(This is an unusual post for us. It’s part of a new series we will be posting on Leadership and Personal Effectiveness. Leadership is one of two tracks – Optimization is the other – at the 2015 Vendo Seller Conference. The conference will be held in our offices in Barcelona this coming September.)
At six o’clock on a recent Monday morning I boarded the high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid. I was with my friend Thang and we were travelling with forbidden items in our luggage: a blow torch and very sharp knives. Security didn’t stop us. They’d seen plenty of knives, mallets, scissors and blow torches that morning. They just waved us through.
The train takes 2.5 hours to travel from Barcelona to Madrid. It’s a competitive alternative to the airplane on price, too. We didn’t have seats together so we went to the Bar Car. Over a mint tea, cafe americano and tortilla de patata Thang told me he’d been up until four that morning. He’d been working on a dish to show the judges at his Top Chef audition, scheduled for 11:50 that morning. A dozen or so chefs and their dangerous tools had already taken trains that morning for earlier auditions.
Here’s the dish he’d prepared.
We brought the kitchen tools and ingredients in bags and coolers. There would also be a “challenge” dish. For that dish he’d be restricted to a few ingredients chosen by the producers of the show and given say, 20 minutes, to turn them into a beautiful, delicious meal. Putting pressure on talented chefs (not enough ingredients, not enough time) creates watchable drama. Top Chef is one of the most viewed shows on Spanish television and its popular around the world.
At the audition there were cameras and competition in every direction. 70 chefs auditioned in that morning. By lunchtime the producers had cut half of them. Thang thought he was out but there was a mix up in the numbering. He was number 220 not 420. He was through to the second round on the strength of the plate in the photo above.
In the afternoon things started to go badly. The surprise ingredients were yogurt, salmon, dry lasagna sheets and pineapple. Tough.
His challenge dish wasn’t good.
At least that’s what he thought. And the judges, too. They asked him if he was the same chef who created the first dish. He didn’t have a response. He just looked at the floor. Silently he agreed with them: it looked and tasted like something made at home, by someone who doesn’t like to cook.
Thang didn’t tell the judges that he had overestimated the pasta. He thought he could fry it lightly to create an ethereal effect like in this photo of a lighter than air lasagna from his restaurant.
It didn’t work. The pasta was too thick. He also didn’t tell the judges that both his hands and his feet kept freezing up so he could barely move. He was embarrassed.
Thang’s used to competition. He was top of his class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, had been given the opportunity to work at El Bulli (he turned it down) and had started a critically acclaimed restaurant in Barcelona, called Restaurant Me, where he is chef/owner. It’s considered one of the best in a city of great restaurants.
He’s recently been stressed by the business responsibilities at the restaurant. You wouldn’t know it if you visited Me. The dishes are incredible. But behind the scenes Thang is suffering under the weight of the demands of running a business. Negotiating rental contracts, managing human resources, dealing with banks, etc. None of it lights Thang’s fire because he’s not a businessman. He’s a chef. An awesome one. And the true cost of not being awesome as a businessman is that he stopped being an awesome chef for a moment on a day when the cameras were on him.
He’s getting out of the business role to focus on his cooking. He’s focusing more on being awesome in the kitchen and he’s letting other people be awesome at business. That was his conclusion in the Bar Car of the train as we pulled into the station in Barcelona at a quarter to midnight.
I shared some of my experience as a Stage at Me here: http://stageatme.blogspot.com.es/