When I was 17 and got a job cooking in a great restaurant I thought a lot about what my life would be like. My fantasies were aided by alluring images from the increasingly popular cooking shows that were springing up in the 1990s American television landscape. I knew from watching TV, for example, that it was incredibly important to correctly tie a boneless lamb loin before roasting (especially when stuffed with sautéed spinach and chanterelles). I also knew–even if unsure of the proper technique–that egg yolks must never be left to overheat when making a Sauce Hollandaise. When I started working with real chefs, I’d master all of these techniques and more. No dish would be too complicated. And it was only a matter a time before I was teaching others these elaborate dishes. And then the 25-kilo bags of carrots arrived.
Orange hands for weeks
My first 2 weeks in the kitchen, I did almost nothing except peel carrots. I’d finish one bag and another would arrive. For weeks, my apron and hands orange with carrot juice, I’d leave for the night disappointed that I’d wasted the entire evening peeling while the other chefs roasted monkfish, sautéed fresh morels and pulled fondants au chocolat out of the oven at the exact right time. I didn’t appreciate the grunt work I was given, but I persisted and eventually graduated to potatoes and shallots.
After a couple of years working my way up in the kitchen, ingredient by ingredient, I learned that we had never intended to use all the carrots and potatoes and shallots that I peeled. They had been ordered primarily with the purpose of giving me something to do that I couldn’t mess up. But beyond simple restaurant self-preservation, my chef mentors understood that these humble ingredients are the foundation of all great food, whether it is a grandmother’s roast pork or the house delicacy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Without respect for these ingredients and a proper understanding of how to process them, it is impossible to create great food.
Take the shallot as an example. You can learn to properly dice a shallot in a 30-second Youtube video. Anyone can do it, and it doesn’t take that much practice to do it reasonably well. But what about dicing 100 shallots in an hour while simultaneously simmering three different sauces, and keeping an eye on delicate pastry cooking in the oven ? For a chef, this isn’t a theoretical problem. A busy weekend night in a popular restaurant can easily go through 100 shallots, even more if they are being incorporated into a cooked sauce that reduces their volume significantly. The art of producing perfectly square diced shallots at scale is something completely different from the technique of dicing a single shallot in the abstract. When doing something at scale, you have to think differently. Small details like on which side of the cutting board to put the finished product matter, since any wasted motion pushing shallots around the board make you slower and less precise.
Just as importantly as mastering pure technique, executing mundane tasks–perfectly–over and over keeps you in touch with the basis on which everything else in the kitchen is built. And as you learn to appreciate the fundamentals, you stay humble making it much easier to jump in and help wherever needed. Being humble also does wonders for the culture of a kitchen, which is notoriously ego-driven. Seeing a grand chef dicing shallots with the same care as he would take slicing truffles reminds everyone else that every task is important to the final experience created in the dining room.
From kitchens to startups
What does all this mean for your startup? In my view, it means that succeeding building your business requires you to really understand the foundations–whether that is technology, customer service, sales, or marketing (and most likely all four!). It requires you to stay sharp. When your company’s grown to 500 employees, you can stop worrying about (some) of the day-to-day activities without which business would grind to a halt. But when you’re 10 employees, loosing touch with how the business is being run can mean the business runs away from you. And lastly, it means staying humble. When you understand the foundations and keep your skills sharp, you can command armies by being humble. In business, the best idea doesn’t always win. Neither does the best funded. But teams that refuse to give up often do. So stay humble and lead. And never be afraid to go home with orange hands.
This blog was originally published on The Rude Baguette, France’s startup blog.