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Chef Gordon Ramsay, of Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nighmares, and YOUR Career

September 18th, 2008

Lately I’ve watched a number of Kitchen Nighmares reruns on Hulu, and have been impressed with the process that Chef Gordon Ramsay goes through to turn a restaurant around, from brink-of-death to healthy-enough-to-survive (and even thrive).  Here are some things that I’ve seen in most shows, and how they apply to your personal career management:

Change the menu – All menus get a makeover. Sometimes they are completely redone, going from a general restaurant to a steakhouse.  Sometimes the makeover is a reduction in menu items, as the restaurant has spread itself too thin, and the huge menu is affecting profits, operational complexity, and overall food quality.

Career advice: Reevaluate your offering and consider changing it.  Are your skills current, focused, and appropriate for the next few years?  Are you spread too thin?  Are your skills commoditized, or are they differentiated?

Change the environment – A few days into each restaurant salvation Gordon Ramsay’s design team comes in and completely redoes the restaurant – light fixtures, tables and chairs, colors, etc.  Even the outside gets a facelift, at the very least a new sign.  One owner said, kind of dejected, “I could have done that myself… I could have gone down to the sign guy and bartered, and gotten an awesome sign.”  Yes, he could have, but he DIDN’T.  What can YOU do but aren’t doing?

Career advice: What does your image say about you?  Is it time to change something… your dress, hair style, accessories or even your briefcase or laptop bag?  The first impression is so important, but so are ongoing impressions.

Change the attitudes – Amazingly, restaurant owners and chefs think Gordon is going to come in and tip-toe around their restaurant and food creations, and are very surprised when he starts cussing them out, yelling at them, and telling them they are running the business like it were a game they were not interested in.  

It’s painful to watch, but he’s pulling some small grain of passion out of the abyss, a passion which has been hidden away for a long time.  Only when the owner and/or chef gets that passion again are they ready to listen and focus on getting serious about their business.

Career advice: in this ever-flattening world, we need to be open to change, and not engrained in how things are, should be, or used to be.  Many times this means we humble ourselves so that we can at least hear and consider what experts say.

Communication – in every episode I saw there were serious communication problems.  The chef, under pressure, either doesn’t communicate at all, or shouts… and shouts… and shouts.  Owners get into fights with staff, blame flies all over the place while no one is figuring out how to solve the problem, or get to the root problem. Panic and emergency feed combined with poor communication cause major grief.

Career advice: communication is the key to so many things, and it is kind of easy, but do we really communicate well?  Do our writing skills (email, etc.) need help?  Can we communicate under pressure, or do we lose it?  This essential skill is something that merits an investment – improve your communication and perhaps you’ll change the trajectory of your career path.

The support team – I’m amazed as I watch the server staff and hosts support changes that the chef and owner think are crazy.  The support team knows what’s going on, they can see the forest through the trees, they are not as hung up on pride, and they MEET WITH THE CUSTOMERS more than anyone else.  More amazing than supporting the changes?  Their loyalty.

Career advice: You have loyal fans, and people who wish to support you.   Appreciate them for what they do, and for their loyalty to you.  Consult with them frequently to see how you are doing, and find out what they think you should be doing differently.  They might not always be right, but the different perspective will be invaluable.  Who are your loyal fans?  Rod Colon of the ETP Network says your Board of Directors include your spouse and kids.

Focus on quality of food – Gordon Ramsay slams almost every single dish he sees.  The presentation (one restaurant used a funnel to shape their salads into a cone-shape … he burned the funnels with open flames!) doesn’t work, or there’s too much garlic, or too much salt, or any other thing.  Know what?  The resident chef always thinks their food is fine… as does the owner.  And they are very offended that Gordon thinks their food is worse than dog food.  Here’s one thing I love… when Gordon Ramsay goes into the kitchen to teach the chef new recipes, they are always excited to learn from The Master.  The pride goes away for a while and they are like kids in a candy store.

Career advice: Every chef thinks their food is the bomb, and many professionals think their competency is as good (or better) than the next guy.  But every chef had to step it up, and accept their final product was sub-par.  How is your quality?  You really, really, really should get outside assessments of this.  One way to do it is through Reach’s 360 degree assessment tool.

Focus on profit – Gordon is not there to make the food better, or to make the ambiance nicer, or to fix personnel issues.  Gordon Ramsay walks in the door to fix financial problems, and help restaurants that should be healthy become healthy.  Whether it’s looking at inventory, making portion sizes smaller (even making plates smaller), or having the server staff sell more variety of the menu, it’s all about becoming profitable.  WITHOUT APOLOGIZING FOR IT.  

Career advice: you may want to chase your passions instead of a paycheck, which is noble.  But passions don’t pay the bills – money does.  Make sure you understand the role of money in your current situation, and what you’ll need to retire, and make that a priority.  An added benefit?  Once the restaurants turned around financially, an immense amount of stress melted away.  Not that money will solve all of your problems, but it can’t be neglected.

Gimmicky things to get people aware of the restaurant – whether it’s organizing a bikers ride, giving away hamburgers or meatballs, or having a town BBQ party, Gordon got the staff OUT of the restaurant and into the town, to let them know there was something new, something worth coming to the restaurant for.  

Career advice: The restaurant people had to get outside their four walls and get into the community and let them know they are there, and what they do.  You have to do the same thing.  How?  Have a social marketing strategy.  Write white papers.  Speak at conferences.  Start a blogtalkradio show.  Volunteer in the community.  Initiate “never eat alone” lunches.  Help other people, without being asked.  Get proactive about this… your “community” isn’t going to come to your cubicle to find you – you need to go where you’ll find them.

Brand and Tagline – Many restaurants go from one brand to another during the show.  A hokey restaurant which specializes in serving people from a retirement home becomes the town’s premier steakhouse, an Italian restaurant on the brink of death becomes branded as serving the world’s best meatballs… In a number of shows Gordon walks around the neighborhood to see what the competition looks like, and where the opportunities are.  Why go from retirement home restaurant to steakhouse?  Because there was NO steakhouse in the entire town!

Career advice: Same as changing the menu, is it time to reconsider who and what you are?  There were some huge branding changes in the show, and sometimes the hardest part was to swallow pride and accept the change, with a certain amount of faith and trust.  Consider the idea that you might be branded completely wrong, and need help (and the guts) to change everything.

ASK THE CUSTOMER – the chef is usually in denial, and on many episodes they say “no one ever complains about the food,” leaving Gordon Ramsay with his mouth wide open in disbelief.  The look on his face says “You serve crap, and are proud to do it just because no one is complaining???  Where is your professional pride??”

Career advice: The more you assume, the less you ask, the more trouble you’ll be in down the road.  That 360 assessment is SO powerful because it allows you to see what other people think of you, and perception is reality.  DO NOT neglect asking your customer what they think about you, and trust what they say.  Even if you think they are not qualified to have a real opinion, they will certainly have their perception… and they might even talk to other customers about you!

The spouse knows the pain – the restaurant is usually the dream of the owner, and the spouse knows how much blood, sweat and tears went into it.  They also know that things aren’t going so well, AND they are at risk of losing EVERYTHING (home, etc.).  Gordon meets with the spouse to determine if the husband is really ready to change.  

Career advice: in my last job I frequently asked my team’s spouses what they thought of the company.  Responses gave me an idea of what my team really thought.  What would your spouse say about your current career path?  They will know if you are passionate about what you are doing, or if you are settling and unhappy.  Take that spouse inventory, and you might learn something about yourself!

It’s been fun to watch Chef Gordon Ramsay, who tells it like it is, and says the hard things that most people don’t want to hear (but they need to hear it).

This post is sponsored by Susan Guarneri, the Career Assessment Goddess.  Susan recently coauthored Job Search Bloopers (a really fun book!) and speciliazes in Reach’s 360 Assessment and personal branding.  Susan Guarneri is a JibberJobber Career Expert Partner, and blogs as the Career Goddess.

13 Comments »

13 responses to “Chef Gordon Ramsay, of Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nighmares, and YOUR Career”

  1. That’s a brilliant post. You hit on an number of aspects that are suddenly thrown in a different light by being attached to an unusual example, rather than listed dry in another “how to do job search” post. Those items on your list which I addressed whenever I had to search for a new job were invaluable. Those which I neglected… I wished later I had not, because they would have made my search easier. :-)

  2. John says:

    Good post, but I think that the advice applied to “food quality” – to get outside, objective reviews of your work – apply to pretty much all of these things (communication skills, gimmicks, etc). Two heads are almost always better than one, although nobody likes to hear criticism about their work.

    Also, commoditization and specialization are both double-edged swords. A programmer, for instance, who only knows some obscure and obsolete assembly language is incredibly specialized, but is going to have trouble finding work unless s/he really knows the industry (and maybe even then). However, someone who is a generic Java programmer might be able to find plenty of work, but may have to accept lower pay if s/he doesn’t have specialized skills. The key is finding a balance, which is going to differ from person to person, industry to industry, and job to job.

  3. Paloma says:

    This type of blog entry is exactly why Jason is an industry leader. I usually come away from his blogs uplifted, motivated to self-evaluate and to change, He is such a creative and expressive thinker. He loves the world of food and yet while watching a program that is all about this love and passion he is moved to think about the person who is seeking and somehow not yet finding their career path. I have just moved and am in chaos of endless boxes and decisions and yet drawn to make change in myself more than my living situation. My family members in Texas are doing some relevant thinking about their lives and careers and places to live since they are uprooted. We are all in need of some tough love to get us back on track. We are resilient and can do more than we think we can. I am combing through Jason’s archives and webinars etc and working on my personal branding as well as my influence with others on Jason’s behalf. Thanks Jason – You are one of the best influences in my life personally and professionally.

  4. What a great idea for a blog post! I think the overwhelming theme here is that if what you’re doing isn’t working it’s time for a change. Being open to new ideas, flexible, and ready to listen to input from others are all important components of professional success.

  5. I loved the bit about communication! Imagine the pressure we would be under if we knew we would feel the wrath of our bosses yelling at us the way Chef Ramsay does.

    Many people do work in “Hell’s Kitchen” type of environments where people behave badly sometimes. Thank heavens for HR laws!

  6. Fred says:

    Jason,

    This was great. I like how you related everything from the kitchen to our careers and life. We do need to shake things up and look outside the box.

    Thanks ,

    Fred

  7. Barry Groh says:

    Jason,

    Once again you have hit the nail on the head. Everything you have said is right on target, and full of great ideas. Are you sure you weren’t supposed to be a career advisor or something other than an IT guy?

    You have a great knack of finding the nuggets of truth in all information, and then sharing those nuggets for the betterment of all. That is one of the reasons I am so happy to be receiving your information, and proud to respond and call you a friend.

  8. Kris Thomas says:

    This is such a genius post that I still find myself referring to it more than a week later. I am going through each of your recos to see how I need to improve. Additionally, my brother is a professional chef in Los Angeles who is transitioning to a restaurant going through a complete make-over. This post succinctly says it all for him. Being the good big sister I am and all, I forwarded to him and told him to read because he wouldn’t regret!

    Thank you for your challenging and inspiring words. I am and continue to be a grateful reader!

    ~Kris

  9. There is definitely much to learn from Kitchen Nightmares. Venkat over at ribbonfarm believes the show is a 60-minute MBA.

  10. Venkat says:

    One of my readers pointed this out to me. I have a similarly themed post on my blog, though more on the management lessons that can be learned by organizations rather than individual career lessons:

    An MBA in Gordon’s Restaurant

    Venkat

  11. […] I’ve written better!”  Well, I was pretty proud of my Chef Ramsay post, titled Chef Gordon Ramsay, of Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nighmares, and YOUR Career, but I did think I’d alienate a bunch of people who didn’t care about Hells Kitchen, […]

  12. Most of these lessons are only learnt from the English version of the show – the US version is more manufactured. It focuses on fighting and a renovation and has a happy ending every time – even when different scenes are spliced together out of order!

    Great post

  13. I just read online that Gordon Ramsay has filmed a bunch of new Kitchen Nightmares from the UK and they will be screened (in the UK at least) this year. The rest of us will have to wait a few days to get our Gordon Ramsay fix – until people upload the shows ot soocial media pages and/or torrent sites.

    This is the best of all of the Gordon Ramsay shows in my opinion!