What Experience Design can learn from this week’s Top Chef

No spoilers for the first four paragraphs.

This week’s episode of Top Chef was likely the best of the season, and definitely featured the most inspired and, according to the judges, delicious cooking so far. Chef Tom even said it was among the best single meals ever served on nine seasons of the show.

How could that be? The cooking so far this season has been decidedly middle-of-the-pack compared to prior seasons, and then all of a sudden it gets transcendent?

Because this week we saw leadership and vision, presented quite delightfully by guest judge Charlize Theron. Capitalizing on a cheap marketing tie-in (she plays The Evil Queen in an edgy telling of Snow White, coming to theaters in summer), Padma tells them to make something “wickedly beautiful,”. And, intentionally or not, Charlize then demonstrates remarkable leadership. She inspires them (who doesn’t want to please Charlize Theron — even the women love her), she encourages them (“indulge”), and she even gives some creative direction (“think like an evil queen.” This is the first time these chefs have really been given license to go over the top, and just enough structure to have a sense of rules to play by.

And what results is what happens when you give creative people just the right amount of leadership and structure without telling them exactly what to do. Each chef produces a delicious, inspired course, utterly unique, yet, thanks to the clear vision, it comes together in a remarkable whole.

…and now time for the spoiler-ridden commentary…

Hoo-boy! The Mozart of the Palate does it again! Paul’s dish was the hardest to appreciate through the telexision, but clearly his ability to play your tongue’s taste buds like keys on a piano is in full force. I love how Grayson admits her literalness, and I’m surprised she was able to realize that vision so directly. I can’t wait for Lindsay to get booted off in a fit of utter humiliation. I’ve never liked Michelle Bernstein as a guest judge, and I really don’t care for her protégé. The editors know that we diehards pick up on certain cues, because when Chris calls his wife, and we see the photos of the family, every fan’s first thought was, “Chris is going to lose tonight.”

The only thing that bummed me was Beverly beating Nyesha in Last Chance Kitchen. That twist just clearly proved too much, and Nyesha had likely put together a much better, and more flexible, setup than Beverly. Though, according to Tom, the decision came down to a nitpick — seasoning — and I don’t think you can lay that on Beverly’s preparation. I was hoping to see Nyesha pull an Ozzy and make it back into the competition, but I suppose I’ll have to wait until the next Top Chef All Stars.

Work With Me: Senior User Experience Designer

As I hinted in my post about joining Inflection, I’m looking to bring a number of senior folks on to the user experience team.

My priority is to hire a Senior User Experience Designer.

One way I’ve been thinking about it–I’m looking for someone to be a Riker to my Picard. I can do that, because, I, too, am balding. Not that I’m looking only for strapping young-ish men who will rock a full beard a few years from now.

Here’s how I phrased it in an upcoming revision to the job description:

Are you up to the challenge of incorporating quality user experience into a fast-paced delivery-focused environment? Are you a user experience generalist frustrated at being placed in a specialist box? Do you have 5-7 years experience working on big consumer-facing industry-leading properties (think Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Paypal, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and you know how it should be done?

What’s great about Inflection is that we are not dysfunctional, we respect live/work balance, and we are committed to creating great products. We’re still relatively small (~130 people) and have a strong start-up vibe, and there’s lots of a room to make a difference and establish new and improved ways of working. UX does not mean just “UI”, and when I mention my service design orientation, it is met with acceptance, not blank stares. UX, through me, reports directly to the CEO, and is considered key in how we differentiate and compete. I believe we’re on the cusp of some truly great things, and I’m looking bring great people on to help us see this through.

If this sounds interesting, check out the fuller job description, and take it from there.

Optical Illusion Nerdery

As a kid, among my favorite books on my parents’ bookshelf was Light and Vision, from the Time-Life Science Library. . And my favorite part of the book were the optical illusions, such as the two-pronged object that somehow morphs into 3 cylinders, or the square of stairs that go up forever. (And, yes, I had MC Escher posters in my dorm room.)

As such, this blog dedicated to “Optillusions” is my new favorite thing.

Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 10: Restaurant Wars

This episode was indicative of the season as a whole: meh. I had thought that the first episode premise of whittling 29 chefs down to 16 was going to deliver us a higher caliber of contestant. However, this crew is decidedly middling, and is providing for some uninspired television.

This week gave us every TC fan’s favorite event: Restaurant Wars. The primary difference between this season and prior ones is that instead of both teams opening on the same night, they did so on successive nights. The Boys ended up going first, and I think this proved to be a huge disadvantage, because this has been an exhausting season, and the prior BBQ challenge lead to a sleepless night. The girls had a day to rest, whereas the boys just had to keep hammering at it, and I think it contributed to their inability to execute well.

I loved that Chris referred to Restaurant Wars as Top Chef’s Kobayashi Maru (even if he supposedly mispronounced it). More pop culture geekery please!

That the women won ran contrary to what typically happens in Restaurant Wars (or any group challenge on Top Chef), because they were also clearly the more dysfunctional. The men were far more inclined to pull together, but as a group they were so off their game it didn’t matter. The women, particularly Lindsay and Sarah, were the kind of flaming bitches that typically torpedo a team’s efforts. I was literally yelling at my television when Lindsay went back into the kitchen for the umpteenth time. She was simply a disaster. It speaks to the strength of their food (and the weakness of the mens’), that there inability to actually work as a team did not sink them.

Grayson gets big props for being the only woman who had her head together and made an honest attempt to keep things moving. And what kind of delicious irony is it that the least team-capable, Beverly, won the challenge? Particularly when the Mean Girl duo could clearly not accept it, even though they put in a subpar performance.

Once again, Last Chance Kitchen proved more engaging than the main event. (Unlike on Survivor, where Redemption Island felt like a misfire from pretty much the get go). Perhaps it’s time to rename Nyesha “The Hammer,” because she once again dispatched her foe, this time using a combination of cunning (taking Tylor’s friend to be her sous) and execution. At this point, it would be quite disappointing if Nyesha doesn’t make it back into the main competition to prove her mettle.

I Have A New Job: VP of User Experience at Inflection

Last March, I went out on paternity leave for the birth of my daughter Dorothy. Knowing I’d not have the opportunity again, I took as much time off as I could. During that time, I realized that I was no longer passionate about design consulting. Having done it for over 10 years, I felt it was no longer giving me the kind of creative challenge that I sought.

If you’ve followed my writing and speaking the last few years, you’ll see that it’s all about how to make customer-centered organizations, and how businesses need to enact a deep, fundamental change by embracing humanity. As a consultant, I could prescribe means for doing that, but I could not really make it happen, because that kind of organizational change requires day-in, day-out engagement over months and years.

So, after my paternity leave, I began the slow process of leaving consulting, and, with it, Adaptive Path. I will delve into those details more in further posts, but suffice to say it took about 6 months (and conversations with Amazon, Intel, Google, Facebook, Intuit, and Samsung, among others) before I found a great match.

And that match, surprising even to me, is Inflection. Surprising because I had never heard of them before trolling LinkedIn one night, and I had no intention of joining a Silicon Valley startup. I’d already done that (scroll down to October 12), and was wary of the common startup expectation that I would give my life over to a company. Nor did I want to get caught in a strictly-web world — my projects for the last few years have spanned devices, platforms, and contexts. VC-backed companies often give me the willies, as what VCs want and what I want are often diametrically opposed. And the idea of commuting to the peninsula made me die a little inside.

Yet for every reservation I had, Inflection had a great response. It is not a face-time, grind-all-the-time company. People keep reasonable hours. People are encouraged to work from home two days a week (as Matthew, the CEO, put it to me, “I don’t get anything out of having you in a car.”) The business was profitable before it took a dime of VC money, which meant we were able to get very good terms. And while, yes, we are a very webby company, we get our revenues through subscriptions, which means we are, in fact, a service firm, and I will bring to bear my full bag of service design tricks to make sure we’re delivering the best we can.

After nearly 11 years, it was no easy task to leave Adaptive Path. A company I helped start, and one where I was deeply involved in its growth and evolution. And if I were still passionate about design consulting, there’s no way I would have left — Adaptive Path is easily the best such place to work for, in terms of freedom, flexibility, creative challenges, clients, and great colleagues. But, I had to follow my muse, and that meant moving on.

I started at Inflection January 2, and spent this first week getting up to speed on just what exactly we do. I’m excited for the opportunities, and you should expect to see some pretty amazing stuff from us in the next 3 to 6 months.

(And if you want to take part, we have positions open for pretty much all manner of UX professional, as well as engineering, marketing, etc. My priority is finding a senior UX designer, preferably someone with 5-7 years of work at a place like Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Netflix, etc… Someone who knows how to do great UX in an agile environment that is about to scale something fierce. If you are that person, or know that person, please reach out to me at peter AT inflection DOT com.)

Top Chef, Season 9 Episode 9: BBQ Pit Wars

Remember: there will be spoilers.

Oh, I did enjoy this episode. Good cooking, some drama, and another win for Paul’s Wonder Palate.

A month ago, I tweeted:

. . . and I still wanted to every time his face popped up on the television screen. Doubtless, Myhrvold is a brilliant polymath. He also comes across as a ragingly condescending jerk.

I enjoyed the Quickfire because it was a good, honest cooking challenge. I was a little surprised Ty-lor won it with his watermelon, which made me all the more want to eat it.

Beverly is a near total disaster. Her spraying Padma and Nathan with foam was just weird. What got me to laugh, and laugh out loud for a long time took place during the BBQ challenge, with her oddly calm reaction to the fire ranging on the camper stove. She didn’t seem to think a giant fire in such a confined space was problematic until the smoke detector went off. That scene (embedded here) is a master class of comic editing, with Malibu’s commentary (“She’s missing a few chapters”) as the coup de grace.

Though you do feel somewhat badly for Bev, considering she seemed to have been made a prisoner of her own home by her parents, and this is very likely why she has such trouble out in the world.

The BBQ challenge was a great one (like the chili challenge). It’s regional, it should be really tasty, and the circumstances lead to great (if loopy) TeeVee. Sadly, only one of the three teams really stepped up. Paul wins again with a combination of flavors that when you hear about it makes you scrunch up your face, but delivers on deliciousness. Grayson and Lindsay are lucky to have been on his team.

Grayson once again gets more than her fair share of screen time, first for the “sex in the mouth” comment, and then for her “Little Green Frog” song, which I’m sure made many across America pause on this frame:


That bit of unbridled goofiness made me think she simply does not belong with the cynicism and hard-bittenness of New York, however many “bangin'”s or “true dat”s she utters. She’s simply too sweet and goofy.

Anyway, not particularly sad to see Malibu go. While he was among the more entertaining to watch, he was clearly not at the caliber of the other chefs (nor Nyesha, it turns out). And his “art” was a little off-putting.

What’s With the Tats? Chefs and NBA Stars

In the only appropriate way to celebrate the season, today marks opening day of the NBA. And throughout the day, viewers will gaze upon a remarkable display of tattoos sported by the Association’s players.

As you all know, I’m a huge fan of Top Chef, and this season we’ve seen quite a display of tats, even on the otherwise meek Beverly.

And it lead me to wonder, what is it about these two professional subcultures that tattoos are expected?

A google search for “chef tattoos” turns up many results, such as “Chef Tattoos” and “Chef Tattoos: Top Chefs Share Their Ink”, but I haven’t found anything that helps dig into the more cultural/anthropological aspects of the tattoos — where did it come from, what does it signify, how is it used to establish in-and-out groups.

With the NBA, there’s clearly something going on with African-American street culture, quite possibly gang and prison culture, but for the life of me I cannot find any good explications of permeation of tattoos in the NBA, and what it means.

So, it looks like I’ll have to wait for Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry to get back to school. It turns out he’s writing his thesis “on the relationship between basketball players and tattoos.” I can’t wait!

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 8: Tribute Dinner

Reminder: there will be spoilers.

Let’s cut to the chase: thankfully, Heather is gone. And not just because she’s a bossy, mean, bitch who got caught retweeting naughties and so had to protect her Twitter feed. But because, as she demonstrated last week in her own commentary, she’s a simple-minded chef, who says she has a “rustic style”, and who mishandled the beef in her, you know, BEEF Stroganoff. Good riddance.

Unlike the last few episodes, I liked both challenges. They’ve recognized that Quickfire challenges are just kind of puffery, so they let it be run by Twitter (I loved the ‘hand an ingredient to a chef that they’ll have to use” twist, but was disappointed at how unimaginative the chefs were with it). Paul wins with a bizarre combination of ingredients, once again proving he’s some kind of flavor-combining savant, like a Neo of the palate.

I have no idea why Patti Labelle was a guest judge — apart from being a performer, she has no connection at all to Austin. At least she was charming and even witty.

I really dug the elimination challenge. I even teared up hearing a couple of the stories (and I watch while exercising). I love challenges where there are no excuses, no real limits — just cook something great. And the connection to someone they loved finally pushed some people to go beyond safe or merely good, and try some really interesting stuff.

And some who failed. Maybe instead of calling Chris C “Malibu,” they’ll call him “Albumen” now. And Grayson. I’m actually a fan of the Wisconsin schtick, but that slab of meat just looked unappetizing. And, um, don’t say, “True ‘dat.” (Also, if you’re not the fanboy I am, you might not know that Chris C and Grayson are the leaders in the “fan favorite” poll on Bravo’s site. Chris C’s wide margin suggests Top Chef‘s audience skews female and/or gay.)

I very much want to eat Ed’s bibimbap and Sarah’s cabbage roll-stuffed-with-sausage. Maybe at the same meal!

I think Nyesha might prove herself to be the Ozzy of the Last Chance Kitchen. She’s enough of a badass that I’d like to see her wield a katana as she slices through the competition.

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 7: Game On

I found this a resoundly disappointing episode. I’m dismayed that the chefs aren’t bringing it. They’re not goading one another to do amazing things. There aren’t enough super chefs blowing people away that everyone feels like they have to raise their game. I’m definitely pining for season 6, when the Voltaggio brothers, Kevin, and Jennifer just blew people away.

Oh well.

The quickfire was so dominated by the discussion of tequila that they pretty much for got to talk about the food. And when Tim Love grinned, it blinded my eyes with all the pearly white.

The elimination challenge was a train wreck. Heather, she of the villain edit, just digs herself deeper and deeper. It’s pretty clear that she’s at best a mediocre chef (at least in this crowd), but she clearly thinks she can do no wrong. I’ve worked with people who, when the shit starts hitting the fan, all they do is point fingers elsewhere, and refuse to accept any blame. Her belief that the reason she was picked out for elimination was because the contestants feared her after her previous win was the height of self-delusion.

And I haven’t even gotten to her bizarre treatment of Beverly throughout the episode. She clearly had so little confidence in Beverly from the start that she never got herself into a place where she could actually work with her. And Heather’s whole “I do rustic farm-to-table and all she does is Asian” smacks of incompetence–no great chef blathers on about supposed styles like this. They just cook great food.

And it doesn’t help, as I’ve mentioned before, that Bev is pretty much a tightly wound bundle of nerves. There couldn’t have been a worse pairing for a team, and it makes you wonder if it was truly random. Though, oddly enough (and it’s easy to forget in all the drama), they didn’t lose! In fact, they might have been on the top of the bottom.

Poor Grayson, paired with crazy Chris J. Poor Nyesha, paired with Dakota’s underdone venison. Grayson continues to be a crowd-pleaser (and it’s not just me, judging by the voting), and I’m happy she’s still cooking.

It’s unfortunate that I’m enjoying Last Chance Kitchen perhaps more than the main show. I like that the focus in not on the bullshit, but the food, and I love the emerging Greek chorus of ousted chefs (all dudes… until next time!). Nyesha is clearly so much more talented that the others that it wasn’t a fair fight. I expect her to win quite a few of these.

I have to say, I’m thrilled they’re getting out of the open-air pit that is Dallas, and heading to one of America’s best cities, Austin. I hope those environs coax quality performances that Dallas just couldn’t inspire.

“Why Don’t People Do More Things That Clearly Work?”, Basketball Edition

A couple days ago, on Grantland, Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece on the Triangle Offense, employed by coach Phil Jackson on his 11 championship teams. The main thesis is that the offense isn’t really that hard to learn or execute, is remarkably effective (11 titles!), and yet no one else is doing it.

It made me think about my other big conundrum about the NBA — Why don’t any NBA big men employ the sky-hook? Mastered by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it is perhaps the most effective offensive weapon in the history of the sport. It’s not a secret, or even a mystery — there is countless film of Kareem shooting the shot. It would take practice, but how would it not be worth practicing a shot that gets you, oh, 10 points a game? Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — why wouldn’t you model your game after him? Was he really that anomalous?