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