What Cooking Teaches Me about Management

Over the past five years or so, I’ve really devoted much of my free time to teaching myself to cook. I’m no chef by any stretch of the imagination and I live in the shadow of my mother, who’s like a gourmet in her own right, but I do all right and I’m committed to getting better at it.

Tonight I’m cooking flank stank marinated in red wine vinegar, soy sauce, shallots, garlic, and thyme, for example.

But I realized, having just come from a board meeting at work, that cooking has done a lot to inform the way I look at running a business.

1. You have to have a plan before you start, especially when trying something you’ve never done before.
Amateur cooks really have to use recipes religiously when learning to cook because they provide structure to the endeavor, but they also train cooks how to think about a dish as a whole. Recipes encourage sequencing, which is akin to strategy—understanding how step a leads to step b and so forth. I’ve said about 80 times this month that it’s easier to chart a course than it is to turn the Titanic.

2. You have to know what you need before you start.
A mistake I sometimes make is not reading the ingredient list thoroughly enough, or not preparing something to be chopped or whathaveyou before it gets into the pot. It’s a good reminder to myself to understand what resources will be required to accomplish a task in my organization, to think critically about what we have on hand, what we’ll need to go out and get, and what needs to be transformed before it can be used.

3. The ability to improvise is an art in and of itself.
Although having a plan is critical to starting, things don’t always go as planned. Anyone who’s ever managed an event can assure you of that. And true for cooking, too. If your eggs are expired or your greens wilt unexpectedly, knowing what you can substitute without a loss of flavor, quality, or color is important. A friend of mine who also loves to cook was telling me about a show he watches where the host teaches you the science of cooking, explaining, for example, how mayonnaise exists in an emulsion without separating. It’s through lessons like that, by understanding how ingredients work together, that cooks can make smart choices.

4. Patience is more than a virtue, it’s required.
Once you’ve put all your effort into the dish, sometimes you just have to let it simmer before you can dive in. Baking works this way and it’s often just a leap of faith from raw dough to finished pastry. To paraphrase an adage, watching the pot won’t make it boil. It’ll probably just get nervous or uncomfortable.

5. Multiple levels of evaluation are essential to revising formulas.
When tasting a new dish, you think about its color, its aroma, its flavor, its texture, even how well the dish goes with different side dishes or beverages. Thinking critically about each factor discretely and collectively provides the cook with essential insight into what works in the recipe and what needs to be addressed. A program or organization is no different.

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