The first American season of “Kitchen Nightmares” aired its final episode on Fox a few weeks back. The show follows a simple recipe: in each episode, Chef Gordon Ramsay is called in by the owner of a fledging restaurant, and has one week to put it back on track. The formula makes for great TV: take a group of people nearing bankruptcy, throw in a guy with a strong personality who doesn’t mince his words, and let him explain to them what they are doing wrong. The result is a high-intensity series, filled with emotion and drama – and I got immediately hooked up.
I spent quite some time catching up with the entire season, and after a little, I realized that my interest had shifted. I still enjoyed the high-octane exchanges, but I grew fascinated by the predictability of each episode. The restaurants Ramsay helps out come in all tastes and flavors: an Irish pub owned by a retired cop in upstate New York, an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, a pizzeria in Hollywood, an upscale Napa valley restaurant run by a French chef… And yet, in spite of all their obvious differences, each episode unfolds in a familiar sequence, making “Kitchen Nightmares” an amazing case study in business management. Observing one person in the process of rescuing a business small enough that you can understand how things fit together is already a great learning opportunity; but seeing the same person doing it over and over again is like a perfect lab in management, an experiment allowing comparisons for similarities and differences; so I began to look at the show from that perspective, looking for patterns and wondering if there were lessons to be learnt, applicable beyond the restaurant business.
From the Kitchen…
One obvious lesson is that a safe way to get a restaurant in trouble is to serve bad food; a close second is to have poor service. In each episode, Gordon Ramsay makes sure he knows the kitchen in and out; he has lunch at the place and discusses the food with the Chef, usually heatedly (As an aside, if you ever see Gordon Ramsay in your restaurant, make sure to cook fresh crab cakes– nearly every restaurant was tested, and failed, on that dish.), observes how a normal dinner is cooked and served, and performs an in-depth inspection of the kitchen. This part is usually pretty entertaining, unless you have a sensitive stomach, in what case you should probably not watch “Kitchen Nightmares”.
The same issues come up regularly, and could be translated into the following advice:
- Provide your team good working conditions and equipment. Quite a few places had broken ovens, for instance, used to store rags or kitchenware; besides depressing the team, this will come to bite you at the moment you need it the least, when you have to serve a full house: the pressure goes up, you operate close to full capacity – and your equipment starts failing you.
- Keep it clean, keep it honest - use fresh, high-quality products, in a spic-and-span kitchen. A dirty kitchen is a clear sign of sloppy work, and usually goes hand-in-hand with sub-par ingredients and storage. It usually indicates an arrogant Chef who refuses to hear criticism, and does not allow anyone in his kitchen. The typical result is pretentious but poorly executed dishes.
- Deliver added value. In a few places, the Chef would re-heat ready-made food from the supermarket, arguing that the costs of preparing it fresh were too high. Chances are your clients are not going to come back for overpriced micro waved mashed potatoes; furthermore, a Chef who does not want to cook is indicative that something is going wrong.
- Taste your food. If you don’t like what you cook, chances are your customer won’t, either.
Incidentally, I realized that this list was somewhat similar to another list, the “Joel test”, used to check the pulse of a software engineering department in 12 simple questions. Some correspondences are obvious ("quiet working conditions", "the best tools money can buy"). If you are willing to stretch a bit analogies, "hallway usability testing" can be equated to "tasting you own food", and "source control" and "daily builds" could be considered related to using only fresh ingredients, stored cleanly.
… to the Table
While the importance of the kitchen should be obvious, the mission of a restaurant is to serve it at the table, to be enjoyed by customers – and there too, things can go awfully wrong. Here are a few lessons that apply to pretty much any business.
- Keep it simple for your customers: do one thing, and do it right. Deciding between restaurants is difficult for customers: help them, by having a clearly defined line, and a straightforward menu. The most spectacular case in the series is Sebastian’s, in episode 6, where the “conceptual menu” is a sequence so complex to follow that not even the staff can explain it. A close second is Dillon’s, in episode 2; the restaurant serves both Indian, and American food, but rather than reaping the benefits of added choice, it confuses customers and complicates the life of the staff, who has to explain what type of restaurant this is.
- Don’t try to make up for the lack of quality with freebies or quantity. If your food is bad, your customer doesn’t want more of it. If your customer comes back for the freebies, you will lose money every time they come.
- Don’t keep your clients waiting. Just don’t.
- Know your market and carve out your niche. Ramsay explains that for your restaurant to be successful, you have to be the best at something in a 25 miles radius. It was a lesson in marketing to watch Gordon Ramsay go for a stroll around the restaurant, visiting shops and talking to random people of the neighborhood to get a sense of its vibe, of what other restaurants were up to and, more importantly, of what was missing. It was interesting to see how he would try to find and incorporate local high-quality foods into the menu, and fit it with a gap in the market.
Leadership and Change
A long time ago, in a strategy class I attended in business school, a seasoned consultant explained to us that “identifying the problem is usually not really that difficult; the tough part is to figure out how to get things to change”. From that perspective, Gordon Ramsay is one of the most gifted management consultants I have ever seen in action. Everyone is a critic; but getting a whole team to change their habits and steer them into a new direction, in under a week, is truly amazing.
Ramsay is remarkably abrasive, and comes down pretty hard (with lots of swearing) on some individuals along the season. I heard someone described him as “that guy who belittles others in restaurants”. I have no doubt that Ramsay is a hot-blooded individual, but, if you watch enough episodes, you will realize that his outbursts are controlled and somewhat methodical. He is not going off sadistically at random; he is usually putting the pressure on one specific individual in the group, and uses it as shock therapy, to jolt the team back together around a common project.
Here are some insight on the dos and don’ts of leading a team, Ramsay’s way:
- If a restaurant is losing money, it cannot all be blamed on the employees. Ultimately, the root cause of the problem is not bad employees: they are a symptom of poor management. After all, it is management’s responsibility to hire and encourage talent, and fire unfit employees. Letting a free-rider operate in a team is really damaging; it signals a weak management, condoning that doing a bad job is acceptable, and will dampens the spirits of motivated employees. Shoddy work needs to be recognized, and addressed quickly and swiftly. I found it interesting that in most episodes, Ramsay end up spending a significant amount of time and energy working with the owner, in what can be best described as intense therapy, to help them step up and fill in the shoes of an owner/manager. The most spectacular episode in that respect is episode 4, “Seascape”, where Ramsay helps the owner get out of the shadow of his deceased father and find confidence in himself, in a process involving boxing it out in the ring; but most episodes do involve some process of becoming a grown-up, responsible manager – someone who accepts that failure is possible (Olde Stone Mill), that managing is not being everyone’s buddy (Campania’s), and that theatrics is not the way to earn respect as a manager (Peter’s).
- The team will succeed as a whole only, so no ivory tower or fiefdoms should be tolerated; and a good manager should now everything that is happening in his restaurant, and act as part of the team himself. Ramsay is a great example of this; he checks every restaurant through and through, and no task is too low for him. When a kitchen is dirty, he comes in and helps scrub – and he brings people in his own kitchen to observe that he walks the talk. Conversely, in “Peter’s”, he simply asks the owner to replace the Chef in the kitchen; the manager gets absolutely overwhelmed, can’t cope with the out-of-order equipment, and treats his Chef very differently afterwards. Simply getting everyone in a group to understand what the roles of the others is, and what is complicated about it, goes a long way in building a strong team with mutual respect.
- When in distress, teams will usually find a scapegoat for their problems, which leads to counter-productive blame games; getting people to trust each other again and play as a team is crucial. Ramsay turns up the heat, and creates situations where people need to work together, and will realize who is pulling their weight, and who isn’t. In “Lela’s”, he puts to shame an arrogant and lazy Chef, and forces him to work under his talented but inexperienced Sous-Chef. This works fine, until the Sous-Chef crumbles under the pressure of having to cook for a full house; the Chef steps up, takes over and saves the day. As a result, the Chef brought out his A-game, and regained the respect of the team; and the kitchen has now two complementary Chefs. Interestingly, in another episode (Dillon’s), Ramsay uses the same trick, setting up servers to compete; but in that case, the substitution is a complete success, and the younger server replaces his lazy predecessor, who leaves the place.
- Empower your employees to do a good job. Unless they are incompetent or unfit for the position, people are usually aware that they are not doing a good job; they won’t be happy about it, and act depressed or defensive. Ramsay systematically tries to re-awaken the love for good food that made the Chefs choose that career in the first place.
Ultimately, I think what I liked most about the show was that it was so uplifting; every episode was a testament that people love nothing more than getting together and making a project succeed. On the one hand, it made it clear that starting your business is not to be taken lightly, and is a path were failure is easy; but on the other hand, it demonstrated that there was really no magic in succeeding, either, and that it does not take rocket science to succeed as an entrepreneur: work hard and honestly, build a respectful team where talent is recognized and everyone works in the right direction, and “be the best at one thing in a 25 miles radius”.
And finally, it was also a reminder of an advice I heard multiple times: if you run your company, know what you know and what you don’t know, and when you don’t know, ask a professional. Asking for help may not always be easy, and advice usually comes at a price – but why risk sinking your business, if there is a Ramsay out there that can get you back on track in one week?