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Management by Fire a Conversation with Chef Anthony Bourdain - 'Kitchen Confidential' Chef's Taste for Chaos

A restaurant kitchen usually operates in crisis mode, says chef Anthony Bourdain, author of a top-selling tell-all, Kitchen Confidential. But the crisis builds camaraderie and brings out the very best in each employee. In this edited interview from Harvard Business Review, Bourdain explains why that's so—and what managers can take away from the kitchen. Says Bourdain, "The kitchen is one of the last true meritocracies, where you are judged entirely on job performance."

Bourdain, who took time off from the kitchen at Les Halles to complete his recent book and his Food Network series, A Cook's Tour, spoke with HBR associate editor Gardiner Morse about the paradoxical synergy of order and chaos in his kitchen. These edited excerpts of their wide-ranging conversation illuminate Bourdain's sometimes unorthodox strategies for building and leading superior teams—and suggest that a chef uses tools that wouldn't be out of place in the corner office.

Q: Kitchen Confidential is on the BusinessWeek best-seller list. Why are businesspeople reading your book?

Kitchen Confidential book

A: Maybe for the same reason they were reading Sun Tzu's Art of War for a while. They sense that running a kitchen and running a business have some overlap, like business and war, so they think my book might have some useful lessons. I also think the culture appeals to them. A lot of businesspeople have worked dunking French fries or waiting tables at some point in their lives and remember that time fondly. The kitchen is one of the last true meritocracies, where you are judged entirely on job performance. And it's also one of the last completely politically incorrect workplaces, where you can say anything at any time and behave more like an outlaw than in any other business.

It's got that "M*A*S*H" work ethic that's probably very attractive to businesspeople with a director of human resources who insists that they file ten management reports every time they chew somebody out. Kitchens have a shoot-from-the-hip, Wild West environment that's probably very appealing to somebody who can't fire the knucklehead down the hall.

Q: Your kitchen staffs have been amazingly loyal and productive under the most brutal conditions. How do you account for that?

A: The old-school ethic, the hierarchy that I live by, is very much a product of Auguste Escoffier's "brigade system." Escoffier served in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, and he ran his famous kitchens with military precision.

The brigade system divided the kitchen into functional areas. Each one had a command structure like the army's. Every station was led by a chef de partie, and that person was in charge of his unit of sous chefs, cooks, and assistants. Orders and information moved down the chain of command and were spread around to the staff as each "officer" saw fit. And the workers were responsible not just to their superior officer but also to the chef. In that way, the many, many tasks of a large, busy kitchen could, even in the heat of the dinner rush, be managed and coordinated by one person—the chef.

Kitchens have a shoot-from-the-hip, Wild West environment.
— Anthony Bourdain

The military model is no accident. When people are working under difficult and even degrading conditions, it's very useful to make everyone concerned feel like a member of the elite, however debauched. The very things that are hardest and most uncomfortable and make your job appear unbearable to outsiders are the ones you take the most pride in. The negatives become a plus. So if you had the harder, more degrading day—that makes you better.

I don't try to cultivate it, but I take full advantage of the us-versus-them psychology. There's us—the kitchen crew—and then there's everybody else: the patrons, management, owners, waiters. Everybody should be so lucky as to be us. We're the best.

You find the same kind of intimacy, loyalty, dependence on your coworkers, and teamwork in a kitchen that you find whenever good people are forced into a crisis situation. And it's always a crisis in a kitchen. People from very different backgrounds form close tribal units, and they desire to do well and to be seen doing well. You can't be seen as a clock puncher in a good restaurant. You have to care. If you don't, you lose your status in the little society. You're seen as a traitor and a liability.

Q: What's an example of a disaster, when you've had to wing it and come up with something brilliant? How has that worked?

A: Winging it is something you don't want to do. It's a terrible place to be. You need absolute confidence. As a chef, one of the things I'm most afraid of is that someone will hesitate, lose their focus. And if someone does, even for a few minutes, it can screw up the whole pace, the whole team. That radiates out to everybody else. It's toxic. And it can bring a whole kitchen down.

People have to know that the chef is on top of it. That he's watching at all times. They have to see him watching and thinking. And they have to do the same as well, so that everybody is looking back, and above, and below, and to the sides.

We did a badly planned New Year's Eve once, and we found ourselves in that most terrible place where we were all winging it, trying to get out from under a big boulder we knew in the end would crush us. There was no screaming, no yelling in the kitchen—just absolute silence as everyone tried to dig themselves out of a bad situation, doing the second- and third-best job they knew they could do. That's what you want to avoid at all costs, for people to go home knowing that they did far less than their best, for them to feel ashamed because—for whatever reason—they did a half-assed job. That's the worst thing that can happen to a kitchen crew.

Q: What do you do when there's a crisis you haven't anticipated?

A: Every kitchen has one evil genius who's tolerated—someone you turn to when all else fails—a rule breaker, a scamp who's willing to make a hard and sometimes unlovely decision for expediency. There's actually a name for this person—the débrouillard, the person who gets you out of a jam.

When you're really in trouble—say you've run out of every prepared hors d'oeuvre during a huge corporate cocktail party—the débrouillard will know about the case of minipizzas with frost damage that is hidden in a corner of the freezer and will be willing to go out on a limb and make something edible out of them. If you decide to go with your débrouillard and he can pull it off, everyone shares in the satisfaction of having been able to collectively dodge the bullet. But you can't do that regularly.

Every kitchen has one evil genius who's tolerated.
— Anthony Bourdain

Q: What makes customers loyal?

A: Well, obviously, quality and consistency. People feel betrayed if they come for a favorite dish and you've suddenly changed it. And they don't want to be treated like idiots, like you tell them you're giving them porcini and you substitute something else and hope they won't notice. If every once in a while you have to pull a fast one for the common good, it is of course essential that you get away with it. When customers become regulars, even in fine restaurants, they're looking for that familiarity, a crack in the veneer where they're treated a bit differently, less formally.

A not-so-obvious thing often overlooked is that customers need to trust your intentions and your concept's integrity—the sense that you know your product—and that it is the product you should be selling. So you're not all over the place, serving pasta and French food and Mexican food and trying to be everything to everybody. A lot of places open up with a menu that's floundering, because the owners are thinking, "What do people want?" Instead, they should be thinking something like, "We're going to open a restaurant with a Gascony theme, and we're going to concentrate on that area of France because this is what we love and do well."

Q: When you go to a restaurant, how can you tell if a kitchen is well managed or not?

A: The easy answer is that food arrives hot, on time, and in proper order. You can tell when a restaurant has its choreography together. Dishes don't lag—the whole table's order arrives together. The food is consistent. But there are more subtle clues, before your orders even arrive. Do the waiters look proud? Do they look happy to be working there? Is the place clean and squared away? Do the waiters, busboys, and front-of-the-house move like they know what they're doing? Is the place busy and, more important, do the customers look happy?

You can sense a well-run restaurant just as you can sense the fear and uncertainty—the smell of certain doom—in a disorganized, flailing one. A clean bathroom tells you a lot, surprisingly. If the people running the restaurant can't keep it clean—and this is a part of the restaurant they allow you to see—you can imagine what their prep kitchen, downstairs, hidden away, looks like.

Q: You're still spending some time in the kitchen?

A: I don't run my kitchen anymore. I'm a spiritual leader. As soon as I started going on book tours, I didn't want to become the kind of mostly absent celebrity chef I always hated as a sous chef. I'm much loved in my kitchen, but I would not be were I still running it.

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Excerpted with permission from "Management by Fire: A Conversation with Chef Anthony Bourdain," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 80, No. 7, July 2002.

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Gardiner Morse is an associate editor of Harvard Business Review.