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Are you the MasterChef of your business?

September 16, 2013

I’ve watched Celebrity MasterChef right through to the final recently. There’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid out bare and vulnerable.  Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and their confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of gravy on the plate.

Ade Edmondson was crowned the winner, beating fellow finalists Les Dennis and Janet Street-Porter by cooking a faultless three-course meal of venison and sea bass for judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Torode said the winner’s dishes were delicious and absolutely mind-blowing, Wallace said: I love the look of his dishes, I love the style, I love the cleanness of them – beautiful simplicity.

Ade Edmondson’s winning menu was:

  • Starter: pan-seared loin of venison, with a pepper crust, served with celeriac remoulade and lambs lettuce.
  • Main: butter fried fillet of sea bass stuffed with scallop mousse and served with a deconstructed ratatouille sauce.
  • Dessert: strawberries in caramel syrup, topped with a caraway shortbread and a raspberry sorbet.

From 8am till midnight, day in and day out, they’re ordered about by egotistical chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens while cooking complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT. India Fisher’s hushed narrative and voiceover gives me goose pimples. It was a great final week. Highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by One Direction, and seeing Les Dennis’s little face crumble and bottom lip quiver when told he hadn’t won. But the overriding memory will be Janet Street Porter banging on about her love of cooking roadkill.

I’ve long been a passionate cook – although I didn’t learn to cook until I was a student at university. My first meal was a roast chicken, and I didn’t even know which end of the bird you shoved the stuffing in when I started. I read books (Delia was and is my kitchen inspiration) and started to really enjoy it, and my years at university developed my culinary craftsmanship. I soon became a big entertainer in our student house – I did our Graduation party in 1984 for 50 people and made a huge chilli con carne, mixing it in the bath at our student house. Never did get those stains out properly.

As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and well-sourced ingredients, and cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me! Having said that, I am confident about flavours and what works together. Just this weekend I cooked a nifty Sole Meuniere, coating the fish in a sauce made from grated toasted walnuts, fresh herbs from the garden and lemon zest.

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read – sometimes I take it into the bath with me – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool-proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

I love basic and traditional English food. My ‘signature dish’ is a Desperate Dan pie – braised steak with morel mushrooms and pink shallots, in rich chestnut-flavoured gravy, with a puff pastry topping, served with sprouts pan-fried with chestnuts and garlic, and carrots braised in Manuka honey. Gregg and John would love my dish, although there would be some whingeing about my presentation as I’m all about substance over style.

But back to MasterChef. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves.  By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this?  Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised.  We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. They step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

As always when looking at something like this, I always try to find lessons we can take into our business:

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too. Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and how would they present. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision-making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A – and a Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. The process means an assessment of resources and potential influences – in this case the judges’ preferences.  In business, when resources such as time and money are finite it is vital to have a plan to execute the strategy.

Dessert malfunction for Les highlighted the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme time pressure and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay calm and present what is completed with conviction, even if failure is at the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Accept criticism in positive manner You thought it was your best shot but the judges say you fell short. These contestants go though it every time yet they face it with grace, and take feedback positively. A resilient, positive attitude is the key, recognising feedback is useful. We deal with rejection of our business offering every day, learn from your mistakes and put learning into practice.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each episode there is a challenge, with a clear goal, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete it. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve their short-term goal of winning individual challenges, and their long-term goal of winning the series.

Resilience and dealing with setbacks MasterChef gives us an insight into how people handle stress and demanding situations. The time pressures and increasingly difficult tasks set showed us how well they were able to manage themselves under pressure and produce the goods. You could often see the demands of a given situation getting to them. It was unrelenting at times. Those who were able to hold it together and ‘manage’ themselves when under added strain performed better.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in business.

The pressure of MasterChef is a perfect example of how to get things done, not just in the kitchen, but in business.  Any project requires five key components to succeed:

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product.  The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve.  We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Break up the goal into its component parts The contestants cook dishes with many ingredients.  Looking at it as a whole, they often seem overwhelmed, but as they run to their benches and read through their recipes, they become confident and methodically work through the recipe. In business, we can do the same by breaking down our goal into steps and achievable chunks of work.  When you make a detailed plan for each task, you create your ‘recipe’.

Research and prepare in each episode the judges stress the importance of the ‘meson plus’, or preparation.  It is important to have all your ingredients ready before you start on a task.  One little mistake, one missing part and you future could be lost before you start. In business, have all you resources ready and plan in place before you start on each task.

Review and check Several contestants have been eliminated by missing a vital step or ingredient from their dish.  Sometimes they get caught out by the time pressure and forget to go back and double-check. In business this translates to knowing your key project milestones and knowing which tasks are completed and make sure you follow-up on those outstanding.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a big risk to take in business.  Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (‘plate it up’) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Higher performing business people have tools, processes and techniques that help them develop strategies to enhance their self-awareness and emotional resilience, and allow them to make the most of their capabilities and the situations they find themselves in on a daily basis. That is what MasterChef is all about in a kitchen setting.

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Business life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Si Mac permalink
    September 16, 2013 7:08 am

    When’s dinner?

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