May 5, 2011

Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen

Engaged in a fierce battle on a recent Chopped All-Stars, chef Aarón Sanchez quipped, “When brilliance happens, you don’t ask where it came from, you just kind of go with it, ride the wave.”

It didn’t matter that he was referring to making whipped cream out of chickpeas; he might just as well have been talking about the next high-tech innovation or big business idea.

If you watch enough Food Network shows like Iron Chef or Worst Cooks in America, a picture of what greatness is all about begins to emerge. No, not great chefs making great food. but great leaders.

What separates iconic chefs like Bobby Flay, Masimaru Morimoto, and Cat Cora from the millions of competitors around the world is their leadership ability. It’s evident in their behavior, their character, everything they do. Never mind that they’re on TV. They may as well be cooking in one of their restaurants or mentoring an up-and-coming sous chef.

Restaurants deliver product and service like any other business. But make no mistake. The cooking business is a fiercely competitive battleground that breeds great chefs who are also great leaders.

10 Leadership Lessons From Food Network Chefs

Compete to win but respect the enemy. Forget all the politically correct BS - business is about winning. And yes, it is a zero-sum game. It’s all about market share. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t respect your competitors.

Success is about managing and mentoring people. The way chefs move up is by hiring talented cooks and training them to be sous chefs so they can someday run one of their many restaurants. It’s the same as climbing the corporate ladder.

Results are all that matter. It’s what the customer thinks of the product and service that counts. That’s what creates repeat business and loyal customers. You may think you’ve come up with a brilliant dish, but if the folks don’t like it, you failed.

You’ve got to know the business. Steve Jobs isn’t just a brilliant marketer. Warren Buffet isn’t just a smart investor. Bill Gates wasn’t just a great software coder. Just like these iconic leaders, every great chef has a head for the business.

It’s not who you know but what you know. Don’t let anyone tell you success is about who you know. That’s just an excuse for whiners who can’t cut it. Great chefs know everything there is to know about making a restaurant business successful. Period.

Experience is overrated. Even young chefs like Sanchez and Bobby Flay - when he was first starting out - exude such instincts and passion for what they do that you know in a heartbeat they’re going to be successful. That’s why people follow them.

Learn from failure and move on. Failure is how we learn and grow. Failure teaches us how to do things differently. How to do things better. Great chefs don’t dwell on their mistakes. They suck it up and do better next time. After all, there’s always another meal.

Focus on core strengths. Great chefs grow their business around their core strengths. Nobody has ever been successful in the restaurant or cooking business by just doing the same stuff as everyone else. Sure, execution is critical, but innovation and creativity are also requirements for success. Like it or not, smarts matter.

Work hard, play hard. Even while competing at an extraordinarily high level, these chefs never lose their sense of humor and, when it’s over, they party and congratulate each other on a job well done. That’s how it should be.



  1. Aaron Sanchez was on an episode of "Chopped: All Stars" and used a can opener to open a can with a pull tab. He's mostly an ass.

  2. I've always thought of great chefs as great leaders. That's why I don't really like Michael Chiarello but love Hubert Keller.

    Oh and my mom taught me that it's never about who you know but instead who knows you. Did you leave a lasting impression so that they'll remember you in the future? Because networking can open doors but you have to be prepared to deliver once you're in.


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