Saturday, September 20, 2014


Living in India one of the shows that is most universally enjoyable for the whole family is MasterChef Australia.  At the 8 o'clock hour as the kids are getting ready for bed we will turn it on unless something else is better or if the kids are distracted in their rooms or asleep.  It is a safe show for everyone and the kids love cooking and I enjoy thinking that by watching a TV show I will start producing wonderful dishes at home.

This week has been different.  This week I have watched every episode and have gone into a slight panic whenever we have a power cut in the 30 minutes proceeding 8 o'clock as I don't want to miss it.  What was the change?  What made this week different from every other week?

Marco Pierre White.

Now I am not an epicure that would know that name in text, sorry Marco.  But I recognized his face and new he was one of the great chefs of our age, even if I didn't know anything about him personally or professionally.  So when they announced on Monday that he would be on MasterChef all week I was intrigued.  I always enjoy learning something that I know I didn't know.

Marco Pierre White was introduced as one of the primary forces in defining modern food as well as the man who made Gordon Ramsey cry.  The contestants obviously knew who he was and were immediately intimidated in a way that they often were not when other chefs are on the show, even chefs that one can see from the interviews are well respected.  This intrigued me even more.  In the midst of this thick haze of intimidation and fear Marco began his welcome speech with,  "I am Marco Pierre White, I do not assume you know who I am."  And yet very clearly he did. "I am here to give you the confidence to cook great food."  My quotes through this blog will all be approximations as I cannot find a transcript from the episodes easily.

What struck me about his opening statement was the strange juxtaposition between making focused efforts to intimidate the cooks but saying he was there to give them confidence.  It was easy to see the not only was Marco a great chef but he had great skill with people.  He is known for being a terror, a bully in the kitchen but he also mentored many of today's great chefs.  I was glued from his opening line.  In the middle of the speech he stopped, stepped up to face a chef in the back row, ignoring the rest of the contestants and leaned into the recipient and asked, "Tell me about yourself."  The contestant said, "I'm a bobcat operator and I'm here because I want cooking to change my life."  You could tell he was scared stiff but Marco demanded honesty and he got it.  His intro was carefully sculpted to terrify and establish a strict hierarchy.

Describing his opening speech to my wife I teared up.  Sure I was emotionally and physically exhausted from my recent battle with Typhoid but it was emotional to see a gifted leader at work.  I was glued.  Every day I have watched him not only master of a skilled craft, an art, but a gifted leader and communicator who was raising up other people to levels in the trade which they did not expect of themselves.  The powerful mix of private and public praise and humiliation let people know when they succeeded and when they failed. He propped them up when they were at the breaking point but was brutal when they were below his expectations.  It seemed he could care less about their expectations of themselves.

What really interested me was that he did not focus on the strongest personalities but the frailest ones.  He told one contestant who was trying to put on a strong face for him when he approached her bench, "Never hide your tears."  He then bent the rules a bit when he asked to try her dish even though it was not one of the top 5 dishes to be tried, simply so that he could tell her that her dish was very good and that she should be proud of it.  She went on into the next challenge to take a huge risk which none of the judges, including Marco, thought she could pull off in the time given and blew them away with an excellent dish.  Stuffed turkey neck sausage.  Marco said few professional chefs could even make the dish and that if she could do it in an hour she would be a "Houdini."  She took a risk she would never have taken without him taking the time in the previous challenge to point out to her skill in the midst of her insecurity and it propelled her to unprecedented success.

It is hard for me to express how powerful this week has been for me.  In the last year I have had an official management position at work.  I have been overly cautious, primarily to fearing certain cultural undertones, to set the expectations for my team as high as I hold them for myself.  Much higher than the expectations they have for themselves in a lot of cases.  Unfortunately they have lived up to the expectations I set.  My job as a leader was to raise the standard and I felt that I have failed to do that to the degree that I could have and was met with frustration and disappointment in myself throughout.  My high standards for myself have helped to propel me to the point where I am professionally and I did my team a disservice by not holding them to that same level and helping them to succeed to the same standard.

I know not everyone will rise to the occasion.  I have had several times where I gave people the opportunity to grow and they did not take it, did not grow and excel to the point where they could have.  Watching Marco gave me incredible insight into not only how to better do that in the future but more importantly the benefits that that high level of expectation can produce for those around me.  In my own insecurity this past year I have not been a good Indian manager nor an American one.  Moving forward, though, I have the unique opportunity to learn from this mistake and improve not only my own work but the work of those around me.  There is no B side.  In my code, motorcycles, camping equipment, parenting, husbanding, there is no more "good enough for government work."  One of the most powerful lessons I have learned from India is the damage that "Chalta hai" can produce.  How doing something with minimal effort ALWAYS costs more effort in the long run, and usually when you can least afford to do the work a second or third time.  May I always abhor the consequences of not following my own mother's advice that I habitually ignored as a child.  "Do it right the first time and you only do it once."