Management, the Gordon Ramsay way

The first American season of “Kitchen Nightmares” aired its final episode on Fox a few weeks back. The show follows a simple recipe: in each episode, Chef Gordon Ramsay is called in by the owner of a fledging restaurant, and has one week to put it back on track. The formula makes for great TV: take a group of people nearing bankruptcy, throw in a guy with a strong personality who doesn’t mince his words, and let him explain to them what they are doing wrong. The result is a high-intensity series, filled with emotion and drama – and I got immediately hooked up.

I spent quite some time catching up with the entire season, and after a little, I realized that my interest had shifted. I still enjoyed the high-octane exchanges, but I grew fascinated by the predictability of each episode. The restaurants Ramsay helps out come in all tastes and flavors: an Irish pub owned by a retired cop in upstate New York, an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, a pizzeria in Hollywood, an upscale Napa valley restaurant run by a French chef… And yet, in spite of all their obvious differences, each episode unfolds in a familiar sequence, making “Kitchen Nightmares” an amazing case study in business management. Observing one person in the process of rescuing a business small enough that you can understand how things fit together is already a great learning opportunity; but seeing the same person doing it over and over again is like a perfect lab in management, an experiment allowing comparisons for similarities and differences; so I began to look at the show from that perspective, looking for patterns and wondering if there were lessons to be learnt, applicable beyond the restaurant business.

From the Kitchen…

One obvious lesson is that a safe way to get a restaurant in trouble is to serve bad food; a close second is to have poor service. In each episode, Gordon Ramsay makes sure he knows the kitchen in and out; he has lunch at the place and discusses the food with the Chef, usually heatedly (As an aside, if you ever see Gordon Ramsay in your restaurant, make sure to cook fresh crab cakes– nearly every restaurant was tested, and failed, on that dish.), observes how a normal dinner is cooked and served, and performs an in-depth inspection of the kitchen. This part is usually pretty entertaining, unless you have a sensitive stomach, in what case you should probably not watch “Kitchen Nightmares”.


The same issues come up regularly, and could be translated into the following advice:

Incidentally, I realized that this list was somewhat similar to another list, the Joel test, used to check the pulse of a software engineering department in 12 simple questions. Some correspondences are obvious (“quiet working conditions”, “the best tools money can buy”). If you are willing to stretch a bit analogies, “hallway usability testing” can be equated to “tasting you own food”, and “source control” and “daily builds” could be considered related to using only fresh ingredients, stored cleanly.

… to the Table

While the importance of the kitchen should be obvious, the mission of a restaurant is to serve it at the table, to be enjoyed by customers – and there too, things can go awfully wrong. Here are a few lessons that apply to pretty much any business.

Leadership and Change

A long time ago, in a strategy class I attended in business school, a seasoned consultant explained to us that “identifying the problem is usually not really that difficult; the tough part is to figure out how to get things to change”. From that perspective, Gordon Ramsay is one of the most gifted management consultants I have ever seen in action. Everyone is a critic; but getting a whole team to change their habits and steer them into a new direction, in under a week, is truly amazing.

Ramsay is remarkably abrasive, and comes down pretty hard (with lots of swearing) on some individuals along the season. I heard someone described him as “that guy who belittles others in restaurants”. I have no doubt that Ramsay is a hot-blooded individual, but, if you watch enough episodes, you will realize that his outbursts are controlled and somewhat methodical. He is not going off sadistically at random; he is usually putting the pressure on one specific individual in the group, and uses it as shock therapy, to jolt the team back together around a common project.

Here are some insight on the dos and don’ts of leading a team, Ramsay’s way:


Ultimately, I think what I liked most about the show was that it was so uplifting; every episode was a testament that people love nothing more than getting together and making a project succeed. On the one hand, it made it clear that starting your business is not to be taken lightly, and is a path were failure is easy; but on the other hand, it demonstrated that there was really no magic in succeeding, either, and that it does not take rocket science to succeed as an entrepreneur: work hard and honestly, build a respectful team where talent is recognized and everyone works in the right direction, and “be the best at one thing in a 25 miles radius”.

And finally, it was also a reminder of an advice I heard multiple times: if you run your company, know what you know and what you don’t know, and when you don’t know, ask a professional. Asking for help may not always be easy, and advice usually comes at a price – but why risk sinking your business, if there is a Ramsay out there that can get you back on track in one week?

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