Learning to Appreciate Cutthroat Kitchen

Blog - Giant whisk

I’m not a huge TV fan, but I first came to know about Cutthroat Kitchen because my wife liked to watch it.

The format of Cutthroat Kitchen is simple. It is a cooking competition where four chefs eliminate one another over three rounds of cooking. At the start of each show, the chefs are given an upfront prize money of $25,000, which they can use to bid for sabotages to inflict on one another. The more money they bid with, the less they have for themselves if they end up as the final winner.

The sabotages differ each week. In one episode, one chef had to do his food prep in a ball pit! (Talk about being in the pits…)

Blog - Cook in ballpit

In another episode, one chef had to make crepes “in” a terribly misshapen pan!

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After each round of cooking, a judge tastes the dishes and eliminates one of the chefs. The judge has no clue what the sabotages were, or who was sabotaged.

When I first watched the show, I thought it was silly, even sadistic. Why do we delight in seeing people pranked and sabotaged? If the point is to pick out the best chef, why place so many obstacles in the way of their culinary skills?

But after a while (and perhaps one gets desensitized over time), I began to appreciate the show. I think Cutthroat Kitchen reflects some realities about life.

How often we go into a situation with a great plan only to be disappointed to find out that critical parts of the plan are missing. Perhaps we don’t have certain resources. Maybe the cost of materials has gone up. Perhaps some other department is not cooperating. When that happens, we get anxious and upset. We think, no way we can do it like this!! So we do everything to raise the stakes, not too different from how the chefs in Cutthroat Kitchen raise their bets.

But as we’ve seen too many times on Cutthroat Kitchen, it is possible to take a sabotage (or more), and still finish the task. It may require a different process, it may require the dish to be refashioned or even reinterpreted, but it can be done. Often, the dish turns out quite well too. In fact, chefs who’ve had to work through sabotages at times outperformed those that had no sabotages!

Life likes to throw us curveballs, sometimes nasty ones. It is important to be able to adapt and change one’s strategy and plan in the midst of adversity. More impressive perhaps, are those who can change their mindset as well. The most impressive chefs I’ve seen are those who have looked at a sabotage and said, yes it’s dreadful but I’m not going to raise the stakes on this one because I think I can deal with it. There is something inspiring about people who are keenly aware of their skills and gain quiet confidence; people who focus on what is possible rather than what is impossible. These are often the game-changers.

As they say, things often seem impossible until they are done. I used to find Cutthroat Kitchen frivolous, even irritating. I’ve learnt to appreciate it better. I think there’s a lot we can learn from the show. I now watch it with a curiosity as to the breathtaking possibilities when we learn to adapt and change our plans and strategy, and perhaps more importantly, also our minds.

Blog - High stakes

Image credits: Food Network

A promising summer journey in education

Ed Pioneers 2

This week, I had the privilege to meet many people who were deeply passionate about education reform in the US. I’m on a fellowship with Education Pioneers, an educational nonprofit that seeks to grow a pipeline of leaders in the education sector. For my summer project, I’ve been matched with Teach For America, an educational nonprofit that seeks to eliminate educational inequity.

It’s always inspiring to meet people who are passionate about social causes. (And I had the great fortune to work with many of them in my last job.) You know it when you meet such people and talk to them. You can tell it from their words and deeds, and stories.

Some of them are lively and talkative. Some of them are quiet and reserved. Regardless of their external orientation, they all have a deep and personal conviction of why they want to work in education. For example,

  • One of them, M, grew up in a humble background. The odds were heavily against him and others like him. Fortunately for M, he had a lucky break and went on to do well. Despite his success, he knew that many others were not as lucky as he was, and it became his personal mission to eliminate the education inequity. He enjoys serving the underprivileged, and he considers himself so lucky!!” to be able to do so. Wow!
  • Another one of them, H, came to the US when he was a young boy and spoke no word of English. He overcame his initial handicap, and feeling a sense of gratitude to the country, he joined the army. His tour of duty took him to war-torn places around the world, where despite the destruction and abject poverty people took education seriously. He saw village kids go to “school” made up of makeshift tents in the mountains. It made him wonder how for all its wealth and spending on education, there was still so much inequity in the US. He wanted to join the education sector to do something about it.

And there are many other folks. Talking to these people, I found them to be extremely bright and talented. Quite a number were from business school. They could walk into any Fortune 500 or consulting company and earn a salary many times what they would get in the education sector. Yet many of them chose this path instead.

It’s interesting that whenever I talk to people in the US about the education system, they would have strong opinions that were generally not very positive. Most people think there are too many vested interests and the problems are too deep. When asked for their one-word description of the education landscape, some of the replies were: “intimidating”, “complicated”, “divisive”, “layered”, “complex”, “entrenched”, “incongruent”, “opaque” and “intricate”.

Yet, there was also one other word that stood out to me: “promising”. Promising, not in terms of the current state of affairs, but in terms of the people who are passionate and want to make a difference. As an optimist, I like to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Perhaps adversity and passion are two sides of the same coin? Perhaps like a spring, the harder you depress it the stronger it pushes back at you? Perhaps in the very depths of the complex problems lie the source of strength for the solutions?

Ray of light

A lot of discussion and criticism on education centers around money and resources. Perhaps this is not surprising, since these are tangibles that are easier to count and compare. And I do not disagree that money and infrastructure are important. At the same time, I think the greatest resource lies not in these, but in the people who strive to make a difference. These are more intangible, because its not just about the number of such people but also the depth and substance of their passion and conviction.

As I embark on my summer journey to learn more about the US education system, I will likely come across many complex challenges, perhaps far more than there are solutions. At the same time, I have faith that in the adversity also lies hope. I look forward to knowing many awesome people and their inspiring work. In that regard, I feel optimistic, and at the same time, I can’t help but feel so lucky!! :)



Photo Credits:

Education Pioneers 2014 GSF Chicago/Midwest Cohort

Brian Talbot via photopin cc

Dorena-wm via photopin cc