An MBA in Gordon’s Restaurant

by Venkat on October 25, 2007

Today, on October 25th, 2007, I make a prediction. There will be a bestselling business management book written in the next two years with the kitchen or restaurant as its primary metaphor, and it will prominently feature Chef Gordon Ramsey. Not primarily because he is an amazing model of a philosopher-warrior-businessman-artist, but because the kitchen, not the battlefield, is the metaphor for business in the 21st century. I might even write the book myself. Here is my first stake in the ground. You’ve probably seen books like the The 10-day MBA and the The 12-Hour MBA Program. Here I channel Ramsey and offer you the 60-minute MBA.


Gordon Ramsey is the ace chef behind the fabulous show, Kitchen Nightmares, in which he essentially turns around failing restaurants within a week, with a stiff dose of foul-mouthed intervention, an injection of raw cash, and raw reality. In the brutal restaurant business, which draws the most starry-eyed entrepreneurs, of whom 9 out of 10 fail, business lessons are illustrated graphically within a microcosm where everything is literally visible. Things that are intangible in other domains are completely manifest. What makes the show beautiful is that it is palpably real reality television, about real people doing real things. It isn’t about tribes playing contrived games in a contrived social system with arbitrary incentives.

Sure — let’s be a little skeptical. They probably don’t air the episodes about unsuccessful stabs by Ramsey, but his successes teach you a whole lot. Here is a summary of the episodes I’ve watched so far (follow links for a precis of each):

  1. In Episode 1, Ramsey turns around Peter’s Restaurant in Long Island, a faltering Italian joint with a volatile dimwit son-of-the-founder as manager, by finally getting the dimwit clued-in about how to take responsibility for, and run the place.
  2. In Episode 2, Ramsey turns around Dillon’s, a schizophrenic joint in the heart of Manhattan that doesn’t know whether it is Indian or American, with the critical move being the firing (real, as far as I could tell, unlike the television firings by Trump) of the incompetent manager who rode the good faith of the timid owner.
  3. In Episode 3, Ramsey turns around The Mixing Bowl, an outfit with no clear failure mode, but an overall dysfunctional team with flaws all around, by just expanding their imaginations, and getting each of them to face reality and step up to accept their responsibility.
  4. In Episode 4, possibly the most dramatic of all, a tyrannical chef and an indifferent sous chef running a disgusting place called Seascape get the full-blown Ramsey treatment. The turnaround requires firing both, before renewal can begin.

To earn your 60-minute MBA, you have to read all four stories, with the critical eye of a Harvard Business Review reader. Now let’s extract some lessons, and translate them to a general business context. Each of these features occurred in all the stories, and I believe they are necessary, if not sufficient.

  1. Diagnosis: In each case, Ramsey looks at four features/symptoms to assess a place: quality of food, ambiance of dining area, team chemistry and kitchen cleanliness. In each case, ALL four were badly off. Translation: check product/service quality, customer experience, people problems, and level of organizational decay.
  2. Pre-Op: In each case, significant money was spent either cleaning up or repairing the infrastructure. From a thorough steam cleaning to get rid of mold, to wholesale replacements of all kitchen equipment, getting the outfit ready for success and a pleasure to work in was the key first step. In each case, just the preparation alone achieved a miraculous morale boost. Translation: don’t attempt surgery without preparation.
  3. The Cure: In each Ramsey followed a particular strategic sequence to turn things around:
    • First, he refused to budge until absolute cleanliness and adequacy of equipment was achieved. Translation: create the most basic material and environmental conditions for successful day-to-day work.
    • Second, he identified toxic (or merely miscast) problem individuals and drove all around consensus about what/who the problem was by shoving everybody’s faces in reality, rather than trying to win arguments about who was right or wrong. Memorably, in the Seascape episode, he forced the chef to recognize that the food he thought was great was actually crappy, by engineering an unambiguous taste test. The chef was so far in denial that he refused to taste Ramsey’s dish. Translation: get everybody to stare reality in the face.
    • Third, he gave everybody a chance to redeem themselves, and find the right roles for themselves, but if they didn’t step up, he did not hesitate to force the hard decisions. In the Peter’s example, the volatile dimwit underwent a miraculous transformation and found a way to become part of the solution. In the Dillon’s and Seascape cases though, it was shape up or ship out, and people got fired. Translation: be absolutely fair in making people decisions, but make hard-nosed business decisions if necessary.
    • Fourth, he drove change from the brand inward, rather than from strategy outward. In each case, a minor or major rebranding was necessary, with an absolute makeover of the offerings, restaurant interior, and in the case of Dillon’s, even a name change. Translation: re-imagine the new form of your organization from the customer’s point of view, and then make that happen.
    • Fifth, he showed people how to do their jobs if they were otherwise the right people, but simply lacked the training. In one case, he brought in a consultant chef. In another case, he had his own maitre’d demonstrate how to run the dining area to the bumbling manager. Translation: there are always talented, well-intentioned people who just need a little coaching. Get them to be your solution.
    • Sixth, he got the staff to experience success, and get high on it by creating a critical success experiment. In each case, the restaurant shut down and relaunched with some major hoopla. In each case, the staff struggled and in parts, crumbled, dealing with the onslaught of customers pouring in. In each case, this remark was made: “this staff doesn’t know what it is like to be busy.” In each case operational inefficiencies were immediately exposed and corrected in war mode. Translation: Get people to experience what success feels like, even if only for a day.
    • Seventh, he left after making sure the right management team was in place and able to sustain the changed direction. In one case that meant the consultant chef becoming an ongoing consultant. In other cases, it meant hard conversations with the business owner about what they needed to do. Translation: without serious succession planning, everything else is just noise.

Now of course, not all of the lessons scale to, say, a large Fortune 500 company. You will not always have a supply of cash to completely rebuild your factories in the most modern way. But cleanliness, fresh paint and coffee are achievable by any organization. There were also other moves that were not as universal, but rather unique to each situation. In one hilarious instance, he got a wimpy manager to grow a backbone by sparring with him in the boxing ring (Ramsey apparently grew up in tough/poor conditions and started life as a soccer player before turning to cooking).

Why Restaurants Work as Models

We’ve seen centuries of management thinking driven, essentially, by military thinking and abstract microeconomics. The restaurant works as a great laboratory for a new approach to management for one key reason: it is not so small a domain that the dynamics of effective decision-making and work are invisible (example, writing a book — staring at a typing novelist teaches you very little about solving interpersonal conflicts, even if there are equivalents going on inside the novelist’s head). At the same time, the case studies are not embedded in domains far too vast to easily visualize, like say IBM.

But most importantly, unlike a battlefield, where nobody ever really wins, and a lot of people die, in a kitchen, if things are right, beautiful value that we can all appreciate, is created: delicious food. Business is fundamentally a creative, generative enterprise, even if its fundamental mechanism is the churn of creative destruction.

But beyond these “just the right size” and “generative” aspects, a restaurant also exhibits all the key phenomenology of any business, at the right scale and proportion, in very visible ways. All features of a good living textbook. There is a supply chain, a product/service mix, elements of vision, innovation, production, operations, sales, marketing — they’re all there. There are morale issues, talent issues, alignment issues — anything you care to name. Features of an enterprise that might be invisible in large organizations (like toxic people systems) are visible under the full glare of all-face-to-face conversations (no wars being fought invisibly over email — imagine a CEO yelling at a COO across a room containing all customers). Finally, the logic of dramatic moves, such as massive layoffs, key hirings and firings, rebrandings and repositioning, are all illustrated in beautifully visible ways.

I will be buying the boxed set of the DVDs when they come out.

If somebody wants to offer me the deal to write the Gordon Ramsey MBA book, I am up for it.

Jim McDermott October 25, 2007 at 7:04 pm

Very good reading, I am impressed by what you wrote. I have been the restaurant business for many years and I have say that you have written should be read by many that have no clue as to why their businesses are failing.Thank you very much for a job well done.

Jim McDermott CEC

Marco Bressan October 25, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Insightful. As in the case of Jim and myself, gastronomic experience is frequent so it can also provide a shared language that the war metaphor only does through Hollywood distortion. The difficulty I see is that many of the restaurant-business metaphors are so straightforward that an in-depth analysis is not easy: value-add, front-end services vs. back-end production, supply and value chain, etc. Depth would probably arise from the less evident features, e.g. kitchen cleanliness you mention, conflict of interest between kitchen and waiters, menu innovation, role of wine, pantry management, etc. With respect to the book, the idea is good so maybe you should try a HBR or similar first?

Mark L. October 26, 2007 at 8:42 am

Very good.
I have spent more than 35 years watching a variety of dreamers screw up their restaurants just because of overlooking the basics.
Good people, regular maintenence of equipment, concentration on agreed upon goals…and yes, people maintenence as well. People maintenence includes the occasional purge of toxic individuals for the betterment of the team. Unfortunately at times the toxic individual(s) are owners, who of course, will not fire themselves.

Get to writing that book!

Venkat October 27, 2007 at 5:57 am

Thanks for the comments guys. Nice to have my observations validated given that I’ve never been in the restaurant business and am at best an enthusiastic but not very talented home cook.

The one personal experience I *did* have was organizing and running an instant noodle stand at a fair when in high school. Even given the simplicity of the offering (just instant Maggi noodles — Ramen-like to Americans), the issues in keeping a steady stream of quality instant noodles going for 3 hours almost killed us. You’d think you can’t screw that up, but we did have a lot of variance — too dry, too wet, too soggy, not fresh enough, not cooked enough, not enough spicing…still we did sell our inventory and return 100% ROIC :)

Marco — good points. There are inevitably features of very large businesses that disappear when you shrink down, but a restaurant is still a good example+metaphor, and I’ll be thinking of how various invisible aspects of large corporations might be visible in subtle ways that I haven’t noticed yet. Maybe I will be able to brainstorm enough material for a book :)

tubelite November 5, 2007 at 6:33 pm

Excellent blogger, item “Food for Thought” arrived, well packaged, metaphor slightly frayed but in excellent working condition, will read again, A++++

Venkat November 8, 2007 at 12:56 pm

I am going to be adding additional thoughts on Kitchen Nightmares as comments to this post, since I don’t like to do micro-posts.

Last night’s episode featured Sebastian’s, which might well be Gordon’s first failure.

Here the action that played out involved what you could call a ‘conceptual idiot.’ The owner, Sebastian, is a guy with acting ambitions in Burbank, CA, with all the wait staff being aspiring actors/models as well. The joint turned out to be all concept, no substance, and surviving because Sebastian’s wife was pouring money into it. The owner had a deluded vision of a large franchise chain and his branded pizza in all stores, but could even get one outfit right. The key ‘concept’ was an overly complicated ‘make your own’ menu which promised 23 unique combinations which even the wait-staff couldn’t explain without referring to the menu itself. The place had a brick oven but didn’t actually use it for the pizza. 95% of the stuff was made from canned/frozen ingredients.

Gordon’s strategy was to try and steer the place onto a simpler, fresh-made, pizza-focused menu, which appeared to work beautifully on the relaunch night. But the toxic owner, who initially appeared to be going along, ended up fighting him (going to the extent of reverting to his old menu, making the kitchen degenerate in chaos, with Ramsey leaving in a huff. The owner then actually chased Ramsey down to where the TV crew was), and the show ends on a note of “Will Sebastian be able to accept the changes?” Turns out NOT. If you check out the website of the restaurant today, and reviews, it seems to have reverted to its old ways. Weird sense of real and TV worlds colliding, reading about the real place on the Web.

The key lesson from this episode: there are extraordinarily deluded individuals out there, with an almost unfair level of access to easy capital, who manage to go for years refusing to face the failure of their own beloved concepts, in the face of all reasonable data. Being pretty conceptual myself, I hope I never get so stupidly, insanely attached to my own concepts (esp. because I’ve pondered about a version of the guy’s “make your own” menu concept myself, though mine is much simpler).

The high point of the show, for me, was the one moment of stark reality hitting the guy in the face. He is practically in tears at seeing his beloved concept in shreds and he says, “If you look at the numbers, then I guess it looks like I am feeling now.” The quote was SO good, I grabbed pen and paper and wrote it down right there.

Bud March 4, 2008 at 10:14 am

A friend became heavily involved with Amway. We had a heavy discussion and he accused me of trying to “steal his dream”. People are energized by dreams but ultimately are stuck with running a business. It’s an emotional experience.

Many immigrants succeed, they have no illusions, they need to make a living, feed a family, and have customers return.

We have a local bar, looks like it belongs in Key West with plastic grass umbrellas, except it is by itself on a smelly, muddy creek on a narrow road, in the middle of PA with nothing for miles and miles. You cook your own steak , fish or kabobs on a central grill. He supplies the sides. Drinks with umbrellas. Beer from Jamaica. Jimmy Buffet on the sound system. I asked the young guy running it where this mirage came from. His dream, an idea from every great bar he has ever been in. It has been packed for a long time; with dreamers.

Susan March 4, 2008 at 7:23 pm

That ‘make your own’ concept is SO deluded! If I wanted to ‘make my own’ why would I leave my nice clean kitchen to drive somewhere, park, deal with servers, and wait for food to appear? Like Audrey the carnivorous plant, “FEED ME!” is why people go to restaurants.

Charlene March 5, 2008 at 11:10 am

Your deconstruction of Gordon Ramsay’s work is apt and considered and absolutely correct. Bud’s point about emotional investment blinding entrepreneurs to the faults of business ventures is also an important one. (As an aside, this is how unscrupulous MLM organizations work: they lead new recruits to become as emotionally invested in the organization as they are financially invested, telling them that criticism is spawned by jealousy or self-interest on the other person’s part, and turn what should be solely a business transaction into almost a cult.)

Getting back to Gordon Ramsay: I like him. I like his approach to business, especially his common-sense but uncommon realization of the importance of safety. Safety doesn’t just mean attention to cleanliness, although that is an essential part of it. Safety also encompasses hiring capable, intelligent, responsible staff who are less likely to cause accidents through neglect, do stupid things like putting hairs in a steak, or give diners false assurances about ingredients in the stupid belief that ‘what the customer doesn’t know about won’t hurt him’ (having spent nine days in a coma after someone did that to me and I had an allergic reaction, it’s a bit of a personal bugbear of mine). It encompasses providing staff with the proper tools to, among other things, reduce the chance of workplace injury. It encompasses ensuring that management doesn’t heap unnecessary stress on employees through abuse or micromanagement.

Ramsay seems to understand that a business is only as good as its employees. Too many business don’t grasp that.

Venkat March 25, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Just watched an episode of the original British version where Ramsey turns around La Gondola. The most interesting part was a comment about a single lunch plate, which had items that were fashionable in the 70s, 80s and 90s. A pretty powerful metaphor for mixes of legacy systems in a corporation.

kapsio October 4, 2008 at 1:05 am

Jason over at JibberJobber tells his audience how Ramsay’s adventures can distill into lessons for career management.

bng July 10, 2010 at 2:30 am

So, was there a bestselling business management book with the kitchen or restaurant as its primary metaphor?

Venkat July 10, 2010 at 4:04 am

LOL!

You caught me. No, there hasn’t been one that I know of.

But I am writing one where it is one of the main metaphors, and who knows, it might be a bestseller.

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