Hell’s Kitchen

For a reality TV show Hell’s Kitchen (aka adayinhell.com) has been pretty interesting, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t the cooking, nor the cut-throat competition, and certainly not the foul language, that made it compelling television. No, it was Chef Gordon Ramsay’s management skills that really made it worth watching.

This programme, which came to an end on Sunday, centred around 10 virtually unknown “celebrities” (with one exception, a former Conservative cabinet minister) competing for the public’s popular vote in order to remain in the kitchen of Britain’s best and most profane chef, Gordon Ramsay. Most of the contestants’ culinary skills were basic to say the least, but Ramsay spent the two weeks on air teaching them how to work as a team in order to prepare a very limited menu to his exacting, professional standards. Every evening the fruits of their labour were served to a restaurant full of famous and not-so-famous celebrities, although quite a few of the celebs left hungry on more than one occasion.

By the time it was finished it was obvious why Ramasy’s restaurants work so well. The man isn’t just an excellent cook; he’s also a natural leader. His vision for the enterprise was well defined; he communicated it clearly and continuously to his staff; and he provided them with both positive and (infamously) negative feedback about their performance pretty much all the time. Never mind an annual review; those celebrities were bombarded with useful information during every working hour of every day. It was really interesting to see such powerful textbook management skills deployed so effectively.

Much has been made of Ramsay’s profane language and the severe reprimands he gives his staff. However his management style has a lot in common with the traditional training techniques of the military. First you make sure everyone knows who is in charge through intimidation and fear; then you retrain to the required standards by providing constant feedback; and finally you rebuild confidence by recognizing good performance. Teamwork is developed by forcing the recruits to depend on one another in order to achieve their objective.

It’s textbook stuff, and clearly works very well in a kitchen; and according to The Daily Telegraph (see Chef’s recipe has a dash of method in its madness) I’m not the only person who thinks Ramsay’s true genius comes from his management skills.