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Hell’s Kitchen performance lesson #3: Top Performers have these three abilities

Reading Time: 5 minutes Passion is not enough

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Passion is not enough

This article is from my list of nine surprising high performance lessons from Hell’s Kitchen. The show is chock full of swearing, apologies for any colourful language that finds its way in here.

Summary

  • The best of the best (ie. every winner of Hell’s Kitchen) share three core abilities: Execution, Creativity and Learning
  • Learning is most important as it can be used develop the other two
  • Passion is helpful, but not enough

Execution, creativity, and the ability to learn (fast)

Execution is the ability to do a prescriptive job task at a high level. 
Ie. Make the risotto or carbonara the right way, cook meat, or fish, to the right temperature, nail your timings and so on.

Creativity is to do a non-perscriptive job task well. To do something different, new, add a twist, bring yourself to the work, all in a way that works. Ie. Here is a protein do something amazing with it, use these 7 ingredients to make an outstanding plate, make the highest priced dish possible with $20 of ingredients.

Learning is to develop a new skill or understanding. The ability to learn is directly tied to trajectory. Learners tend to trend up, or can turn their trends around more successfully than others. Ie. You changed the way you cook scallops, now they have a perfect sear¹.

four light bulbs hanging in a row from cords, a fifth light bulb swings off at an angle

Execution vs Creativity: Dinner Service vs Challenges

Hell’s Kitchen has two main events per episode: a Dinner Service and a Challenge.

Dinner service requires Gordon Ramsey’s menu to be executed perfectly.

Challenges require creativity, as chefs are asked to meet unexpected requirements for creating a dish in a (short) time box.

The ability to learn (quickly) drives improved performance across both events. Learners get better as the competition goes on, so they tend to go far.

Execution

A menu is a prescriptive direction. Do not vary from it. There are specific ways to cook specific things. You don’t bake the risotto, or boil the scallops. A great dinner service is about delivering a predetermined vision in a specific way.

Since feeding a restaurant full of happy customers (without wasting food and time), is how the business makes a profit, the ability to execute is a must have. Dinner services are won by those who can execute.

We all have areas of our job where we need to “just” execute. It is a core expectation, a minimum requirement, table stakes. Meet the project milestones, hit your forecast, deliver x support interactions, achieve y net promoter score, accomplish the sprint goal, and so on and on. We all need to execute.

the ability to execute is a must have

I have worked with teams who wished they were more involved in strategy, but couldn’t execute. In my experience, those who can execute will eventually be asked for their ideas about strategy. Those who can’t execute…need to learn to execute or will only be asked to leave.

Execution is fundamental to personal and team success.

But for the highest performers it’s not enough.

SPOILER :Just ask Heather Williams from seasons 15 and 18. She is an outstanding cook who makes very few mistakes and consistently delivers top quality food. She doesn’t win in either year. Her food is great, but it’s a little same old same old.

She has a creativity gap.

Creativity

If you are doing cookie cutter work then maybe anyone can use the cookie cutter, and you don’t matter so much. Creativity is what makes it matter that it was you who showed up to work, not just a body.

What’s your take on steak?

How would you present a beautiful fish dish?

Of course, timing is everything. When your boss says please do X, probably you should do X. During dinner service your take on steak is whatever the menu says. But when you are (finally?) asked to do your own thing, to help solve a problem, to push something forward, it is time to have your own thought, spin, contribution, flair, new approach.

If your contribution is the same old same old, then it doesn’t matter that it is you doing the work. If your contribution doesn’t push things forward then work isn’t getting better.

Hot tip: the work should always be getting better and creativity is core to that.

There are lot’s of ways creativity helps. It is so important that at least one company is founded entirely on it².

Creativity is a separator. You need it to be a top performer.

But it’s not enough.

SPOILER: Just ask Virginia Dalbeck runner up of season two. Incredibly creative (and an amazing pallet), but struggled with execution (execution for leaders includes getting others to execute).

To win, you need both execution and creativity, and to know when and how to combine them. To be a true top performer you need to be able to get better, to learn new tricks, to steal great ideas, to adapt.

How do you figure this out?

You learn.

(In Hell’s Kitchen) yelling is helping

Just like the rest of life there are constant opportunities to learn in Hell’s Kitchen -if contestants are open to them.

“Everyone!” yells Gordon Ramsey mid-service.

“Stop. Stop! Just stop what you are doing!”

Chef halts the entire service and brings the entire team together to see the mistake.

“Touch it!” he yells at them.

“Look at it!” he screams at the contestants.

“Taste it!” he berates a the stunned chefs.

Touch the raw steak, dry salmon, undercooked scallop, cold lobster. Taste the under-seasoned, mushy, undercooked risotto. Chef yells at the contestants until the brigade dutifully does what he asks -if the audience is lucky this is followed by Ramsey smashing the fish or throwing something across the kitchen.

Why?

Why in the middle of a slammed dinner service does Chef bring the brigade together? Stop them from helping customers? Risk something overcooking, burning, even catching on fire, while they get together?

Why does he make them all taste, touch or otherwise examine the food?

Is it to slow down dinner service?

Is it to embarrass the mistake maker?

You get it. He does this to teach.

If we can all learn from one mistake the mistake has helped, instead of just hurting (your one mistake does hurt the team). The faster teams can learn from mistakes the faster they deliver a quality dinner service.

A classic example of go slow to go fast³.

Not everyone gets it.

To be fair, I wouldn’t want Chef Ramsey yelling at me either. Some chefs cower, some argue; however, the best recognize they are learning. They are being taught correct cooking techniques, and, the thing that maybe matters the most to Chef, to fight back.

SPOILER: Chef Christina Wilson (a fan favourite) embodies this.

Yes, she executes, but early on she struggles.

Yes, she is creative, but early on not so much.

She learns.

She learns and learns and learns.

Which (along with execution and creativity) is why she has climbed the ranks of Gordon Ramsey’s global restaurant empire.

Moral of the story?

Top performers need execution, creativity, and learning to win.

The ability to learn (quickly) can be leveraged to develop the other two necessary abilities.

At least it’s worked for Christina.


I hope you enjoy this series of performance lessons from Hell’s Kitchen. If you have a comment, feedback, or idea add it below, shoot me an email, or send me a tweet.

Keep reading.

Ian


¹ My understanding from about a million episodes is: Hot non-stick pan, a bit of oil (not too much), about 30 seconds on each side for colour. Leave the pan on the stove (when you pick it up it cools and they stick or do not sear properly). When done all up and out of the pan together (do not use tongs to pick up each one) onto paper towel to absorb any left over oil.

²Highly recommend this book

³Decent article about slowing down. As a Mac user the computer analogy doesn’t really land. He should probably just switch platforms. However, the idea of stopping to re-connect, build trust, bring in the team, etc so that the important work can get done well very much lands.

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