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Software Nightmares

This post has been stewing for a little while, and now I’ve been kicked into writing it up by Naresh Jain’s post on Lessons Learnt from Restaurant Business.

Since Channel 4 in the UK started supporting the Mac for their online replays, I got hooked on Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares series1. I’ve never worked in a restaurant and I know that TV programmes are a manufactured narrative, but (inbetween all the swearing) there are some interesting themes that come through every week:

  • cook stuff your customers actually want. Some owners get carried away with bigger ideas than they can handle;
  • reduce the menu to something your staff can cope with. Bloated menus and fancy presentations cripple the kitchen staff. Cut it all back to something they can do well;
  • help the staff take pride in their work. Producing stuff badly for unhappy customers is wasting people’s lives, and probably not sustainable. One of Ramsey’s triggers for cussing out the brigade is when they’re not trying—and watch their reactions when they turn it around and he praises them;
  • cook your own stuff. Don’t rely on outside prepared stuff unless there’s a very good reason2. Bring in good ingredients and, um, cook them;
  • take responsibility. You’re the chef/owner/manager/waiter, so do your f***ing job;
  • communicate. Head chefs should be talking all the time so their brigade knows what’s going on, waiters and chefs should discuss the tickets so they know what’s ordered, waiters and managers should talk so they know what’s going on with their customers; and,
  • see it as it is. The building looks run down, the kitchen is filthy, the food is disgusting. Stop fooling yourselves.

I know it’s relatively easy to come in and see how to rescue a business that’s months away from failing, after all an outsider has the advantage of not having been sucked into the mess. But, even through the box of mirrors that is TV, Ramsey shows two strong drives: total focus on providing the best service to the customer, no excuses; and, total respect for the craft of cooking. He just lights up when he finds a junior with ability and enthusiasm.

Somehow, I feel this ties in with a post from another coach given to immoderate use of language, Mike Hill wrote about how raising your internal quality makes you go faster. I think there’s a commonality of purpose there that we should take note of.

1) I mean the UK version of this series. The US series is like a boil-in-a-bag version: manufactured, over-spiced, unsatisfying. In fact, the opposite of everything Ramsey is promoting. But that’s another story.

2) Yes, I know there have been some “scandals” with Ramsey’s London restaurants, but that doesn’t invalidate the point.


  1. Hi Steve,

    A topic quite close to my heart as well as I follow Ramsey’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and yes, i agree that Gordon has an inner drive for quality that should always make a difference no matter what the domain or competition is.

    Having said that, I would like to disagree on your point on the “…commonality of purpose” stuff. My two cents…

    As you have noted, Tv programs are mor cooked up nowadays to take any real note of but the one glaring deviation for our context is that “Hell’s Kitchen” is a lot about swearing and commanding and controlling. Yes, Gordon may light up when a subordiante chef does well but there is a lot of driving happening from the head chef as well. And yes, an Agile team also needs a driver but not a command and control freak.

    “…and watch their reactions when they turn it around and he praises them;…”

    Yes, but these reactions are 1 in 10 episodes mostly their reaction makes out that Ramsey is a tyrant but with a golden arm who treats them lavishly for a job well done (which is usually once in two months, probably!)

    The takeaway, in my view, from these restaurants, cooking TV programs and head chefs is that if there is an inner commitment to quality the customers will automatically be satisfied and the levels of loyalties among all stakeholders will increase; if there is no knowledge of supreme quality, no matter how good the team, how good the technical prowess of the head chef in cooking and how good the infra, the customers may not be satisfied as easily!


    Ravichandran Jv

  2. Thanks for your comment. There’s an important difference between “Hells Kitchen”, which is like a game show, and “Kitchen NIghtmares”, which is about rescuing real businesses. And, like I said, if you have the Fox version, it’s not half as good as the local UK version. Sorry.

    I also agree that there are problems with all the shouting and swearing, that forcing people into a corner makes entertaining TV but doesn’t always achieve what you want. And that celebrity-led transformations often don’t stick–although in the UK version he goes back after a while.

    On the other hand, I have to admit to sometimes getting frustrated with a client because they’re wasting so much of their own money not getting on with fixing things. But I’m not Ramsey, so I can’t swear at them 🙂

  3. Marco Abis says:


    so true and if you haven’t done so already I suggest you read Ramsay’s ‘Playing with Fire’ which is a sort of business autobiography. Lots of interesting lessons in there about people, teamwork and quality.

    It isn’t manufactured and over-spiced (or not so much that you can easily spot it…) and talks about the good, the bad and the ugly 🙂

  4. Andy Pols says:

    Ramsey gets a huge amount of respect from he staff (one ones I’ve talked to!)

    They like working for him. We asked a waiter in one of his groups restaurants (Ramsey is not even the executive chef, never mind the one working in the kitchen) if they had met him – and they said oh yes, he comes in most weeks and makes a point of asking everyone “how’s it going?” and spends time with people.

    He appears very good at building teams

  5. Andy Mulhearn says:

    I’ve been a fan of his for some time. The US Series was horribly contrived to find a happy ending, even to the extent of throwing cash at places that were failing, but the UK shows always seemed more like real solutions to problems.

    All that you say about his method is true and if it’s not adding value to the business as a whole, it goes. Hmmm, for some reason that sounds familiar.

  6. Hi Steve,

    I thought I was the only one that had spotted Ramsey 🙂 His a star, and a genius at “open and honest communication”.

    I’m working in the US, where people are a lot more reticent about saying what they really think. I’ve been tempted to use Gordon as a case study on how conflict can actually be beneficial.

    Despite the f’ing and bliming its clear that he as a deep love for food, for paying customers, and above all, restaurant owners and their staff.

    It’s amazing what you can get away with when people can tell that you’re being honest and sincere. I think I’ll get the book of his that Marco mentions 🙂

    (PS. Watching him on US tv reminds me of just how gritty and down to earth us Brits can be. I especially like the scene were an elderly lady told him to f**k off 🙂 Gordon and BBC America are keeping me sane :))


  7. @Paul. Again the UK series makes the point better, but a lot of his shouting is to try to get a reaction out of people that are in a rut, to get some energy going. Actually, I think he’d be more effective by being a bit more reticent sometimes, he makes some people chose flight over fight, but that would be another person. The US series puts much more emphasis on the verbal fireworks, which is a shame since the quieter moments are often the deepest.

    Of course, it’s not the same all over the US. I suspect that you’ll get different reactions in places like NYC…

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