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.

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Image credits: Food Network


Remembering Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

flag at half mast

Our nation grieves. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, has passed on.

Amid the deep sadness, I also fondly recall the work I did as a young civil servant. Even though I never met Mr. Lee in person or reported to him directly, I feel privileged to have played tiny parts towards building the Singapore he envisioned.

My first job was in MND, where I spent some time working on greenery policies such as streetscape greenery and sky-rise greenery. Word has it that those policies were part of the vision that Mr. Lee had laid out back in the ‘70s. That we were still implementing pieces of his vision more than 30 years on is not a reflection of slow implementation but of his far-sighted vision.

Mr. Lee took Singapore on the green path long before sustainability became important. Based on the conventional wisdom then, the cost-benefit analysis would not have made sense. Perhaps that’s why few cities pursued it seriously. Furthermore, we were a young nation then and there were many other pressing issues to invest our few resources on. But Mr. Lee had the foresight and courage to go against the conventional wisdom, and in doing so, create a new wisdom. It says a lot about his brand of leadership that was ready to make bold decisions when very little was clear or obvious.

My second job was in MEWR, where I worked on water issues. A key project at the time was the construction of the barrage and Marina Reservoir. The work was tough and we were kept very busy. But the reality was that much of the work had been done decades earlier. The barrage and reservoir would not have been possible if not for earlier efforts such as the cleaning of the Singapore River in the 70’s, and the harnessing of membrane technology for NEWater in the 80’s and 90’s – all of which were pieces of Mr. Lee’s vision.

Singapore’s achievements in water sufficiency and greenery highlight the power when a clear vision is sustained over time. Just like money that compounds at a steady interest over many years. Today, we seem to favor more frequent changes. We justify it by claiming to live in a highly complex and uncertain world. Was the world less complex and uncertain during Mr. Lee’s time? I don’t think so. Perhaps it takes a certain talent to be able to find the constancy in uncertainty, and to see order in chaos. It’s a rare talent, and we are blessed to have a leader in Mr. Lee who possessed so much of it.

As I reflect on Mr. Lee’s legacy, two sayings related to my (past) work in water and greenery strike me.

One is the Chinese saying, 饮水思源, which translates to, “when you drink water, think about where it comes from”. We owe many thanks to the pioneer generation and to visionary leaders like Mr. Lee. It is a gratitude we can never hope to repay, but can only hope to pay forward.

The other is a Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”. Even when old age and illness took its toll on Mr. Lee’s health, he continued to plant more trees for future generations. It is such selfless contribution to the larger good that makes our world a better place.

Thank you Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. We will always remember you.

Photo credit:

Ministry of Communications and Information

Fascinating Mind

British artist Stephen Wiltshire was in Singapore for the past two weeks to draw the Singapore skyline.

According to Wikipedia, Stephen was mute when he was young, and at the age of three, he was diagnosed as autistic.

Stephen has a talent for art. From a tender age, he would draw buildings and cityscapes. He has the ability to look at something and draw it entirely from memory. For his Singapore project, Stephen was taken on an hour-long ride on a helicopter to take a look at the skyline of Singapore (for the first time in his life). The following week, he drew the entire skyline from memory.

This is his finished product.

Skyline Sketch

Like many others, I was bowled over by this! It is an amazing human feat and work of art!!

Given his verbal impairment and autism, by most measures Stephen would be considered someone with “special needs”. Some might even see them as “disabilities”.

Yet, as Stephen’s story shows, despite all our scientific advances there is a lot more about the human brain and body that we do not know about yet. Despite what some may see as a “disadvantage”, the human body seems to have a remarkable ability to make up for that with talents in other areas.

I would like to believe that among the many who may be perceived as “disabled” or “deficient”, there lies many other hidden talents that we simply have not discovered. It gives me hope that we will one day discover them :)


Photo credits:

The Straits Times