10 things entrepreneurs can learn from chefs Mike | January 9th, 2012

Who among us doesn’t love a great meal? Whether we choose eat at home or in a restaurant, all of us appreciate and respect the work that goes into preparing and presenting our food. We love the humble diner which serves up a phenomenal burger and fries and marvel over the lavish cuisine served up at a 4-star establishment. The proprietors of these two distinctly different types of business have a great deal in common – with each other as well as with the community of entrepreneurs in general. They understand their market, work hard to satisfy their customers, and create a high-quality product and service to compete effectively against each other as well as the thousands and thousands of other restaurants at hand. This is the latest in a series of posts I have been working on that discusses how we can draw lessons for our own ventures from the world around us – specifically from unexpected quarters. Last year, I wrote about how much we can learn from kids, about what dogs  and musicians can teach us, and how we can draw inspiration from athletes. Today the great chefs of the world get their turn; these artists are are often wonderful business people and genuinely entrepreneurial, but are admired for their unending creativity and dedication to their craft. Great chefs work everyday to achieve perfection, and we can each learn from their example and their pursuit of the consummate creme brûlée (or burgér, if that should be your personal preference).

1. Chefs live by their creativity. There are not many businesses that are completely dependent on a continuous flow of creativity. Entertainment, advertising, and fine art are among the few industries built completely on a creative output. Fine dining stands among these as an example of pure creativity as a service and a product and the best chefs live and die purely on their ability to create. The chef who loses this ability can no longer compete and can no longer serve their customers or their market.

2. Chefs develop skills over timeLike a great musician a chef develops their skills and technique over many years of practice and refinement. Cooking is not just an art form, but also a craft and the tools, methods, and skills can take years to master. Whether classically trained, or self-taught the great chefs have worked hard to develop their expertise and these abilities are what set them apart and make them unique.

3. Chefs perfect. We speak and write often about the importance of iteration and constant improvement and the best chefs are masters of this. Developing great recipes is a time consuming process and the analogy to developing our own products or services is apt: take the time to develop yours by a process of refinement and repetition until it is as delicious as can be.

4. Chefs listen to their customersCan you think of another profession where your customer is more critical to the process? Seriously, if they don’t like your product they will leave. They won’t come back and they won’t send their friends to eat the food either. In other industries, the entrepreneur can survive if their product is OK, or even of they have a fail or two. If you are to compete in the world of the chef, you had better pay close attention to that customer and their happiness with your food or you will not have a customer left.

5. Chefs work in teams. Great food is often, though not always, a team endeavor and the skills if the team are crucial. Chefs compete for talent on their staffs just the way you compete for talent in your business. And, as with any team, chef’s teams are an aggregate of the necessary skills and abilities needed to get the job done: sous chefs, line cooks, prep cooks, wait staff, mixologists all contribute to the overall experience of the customer and each of these folks come with their own talents and abilities.

6. Chefs compete. Like many great entrepreneur, and most artists the great chefs have a competitive streak a mile-long. They closely watch what their counterparts do, learn from the best ideas and discard the worst. But, perhaps more importantly, like great athletes, chefs constantly compete with themselves. This inner-contest is what drives the best artists, chefs, composers, and dancers to constantly improve, constantly work harder, and constantly out-do themselves and their rivals. The drive for the new personal best is a large part f what keeps the great chefs fresh, interesting, and successful.

7. Chefs evolve. If you look at a sample of some of the great chefs of the world, you will notice that what they produce today is not what they were producing 10 years ago, nor is it what they will do 10 years from now. An important part of the creative process is the act of destruction: tearing down the od to make way for the new and chefs are not unique among artists in this respect. A great painter, Picasso’s work as a young man in almost indistinguishable from that which he produced late in life. The same can be said for James Beard who spent a lifetime teaching the art of French cuisine and who, by the end of his life, was a proponent of fresh, local ingredients and a cheerleader for American food and cooking techniques.

8. Chefs work their asses off. I can not think of an industry that requires harder work, longer hours, and more dedication than food service and fine dining. These are people who epitomize the work ethic and whose labors in difficult settings make other jobs look easy. The focus, physical labor, constant tension, fast pace, and notoriously fickle customer base means that chefs work hard just to keep their businesses afloat and to maintain their competitive edge.

9. Chefs choose the best. Ingredients, assistants, flavors – chefs are discriminating in their choices of who and what to work with. The quality of the basic elements used in any business can be a deciding factor in its success and chefs are keenly aware of this.

10. Chefs take the heat. Kitchens get hot and business environments do, too. Great chefs understand that the environment in which they work is, by its nature, difficult and in order to survive they build the capacity to endure tough conditions both physically and psychically. This strength and endurance is something that all entrepreneurs need to persevere and succeed.

Photo: Vanessa Pike-Russell

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