5 Business Lessons From Chef's Table

If you're not watching Chef's Table on Netflix, you should be. The food documentary series introduces you to famous chefs around the world, their philosophies, and of course, their cuisines. But in the course of watching the series, I've learned quite a bit about leadership—and quite a few lessons you can apply to the business world, too.

Live on the edge of uncertainty

Every chef featured takes significant risks to bring something new and different to the table. Chef Francis Mallmann from Patagonia talked a lot about never knowing what was coming next, and how we can't live our lives in predictable patterns if we want to truly live.

"Living on the edge of uncertainty," means that just because everyone is doing it (working a 9-to-5) doesn't mean that you have to. You don't have to be predictable to please anyone.

Do everything with passion

When each chef puts the finishing touches on a plate, you can see how much they love their craft and their commitment to doing everything perfectly (or perfectly messy, if that's what it called for.) Food is a human endeavor, one of the strongest cultural ties that binds us together and makes a connection.

Watching Dominique Crenn move through her restaurant and greeting her guests by name, asking about their families, their visit, and their meal, showed how you can craft something beautiful without losing the connection we all share. She didn't just do this outside the kitchen, but behind-the-scenes, too, complimenting her staff and encouraging them. 

When I think of a chef's leadership style, I think of cutthroat kitchen and militaristic visions of cooking lines. Her kitchen worked like a family, connected by their love of food, rather than harsh discipline and consequences. I think an office can work the same way.

Do the impossible

Grant Achatz talks all about the impossible, and not just with food. His approach to cuisine as art, meant to surprise and delight, resonated with me as a marketer. When you're looking to innovate, you can't just do what's been done. You have to take something that everyone says can't be done—and do it. In food, he talks about being limited by plate manufacturers as his canvas. Take his sugar balloons (above). He's asking questions no one has ever even thought to ask: can this float? Can I transform this into something else? 

We have to ask different questions to do the impossible.

Find your roots

To do the impossible, you have to know where you come from. Each chef represented the responsibility we all have to the earth to source responsibly, but I think this advice goes further than that. Finding your roots means finding the core of what you value and care about. For chef Alex Atala, this involves showcasing the ingredients of Amazonas; for chef Niki Nakayama, this means bringing traditional Japanese food, the way it was meant to be eaten, to San Francisco.

In business, finding our roots means going back to the beginning. What do we think is most important? What do we care about most? It's about creating the right building blocks for your business: the people. You can't produce great food without the best ingredients; in business, you can't produce the best work without the right employees.

Show up and ask

This blew me away the most, because every chef had this in common: they showed up. When they decided they wanted to be great chefs, they took it upon themselves to arrive at the door of their dream restaurant and ask for a job. It didn't matter if the job was dishwasher; it mattered that it was at the foot of a master.

You can't say to yourself, "Well, I'm not qualified," or, "He'd never take me on," because then it won't happen. None of these chefs were qualified; many of the greats had no culinary training whatsoever. But their confidence that they were going to be great paid off.

We often forget that food is a business, and like any business, you must be innovative to succeed. No matter what the industry, being human and tapping into imagination, creativity, and curiosity will help your brand succeed.

I'd recommend Chef's Table for any foodie looking for their next show to binge watch on Netflix. Find more about the show here.

If you've got food on the brain, check out my latest article for The Kitchn, on how Caribbean countries deal with invasive species by unleashing their creativity in the kitchen.