What Top Chef Teachs Us About Teams

Two weeks ago, Top Chef aired their Restaurant Wars episode. With sports on hiatus, there aren’t many other forms of entertainment that can display team dynamics and leadership in a tight, narrative package. The annual Restaurant Wars episode in particular is a Petri dish for watching how teams form and storm all the while waiting to see if they can ever truly perform. After this episode airs every year, I’m inspired by what teams can do as well as the lessons that get enforced by the teams that can’t. Now more than ever, these examples remind us of the teams we can be and how we can avoid mistakes that trip up other teams.

Top Chef is a reality show competition in which fifteen or so chefs from around the country come together, cooking against one another in various challenges with one chef going home every week. These challenges tend to be held between individuals, but every once in a while, the show will pair or group chefs together with the losing team having one of its chefs eliminated.

When there are eight chefs remaining, the traditional weekly challenge is Restaurant Wars. In Restaurant Wars, the eight remaining chefs split into two teams of four with the objective of opening the best restaurant pop-up. Each team of four has players playing three roles: one chef plays the role of Head Chef, another plays Front of House, and the last two act as line cooks. The Head Chef is responsible for the team’s vision and execution. They are in charge of the restaurant. The Front of House is responsible for everything that happens from the edge of the kitchen to the front of the restaurant. They’re in charge of ensuring that the atmosphere is well-executed, that tables are being waited on appropriately, and that guests are being seated with minimal wait. The other two chefs play the role of line cooks. And of course, each chef is working on preparing at least one of the dishes on the menu, with the line cooks and Head Chef executing on the dishes as they’re ordered. The judges visit each pop-up restaurant and critique the atmosphere, service, and of course, the meal. This all happens over the course of about two days: a day for prep and a day for the restaurant to be open. After the one-day pop-up, the winning team takes home a meager prize but is safe from elimination, while the judges send someone home from the losing team.

In that storm of 48 hours, the chefs need to band together to execute one vision and play to their new positions all while the chaos of a restaurant is happening around them. Here are some of the lessons I’ve had reinforced on the latest Restaurant Wars episode.

Execution trumps talent

The best team is not always comprised of the best talent. This year, the top three chefs ended up on one team. It’s arguable that their fourth teammate was the fourth best chef of the eight. This team lost. A number of things tripped them up. Some of these things had nothing to do with their talent-level; some of these things were likely caused by the overconfidence they had in their position. Talent doesn’t mean anything without execution. The winning team knew they were the underdog, and they strategized to simply play the best that they could. The winning team had a different strategy. They aimed to show the judges how great they were. In their ambition, they aimed to impress the judges with the array of dishes they could put together. This ambition led to a house of cards in which no one of their dishes was actually executed well because they tried to do too much.

Play to your position

The winning team clarified their roles the moment the competition started. The head chef turned to a teammate and said, “I picked you to be Front of House.” As soon as the chefs arrived to the pop-up, the Front of House knew what his responsibilities were, and by mentally preparing himself for the role, he gave himself every advantage in handling anything the job threw at him. Everything for the pop-up was set up on schedule. The losing team spent too much time in the kitchen cooking and planning. With such an ambitious menu, the Front of House was forced to do more cooking than expected, which put her behind in setting up the house, and in communicating with servers and hosts. The problems avalanched as more guests arrived.

Give your team feedback

The winning team’s runner struggled. She was getting frustrated with the wait staff, and the wait staff was getting frustrated back. The Head Chef heard from the other line cook what was happening and made a call. The Head Chef put the runner back on line cook duty. A new teammate stepped up and rallied the waitstaff. The losing team had an all-star chef as a line cook that noticed things were heading south, but he didn’t offer feedback to the Head Chef because he felt it “wasn’t his place”.

Take responsibility

As the Head Chef, you are not asked to be the best cook. You are asked to set the vision and help make the difficult decisions in the short time the team has together. When you’re the Head Chef, you get to see your dream come to life. But for the losing team, the line cooks are almost never sent home. If there’s a disaster in the dining area, the Front of House risks getting eliminated. But more often than not, the losing team sends the Head Chef home.

Every year when the Restaurant Wars episode ends, I imagine a similar show with a start-up tech team or a group of engineers coming together at a hackathon. Instead of watching that show, I watch this one and show up for work the next day slightly more inspired and just a bit hungrier.

Thoughts on Eng Management and Leadership

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