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!

Blog - mishapen pan

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 changing world?

Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Chicago area, predicting up to 18 inches of snow. The city of Evanston deemed it serious enough to declare a snow emergency, although Northwestern University remained open today (from where I sit here typing this J)

Snow or no snow, Rusty still needs to get out of the house three times a day to relieve himself. So, this morning we braved the weather to get out and also check the “damage” outside.

Rusty snow

The snow was thick, but not as scary as I thought. I think Chicago has experienced far worse blizzards. I think we survive this one quite well.

Rusty though was jumpy and anxious. It was not the cold, for he was the least interested in heading back to our warm apartment.

As I observed him further, it dawned on me that the world could look different for him. The usual smells are now blanketed under heaps of snow. As we walked along the footpath, where it was unshoveled he had to jump and hop a lot, and where it had been shoveled the shoveled snow formed huge piles on each side. I was curious how the world looked like for him, so I bent down to take some pictures from a dog’s eye view.

Snow terrain

Seeing these “dog’s eye view” photos, I began to empathize with his experience. I could imagine why he might have been so jittery walking along these same paths that we must have walked hundreds of times. For him now, it may feel like a different place, perhaps like walking around in trenches and not knowing whether friend or foe might pop out at every turn.

Snow terrain 2

I tried to assure Rusty that all was fine, and the world has not changed. But the poor boy could not be placated. If dogs could talk, his cries and whimpers might sound something like, “But Daddy, you don’t understand! The world has changed! Everything has changed! What I used to know, I don’t recognize it anymore! I can’t tell where the dangers are!”

To little Rusty, the world has changed drastically. In fact, it must have looked different to him each time we go out. He is stressed, anxious, and he is mounting a huge effort to make sense of it and find new bearings.

As human beings, we know the world has not changed overnight. At least not in the way Rusty thinks it has. We have a different vantage point to realize that despite the changes, nothing has really changed. We might even have a good laugh watching him running around like a headless chicken.

Could there be an interesting parallel here with what goes on in our organizations and workplaces? On one hand, increasingly we hear leaders and experts declare that the world is changing at a faster and faster rate. Complexity is growing and we must adapt even more quickly! On the other hand, employees are increasingly overwhelmed and fatigued, perhaps not so much by the changes in the external environment, but by the internal (organizational) responses to that.

What if amid all the complexity and change, some things have not really changed? Some of us may have laughed at Rusty just moments earlier, but what if in our own ways our behaviors are not too dissimilar to his?

As the world around us changes, do we focus only on what has changed? Or do we also look for what perhaps has not changed?

Dog, Cow, Monkey & Man – Part Two

This is not an original story – others have shared it before (for example, here). Someone shared it with me recently, and we have a Part Two to it :)

The story goes like this.

One day, God decided to create Dog, Cow, Monkey and Man.

God gave Cow a lifespan of sixty years. Cow was to work hard all day in the field under the sun. He would provide man with milk and calves, and he could only eat  grass. On hearing this, Cow requested to live twenty years and return the other forty years to God.

God gave Monkey a lifespan of twenty years. Monkey was to entertain man, perform tricks for man and make him laugh. And he would eat only bananas. On hearing this, Monkey requested to live ten years and return the other ten years to God.

God gave Dog a lifespan of twenty five years. Dog was to sit at the door of man’s house, and bark at those who came along. He would eat only what was left over from man’s meals. On hearing this, Dog requested to live fifteen years and return the other ten years to God.

Finally, God gave Man a lifespan of twenty years. Man was to sleep, eat and have fun all day. He would not have to work and would only need to enjoy life. Man really liked the deal, but felt it was too short. He had an idea – he asked God to give him the forty years that Cow had returned, and the ten years that both Monkey and Dog did not want. In all, Man would live eighty years. God thought about it, and agreed.

And this is why we spend the first twenty years of our lives eating, sleeping, playing and enjoying ourselves, the next forty years working hard like a cow, then the next ten years entertaining our grandkids like a monkey, and finally ten years nagging at others like a dog.


This is where the original story ends. Many people find it an interesting parody of life, and laugh it off. Some may even wish that man had kept his mouth shut and just enjoyed his twenty years.

Come to think, is it such a bad idea to take Cow’s forth years, Monkey’s ten years and Dog’s ten years?

I actually think it is a blessing to be able to work hard for forty years (Cow’s) to help make the world a better place, to spend ten years (Monkey’s) helping others find happiness in their lives, and ten years (Dog’s) taking care of others’ interests.

Often, we focus on the WHAT, but not the WHY. If the WHY is meaningful, then the WHAT doesn’t matter so much.

Cow, Monkey, or Dog, are all great lives if we know how to live them meaningfully :)

A different perspective on “inglorious” food

Saw the following video today and was very impressed. A supermarket chain in France is doing its part to reduce fruit and vegetable waste by buying those produce that do not meet the aesthetic standards for the market, creating a new marketing spin, and giving these “inglorious fruit and vegetables” a new lease of life. Sold at a 30% discount to their “normal looking” friends, they have proven to be a hit in France.

The UN estimates that one third of food produced in the world is lost or wasted, while on the other hand, more than 800 million people do not have enough to eat. Why is food that looks unusual but is otherwise just as tasty and nutritious, prejudiced and thrown away?

The main reason, I suspect, is that we are too affluent. If we were much poorer, we might be a lot more grateful for simply anything that Mother Earth offers.

A kinder and more sympathetic reason might be that we are ignorant and conditioned.

At the supermarket, often, all we see is nice looking produce. In the fruit section, all the apples in the same box are sold at the same price. Naturally, we pick the freshest and nicest looking ones. This is quite logical: for the same price why would anyone pick a bruised apple over a perfect-looking one? When we do not have any more information, appearance serves as a quick proxy for value, whether it is physical appearance or in price. (Actually, we apply this to human beings as well, which is sad…)

A friend asked whether I would actually buy the grotesque looking apple (below). My honest answer is, if I did not know anything more about the apple, probably no. However, if scientists and nutritionists verify that it is just as safe and nutritious, why not? And if it comes at a 30% discount, certainly! With better information, and a bit of price nudging, we can equip others to consider decisions they might otherwise not make.

inglorious apple

Another idea to consider is how we frame the issue. Psychological studies have shown that framing can influence the way we think and decide.

  • Because we are so used to good-looking produce, the current frame is that anything that looks strange (and scary) should be sold at a discount since they appear to be “deficient” in some way (in this case, looks). And so, the discount makes up for the deficiency.
  • But what if we consider a different frame? If the oddly shaped produce is just as nutritious and tasty as a good-looking one, aren’t we simply paying a 30% premium for beauty?

In both frames, different social norms seem to be implied. In the former frame, the social norm is on appearance and the discount is for the oddity (or deficiency). In the latter frame, the social norm is on the nutrition, and the premium is for beauty.

Would you choose different in both frames? :)

[Just to round out the “inglorious” gang, here are the other gang members.]

inglorious carrot inglorious eggplant inglorious potato inglorious lemon

Photo credits

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