Four Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen

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Four Leadership Lessons from the Kitchen

I dropped out of the Ivy League to go to culinary school.

This might not be so bad, except for the fact that my family is steeped in academia, with various relatives teaching at both Cornell University and Georgetown University. So you can imagine my parents’ reaction when I said I wanted to drop out of Cornell in the middle of my third liberal arts semester…to become a chef.

Back then, chefs were not the celebrity stars of today. So to state that I wanted to trade Ivy League’s hallowed halls for hot kitchens….turn in my white-collar for a blue one…and ditch my prestigious degree for the chance to do manual labor…let’s just say the conversation was tense.

However, my parents supported my decision (thanks mom and dad!) and I studied at New England Culinary Institute (NECI) before becoming a pastry chef. Eventually, I did return to Cornell, this time to the Hotel School to study restaurant and hotel management.

Those hot kitchen lessons will forever be forged in my mind. While the lessons I learned from both schools were invaluable, it was the kitchen that taught me my early leadership and management lessons. Here are four of my favorites:

Lesson One: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.


This sounds harsh, but it’s true. Kitchens are incredibly hot; you are doing physical work all day long, lifting heavy boxes and cans while navigating fire and other dangerous objects.

And that’s just talking about the actual temperature. Now add 100 patrons who all want to eat in the same 30-minute window and the temperature rises another 10 degrees.

To survive this harsh environment, you need to think fast, be nimble, and literally fire on all cylinders. If you can’t, it isn’t the right job for you.

The same can be said for leadership. Leadership puts you in the hot seat. You make tough, painful decisions at times. You have to be the one who says ‘No” when everyone is saying yes, or “Yes” when everyone is saying no, all while aligning your organizational culture with your team.

So the same skills apply for business leaders—you have to think fast, be nimble, and fire on all cylinders.

Leadership is not for everyone for a variety of reasons and that is completely okay. Just be sure you know that about yourself before you take a leadership position, because if you can’t stand the heat, why not stay out of the kitchen?

Lesson Two: Communicate clearly.

Swedish Chef

When a kitchen runs out of an item, it’s ‘eighty-sixed.’ So if you prepped for 30 salmons and you receive orders for 30 salmons during the night, you shout, “86 salmon!” so everyone knows that the salmon is no longer available.

Notice I said the word shout…. not mention, imply, suggest or any other verb. You need to communicate clearly, directly and with concise language in a kitchen, or else you’ll disappoint a customer who ordered the salmon and upset a server who now has to go back to the customer and apologize for the lack of salmon. If your server didn’t hear 86, or you didn’t bother communicating it, then you’ve set them up for failure, which reflects poorly for the entire restaurant.

Now let’s be clear. You never want to shout at your team.

Yet clear, direct and concise communication is vital to leadership. By being clear about goals, roles, processes and decision-making systems, you set your team up for success. And remember, your team’s success determines the success of your entire organization.

Lesson Three: Mise en place.


Chefs spend most of their time prepping their ‘mise en place,’ which is French for everything in its place. In this regard, “everything” means the necessary ingredients for a particular meal.

In other words, you spend hours cutting vegetables, making sauces, creating garnishes, deboning fish and more, just so that you can serve up a dish in record time. If you slack on your mise en place, your food will be delivered too slowly and you’ll garner customer complaints.

The lesson here is to spend time on preparation to be ready for delivery. As an executive coach, I spend hours strategizing and planning ahead for all situations with my clients. The lesson is to prep yourself, your team, and your tools now, to save hours and complaints later.

Lesson Four: If you have time to lean, then you have time to clean. 

Sleeping chef

I can still hear Chef Michel exclaiming in his French accent, “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.” What he meant was, if you have time to lean around, waiting for the next dinner order, then you have time to clean your station and prepare for the next rush. And a rush in the kitchen is definitely a rush.

This lull provides valuable time to move forward in a calm and thoughtful manner. In the kitchen, I learned that the lull is a valuable tool to set myself up for success with careful assessment and potentially more mise en place.

Unfortunately, most leaders don’t take time to clean or lean.

Instead, when any free moment opens up, leaders keep forging ahead, ignoring the necessary time needed to evaluate, measure and test results.

How can you know if your plans and initiatives are effective if you don’t lean back and analyze the impact? The answer: you can’t.

With retrospection, it’s possible to see many instances where leadership lessons were inadvertently learned. From the playground to our first jobs, the opportunity for growth and navigating roles with other people exists on a daily basis.

Being a chef was one of the most invigorating times in my life. Not only was I part of a fast-paced and exciting team, I did something that I decided to do, even if it wasn’t what was expected of me. For that reason, the experience had a huge impact on me. I learned valuable leadership skills that I can now pass on to my clients. And I also learned that it’s okay to take risks in order to follow my passions.

Can you identify unlikely times in your life where you learned valuable leadership lessons? Please share. I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter, or send me an email.

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  1. Casey
    August 18, 2014

    Now this is a part of you I never knew about. You’ll definitely have to come out to Broomgrass; it’s a community of foodies and “iron chef” challenge evenings!


    • Loehr
      August 18, 2014

      I’d love to see your new home when it’s ready. Not sure about Iron Chef evenings; it’s been awhile since I sharpened my knives!


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