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Managing Experience Design Lessons from Top Chef‘s “Restaurant Wars”

OK. So I actually have two shows of which I’m an utter fanboy — BSG and Top Chef. Last night’s Top Chef was every season’s most anticipated episode, “Restaurant Wars.” The set-up is that you have two teams of 4 chefs, and they have 24 hours to come up with a restaurant concept, menu (with two options for each course), interior design, and service. It’s an intense and grueling exercise, leaving contestants spent by the end.

I couldn’t watch last night’s episode without realizing how much of it applied to experience design and management. There were three key elements that popped out at me. In order to explain, I have to reveal what transpired so…

Spoiler alert!

Communication. This arises in pretty much every team challenge on Top Chef, as it seems that chefs are terrible communicators. Early on in the service, the Sahana team, Jamie in particular, could see that Radhika, the team lead, was not focusing on the right things. Radhika should have been paying attention to front-of-house, making sure people felt attended to, and instead she kept drifting into the kitchen, where she was more comfortable. Someone, probably Jamie, should have said something to Radhika, but she didn’t. It’s as if she didn’t want to suggest that a teammate is not working up to par. Similarly, Radhika, as team lead, had almost nothing to say to her team, and they managed as little islands of activity. The Sunset Lounge team, for all their problems (and there were many) were in constant communication with each other. And they won.

The lesson: communicate. When things aren’t going well, call them out. Don’t be afraid of offending or upsetting others, particularly in group work. Yes, you have to figure out tactful means of communicating, so that your message will be received, but you can’t not communicate.

Experience matters. The judges all felt that Sahana’s team had the better food (if only by a slight margin), but they lost. Why? Because Fabio rocked the front of the house for Sunset Lounge. He made everyone feel welcome and attended to. He was gracious, even a little flirtatious. When things went wrong, like the undercooked black cod, he apologized and offered to replace it. He recognized that dining is not just about eating, and made the guests feel good about being there.

The lesson: Attend to the complete person. Make them feel good. Recognize the role that emotion plays, and don’t assume a superior product will win out self-evidently.

Finish strong. Even though the judges preferred Sahana’s food, the comment cards from the other eaters rated Sunset Lounge’s as better. I trust the judges’ palates here, so the disconnect is revealing. One reason the other eaters preferred Sunset Lounge was the experience, as explained above. More important, though, was that Sunset Lounge finished strong — even the judges said their desserts were the single best component served all night, across both restaurants. Sahana’s dessert was considered among the worst offerings from either team.

Brandon introduced me to the “peak-end rule”, wherein people judge experiences based on either the most extreme aspect (the peak) or how they ended. So, even though the Sunset Lounge’s team’s food was weaker overall, it ended so strong that eaters felt the whole experience was that much stronger.

The lesson: It’s obvious. I know if my practice, though, I have to always remind myself to finish strong, to put that extra effort in at the end.

  1. Peter, I was thinking along the same lines when I wrote Gordon Ramsay is a great consultant, but I don’t know if I produced quite as good a summary as you have here.
    Some may look down on it but I think it’s quite legitimate to extract useful learnings from shows such as Top Chef and the like, in the same way that films can be excellent for social commentary and examining sub-cultures. This kind of cross pollination of knowledge and methods between fields is something I’ve revisited a few times, actually.
    I knew I wasn’t lying when I used to say to my mum “I am learning stuff by watching TV!” 🙂
    (ps: I too am a BSG fan, I just wish it would be shown more frakkin consistently here in Australia!)

  2. I am so proud of you for learning to understand the word tactful.
    Good boy!

  3. Top Chef or Bottom Feeder, it’s a cute knock-off of The Apprentice with all of its critical elements except the big one, The Donald.

  4. Top Chef, I am watching it because the girl in the cube next to me has a friend on it, and geez is it me or is this the worse season yet… I mean i’m asleep and not hungry afterward.
    In past seasons I was always starving.
    Oh well.

  5. If the Donald got rid of that god forsaken animal on his head his viewer ship would go up, marginally, but up indeed.

  6. I understand that The Donald has put a bid in to buy the Governorship of Illinois. And if Cindy McCain wins on Dancing With the Stars he has promised her the Lieutenant Governorship vacated by Pat Quinn.

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