Thinking Like a Business Chef

The Kitchen Underworld

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about chefs. Once I started going down the rabbit hole, I couldn’t stop. 

I was fascinated by the commonplace chaos of a chef’s workplace. Seemingly the rules of normal society ceased to exist as you ventured through “the pass” - or the long, flat surface where dishes are plated and picked up by wait staff. Behind the tremendously intricate, complex dish that reached your table existed this hierarchical underworld, replete with varying caste levels. 

So, naturally, my mind was drawn to the obvious connection of Michelin star chefs and business processes (or Standard Operating Procedures). Stick with me - I’ll show you how I got there.

The Brutality of Becoming a Chef

Reading about the life of a chef is similar to the need to look at the car accident as you drive by. There’s an overwhelming feeling of dread but a need to understand the cause. The life of a chef, or anyone who works in a kitchen, seems to draw on the most primal humanistic qualities. 

Venturing past the obvious metaphor of food sustaining life, the kitchen seems to be a microcosm of the craziness of life itself. How did seemingly normal people become brutalists in the kitchen?

Through my reading, I was exposed to multiple examples of how chefs came up in the world of commercial kitchens. 

Classically trained French chefs start at the lowest point of the proverbial totem pole - often starting their training in their teenage years doing the most mundane tasks in a kitchen, like peeling potatoes (or “prepping”) for years

To make matters worse, these trainees are often humiliated on a regular basis while doing the grunt work that allows a kitchen to function. 

Whoever is leading the kitchen will not take pity on the lowest among them, but rather will expect perfection from whatever the trainee is tasked with. The leading chef will critique everything the lowly trainee does and whenever they make a mistake, the chef will explain how they are unfit to ever become a chef.

This is a tradition passed down by chefs from generation to generation. Once a chef attains the coveted position of leading a kitchen of their own, they will naturally do whatever they were taught, demean the next batch of trainees that venture into their kitchen. 

Although the social psychology of a kitchen is fascinating, those hurt will hurt others, I was drawn to the question of how chefs came up through the ranks to eventually create their own recipes and new dishes? 

Tweaking Classics

Chefs seem to have this almost mystical ability to create new dishes (which is what makes a chef, a chef). Only the most outstanding among them will be able to attain the highest industry designation, Michelin stars, for their dishes. 

I was drawn to how chefs, through their brutal training, were able to find inspiration for new dishes and how they translated that inspiration into their menus. Were these people just natural creatives that found opportunities that others didn’t see? How could they create new things when we have been cooking to sustain life for as long as humans have been in existence?

When you pull back the curtain, as the books I read did, you’ll find that many of the heralded new dishes are really just slight tweaks on centuries-old recipes.

Turns out, most world-renowned nouveau chefs were creating new fusions upon old recipes that they were taught - either directly by the brutalist chefs they worked for or through the classic tomes of chefs from previous generations. 

The example that drove the fusion concept home for me was in Bill Buford’s Dirt - when he took up residence as a line cook with a French chef in his Washington D.C. restaurant. 

Buford describes finding out that the chef's “secret” was that he regularly read (almost daily) one of the oldest French cookbooks in existence. 

The chef would take these century-old recipes and tweak things like the cooking process (frying instead of roasting) or swap out a key ingredient from another similar recipe. 

Effectively this chef was putting new spins on classics by combining his past experiences (sometimes from an altogether different cuisine, e.g., Italian vs. French) and creating a new dish altogether. But the important part was that he was using that centuries-old recipe as his foundation.

He would relentlessly test this new creation, making additional tweaks until he found the unique combination that met his desired taste - and then the chef would add it to his innovative menu. 

As I read further into the culinary world, I found that this practice was as old as peeling potatoes. Nearly every chef I read about employed this tactic on their way to their Michelin stars. 

This method of tweaking old recipes to create new dishes fascinated me and operated in the background when I was working.

Then one day, as I was working on a process workflow for a client, the finding hit me in an unexpected way. The business processes that companies created were effectively their “recipes” - and tweaks to their “recipes” were what constituted innovation

Why Business Processes are the Recipes for Business

One of our core services at CoLo is “Process Optimization” - or helping startups document and improve on how they ran their business. Effectively, we document how companies deliver their products and services and help them become better or more efficient within their day-to-day operations.

What I didn’t realize before going down my chef rabbit hole was that what we were actually creating were the business owner’s recipes for their employees.

The business owner was the chef. Whether knowingly or not, the owner had created the recipes that everyone in the company followed. 

I realized that in order for the company to move forward and remix the “recipe” (thus creating new ways of doing things) they had to see the recipe spelled out. Often times this took the form of creating a business process workflow so they could see, visually, how things were being done.

Every business has unique desired outcomes, but most businesses want to improve their process to create a more valuable experience for their customer or to do more with less (increase profits).

After seeing the end-to-end process, the business owner, with a little prodding from us, could see that there were ways to improve their recipe that could create their desired outcomes. 

The Myth of Process Stifling Creativity

Often when I explain helping startups with their processes, I’m met with skepticism. “Doesn’t putting processes in place make a startup, well, less like a ‘startup’ or more like the big companies, drowning in policies and procedures?”

I understand that reaction - especially because the bulk of my professional experience has been working within U.S. healthcare, notorious for its regulation and undue process. But in my experience, processes do not stifle creativity, rather it can unlock the possibility for business owners (the “chefs”) to create new fusions (for their “recipes”).

When the most celebrated French chefs, lauded for their creative new dishes, are remixing centuries-old recipes - the business world could stand up and take notice. 

Seeing your business process as a recipe that your team can follow (yes, most companies have potato peelers) allows your product or service to be scaled without your presence (just like a chef doesn’t create each part of a dish in the kitchen).

As a business owner, you can elevate yourself to the chef level where you stand at the “pass” (or the final inspection before a dish goes out to a diner), making minor tweaks because you know the recipe was followed.

As you tweak certain parts of your product or service (your “dish”), you may find you need to update your recipe. But it’s exponentially harder to tweak something that is not documented (or only documented in your head).

The recipe acts as your foundation - both for scale and for future innovation.

How to Think Like a Chef (and Start Creating Your Recipes)

Becoming a “business chef” does not happen overnight, much like how chefs do not become chefs until after they spend many demoralizing years peeling potatoes. But unlike chefs, my hope is that becoming a “business chef” can be attained through a perspective shift rather than a decade of inhumane criticisms about your potato peeling skills (or lack thereof).

Admittedly, I am not the first person to take the chef/cook ideology outside of the culinary world. Tim Urban, through his excellent blog Wait But Why, makes this comparison artfully in this post “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce” - which I highly recommend.

Although our conclusions are a bit different - Urban breaks down why Elon Musk has been able to accomplish seemingly impossible things and I am arguing for the merit of the business process - his definitions for how cooks become chefs are illustrative.

In the below graphic, Urban shows how cooks become chefs as they move from following recipes to creating them.

Urban then applies this analogy to "The Life Spectrum" and argues that an individual can follow a similar evolution - moving from following people/orders (a "cook") to creating new things through independent reasoning (a "chef").

This progression, from cook to chef, can be both personal and organizational. 

New businesses or startups often begin by tweaking a classic (e.g., a new CRM system) where the foundation has been put in place, but the new entrant comes in and makes it 1% better.

1% better may seem trivial and may not align with the popular narrative that startups have to be trailblazers and create the next iPhone to “make it” - but 1% better could equate to millions in revenue or a simply a solid, reliable business.

Thinking like a chef will not only help you and your business day-to-day, but it will help you become cognizant of other recipes to selectively "steal" from to create your next "fusion." 

So how do you start thinking like a chef? Start by writing down your recipes.