. It’s something to think about as you’re working with your team, right?

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Focusing On The Protein

It’s Foodie Friday, and since last night was the finale of Top Chef, I thought we might learn a little something about both food and business from the program. Yes, I know I focused on a learning from that show a few weeks back, but not only won’t it be on for another nine months or so (sparing you my fanboy posts), but the thing on which I want to focus was done by both cheftestants, just as the business point occurs in many enterprises.

As part of the final challenge, each chef cooked a meat protein – one cooked rack of lamb; the other cooked duck breast. The responses from the judges in both cases were the same. The flavors were fantastic, the dishes were innovative and complete but the proteins were undercooked. The lamb was nearly raw in the center on most plates, and the duck breast was nicely cooked on the skin side but the other side was underdone as well. It seemed as if the chefs were so focused on the complete dish – the sauces and accompaniments – that they forgot to pay attention to the essential part of the operation – the protein that is the focus of the dish.

We see the same thing in business all the time. A side project detracts from the main business. Resources which are already spread too thin can’t focus on serving customers the basic product because they’re deployed on something that isn’t driving profits at the expense of something that is. We can’t forget to make sure the focus of our business is perfectly served because no matter how nicely everything that surrounds that focal point is offered, those things can’t compensate for a disaster in the main business.

You might think it can’t happen in your business: you’re too experienced and very good at what you do.  So were these chefs – one doesn’t get to the Top Chef finale unless you’re quite good (and these two actually topped two other cooks who are current James Beard Award nominees). Many restaurant critics will tell you that on their initial visit they like to order something very simple – roast chicken, for example – to make sure the kitchen is paying attention to the basics.  Are you?

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This Foodie Friday, we’ll return to the land of Top Chef.  Not only is it my favorite show on TV (House of Cards isn’t really TV now, is it?), but it almost always inspires broader thinking about business for me.  Last night was the conclusion of the annual restaurant wars competition in which two teams of contestants have 24 hours to conceive and execute a restaurant.  The losing team (and they really did deserve to lose) made some key errors, from which I think we can all learn a couple of things. 

First, their menu had no focus. Some of it was Asian inspired, some of it was Italian, some of it was influenced by the chef’s ego and nothing else.  There was no cohesiveness to the meal.  Any restaurant – and any brand – makes a promise.  I like this explanation:

A strong brand promise is one that connects your purpose, your positioning, your strategy, your people and your customer experience. It enables you to deliver your brand in a way that connects emotionally with your customers and differentiates your brand.

With no focus to the items being served, there was no connection – emotional or otherwise – to the diners. The next issue was execution. As incoherent as the menu was, had the dishes been prepared extremely well and had the service been spectacular, the dining experience might have been saved. Unfortunately, most of the dishes the losing team served were awful, led by a salad of strawberries, pickled cucumber, roasted beets, and arugula with a strawberry champagne gazpacho. The gloppy “gazpacho” was more like a desert sauce and the judges hated this dish. There was a pork belly served in a consomme that apparently was almost all vinegar. You know there is a problem when every shot of someone tasting it shows them looking like they’d just bitten into a lemon.

Great execution can make up for many flaws.  That too is part of delivering on the brand promise.  I’ve certainly been to restaurants where the food was just ok but excellent, personable service and reasonable prices made it someplace to which I’d return.

It’s one thing to make a promise.  It’s quite another to deliver.  Are you doing that?


Filed under Consulting, food

Bad Corn

It’s Foodie Friday! With the new season of Top Chef in full swing, I thought I’d use something that happened on last night’s episode as our topic this week. If you’re a fan of the series and have not yet watched the latest episode, mild spoiler alert!

Public relations of high-fructose corn syrup

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The chef who was eliminated last night made a dish that contained a corn and chorizo hash as an accompaniment to the protein, shrimp. When facing the judges, the question was raised why she chose to cook the corn. The judges thought that some crisp, cool corn would have complemented the shrimp, which was served outdoors (on a golf course!) in the heat. The chef’s reply was that the raw corn seemed overly starchy and she didn’t think it would have been any better raw than cooked. Her hope was that cooking would transform some of the starch. She was then asked the obvious question: why use the corn at all if you weren’t happy with the quality of the ingredient? Which raises our business point.

We often get handed inferior ingredients in business.  These can range from the dead weight employee who is unmotivated and less skilled to the messy financial plan.  The right answer isn’t always “let’s see what we can make out of this.”  Sometimes we need to find different ingredients or change our initial plan for the ones we have.  We get into trouble when we plow ahead, inflexible and wearing blinders.  Markets change, consumer tastes change, and stuff happens.  That doesn’t mean we should constantly be changing course, but it does mean that subtle adjustments are as much an ongoing part of business as tasting and seasoning is a constant part of cooking.

I rarely go to the market with a complete list.  I like to see what looks good with a general plan in mind about what I feel like cooking.  I try to approach business the same way – have a plan, but find the best ingredients and be ready to adjust.  I mean, who wants to pack their knives and go based on a bad piece of corn?

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Leading By Keeping Quiet

If you’ve been reading the screed for any period of time you know that I’m a huge fan of Top Chef.

Top Chef Middle East

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s episode provides us with the raw ingredients for our Foodie Friday Fun.  It was “restaurant wars” week, in which two chefs each conceive of and open a restaurant in 48 hours.  The chef selects other contestants as team members to serve as their staff and it’s not unusual for the losing head chef to go home.  What happened this week made great television, but it also demonstrated a fantastic business point for anyone who wants to lead a team.

One of the team captains selected a contestant who probably should have gone home several weeks ago.  It’s obvious that her talent and work ethic are not up to the standards of the other remaining contestants, much less up to those of the woman who chose her for her team (and no, she wasn’t a top pick).  Over the course of the prep day and the service day, the slacker chef delayed preparing a critical part of a dish which resulted in the dish not matching the head chef’s vision for it.  At judges’ table, the head chef did not complain about the other chef’s refusal to work as instructed. The judges had no way to know what had caused the offending dish to come up short.  All they knew is that the head chef said she was responsible, both for the dish and for the overall meal.  She went home.

The business lesson is critical   The leader’s taking responsibility and refusing to complain about her subordinate when she could have done so in order to save herself shows the type of character that makes a great leader. More importantly, it show that she understands that real leadership means assuming accountability to go along with your organizational authority.

That’s not to say she demonstrated perfect leadership skills.  As things weren’t going her way she got very frustrated.  Like many perfectionists she was  hard on herself and she shut down to a certain extent when she should have been more assertive. Things often don’t go the way we envision in business (in life to, come to think of it) and we  need to face the situation, adapt, and be flexible.  If we’re not confident we can’t possibly instill confidence in our teams.

The web is filled with the comments of outraged fans of the show screaming how the “wrong” chef was sent home.  Maybe the verdict was misplaced but the leadership lesson certainly wasn’t.

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Skiing For Your Supper

We’re headed back to an old standby this Foodie Friday: Top Chef. I’m not sure if you’re a frequent viewer.  I am although I’m questioning that habit after this week’s episode. We’re down to the final four cheftestants and this week’s episode took place all over Whistler Mountain and some Olympic venues near Vancouver. One might wonder about the kitchen facilities in those place but as it turned out, no facilities required.

Panorama of the Whistler Blackcomb resort, the...

Image via Wikipedia

The cooking took place aboard a moving ski gondola or outside in two of the three instances.  Two of the contestants had to cross-country ski and shoot at targets (biathlon for you winter sport aficionados) before they cooked.  This left me wondering, as the descriptions might leave you, what the hell this has to do with cooking, and of course that’s the business point as well. Continue reading

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Butchering The Chance

What better food topic than the premiere of Top Chef for our Foodie Friday Fun?  The power came back on in time for the show the other night (yay!) and in addition to some intriguing food there was a great business point made right off the bat.  The competition began with far more than the usual 16 cooks and many of those who came to Texas thinking they were on the show were, in fact, fighting for one of those 16 slots.  One competitor in particular stood out for all the wrong reasons, and it’s he who provided the business point I’d like to make today.

Top Chef

Image via Wikipedia

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