MasterChef: lessons about comfort zones & marginal gains

It’s the final week of MasterChef 2015. Over the past six weeks, from the 40 hopefuls taking part in the heats, just five talented amateur cooks have fought their way through to the last week of competition in a bid to win the trophy and become the champion.

The five travel to Cambridge University’s Churchill College, where they have the task of cooking a five-course dinner in honour of Sir Winston Churchill. The dinner will be overseen by legendary chef Michael Caines, who has held two Michelin stars for over 15 years. Caines has devised a five-course menu for the dinner and the amateurs will be challenged to replicate his exquisite food for the occasion.

Can the MasterChef final five blow the guests away with some amazing food? It’s high drama as they push themselves to the limit to impress judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace to keep alive their dream of winning MasterChef 2015.

We’ve seen numbers dwindle as the strongest cooks conquered fierce challenges. The chefs-in-training have experienced exciting highs and devastating lows as their show-stopping dishes and original creations met praise and scrutiny from celebrities, food critics and winners from the past.

From ‘choice’ and ‘palate’ tests to a ‘calling card dish’ and the ‘reinvention test’, the strictly timed challenges have pushed the cooks to the limits of their abilities. All of these heats have been building up to the big final, where just one chef will overcome the competition to be crowned champion.

There’s no telling who can cook themselves to victory. For me, to win the competition you have to be resilient and brave, I don’t think the cooks who are best at the start win, it’s the ones who learn the quickest and improve. It’s all about learning from and absorbing the experience.

I’ve watched Masterchef right through this series, there’s something inspirational about seeing the level of contestants’ effort and passion laid bare and vulnerable.  Each contestant struggles with the constant presence of the challenge to their ability and their confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of gravy on the plate.

Last week’s highlights included Gregg saying Two tarts and an ice-cream as if it were the title of a new release by One Direction. An overriding memory came from the celebrity series a few years back with Janet Street Porter banging on about her love of cooking roadkill. That and India Fisher’s hushed narrative and voice over giving me goose pimples…for the soft ‘g’ in the pronunciation of tagliatelle.

From 8am till midnight, day in and day out, they’re ordered about by egotistical chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens while cooking complicated dishes against the clock and all this while being constantly nagged by the judges bellowing YOU ONLY HAVE FIVE MINUTES LEFT.

I’ve long been a passionate cook and constantly developing my culinary craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, food is about taste, texture and simplicity, cooking is not an opportunity to make a climbing frame out of vegetables or building blocks out of meat. My food is chunky and unpretentious, a bit like me!

I’m an avid reader of cookbooks for inspiration. Giorgio Locatelli’s big Italian book is a great read, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s veg book has a load of good ideas and Rosemary Shrager’s recipes are simple and fool proof, so ideal for me. Heston Blumenthal is just too posh and too fussy for me. I spend more time trying to use the letters of his name as an anagram and spell something rude. That lush nobleman is my best effort.

I love basic and traditional English food. My ‘signature dish’ is a Desperate Dan pie – braised steak with morel mushrooms and pink shallots, in rich chestnut-flavoured gravy, with a puff pastry topping, served with sprouts pan-fried with chestnuts and garlic, and carrots braised in Manuka honey. Gregg and John would love my dish, although I suspect there would be some whingeing about my presentation as I’m all about substance over style.

But back to Masterchef. Under pressure, the dignity of someone utterly wholeheartedly committed to his or her craft is incredible to watch. This is competitive cooking that is hard to imagine, and they produce unbelievable dishes. The effort really gets to me, by committing to their goal, they truly expose themselves.  By trying so hard, they leave no room for comfort should they fail.

How many of us commit ourselves to our business like this?  Very few I suspect. Most of us settle for a bit of effort but we seek to avoid at all costs any loss of dignity, the risk of appearing foolish, or being criticised.  We don’t put ourselves out there, exposed, vulnerable for all to see. They step out of their comfort zones in the glare of national television and bare their soul. And sometimes their sole.

As always when looking at something like this, I always try to find lessons we can take into our business:

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and have different personalities Greg Wallace is kind, wants them to succeed but is firm and professional. John Torode is sarcastic and likes to watch people sweat, quick to anger, but has plenty of heart too. Occasionally, lessons come at you in a loud, angry voice, others supportive but still critical. You can focus on the anger or you can hear the lesson.

Keeping it simple can be the best option Sometimes the contestants try to take it too far, using a particular ingredient just to be different. Occasionally, it works, but it’s a risk and the competitor with the simple, well-prepared dish rarely goes home. Attention to detail and back to basics are good business principles.

Strategise before filling the pans The contestants are told the goal of the day and then have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and how would they present. Little time is given but it has to be quick, effective decision making, goal driven. Having a clear strategy is key.

Have a Plan A and Plan B After strategy, to obtain the desired culinary result a good plan is needed. Kitchen malfunctions highlight the need for agility, to be able to respond quickly and have a contingency. Businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events of significant adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and be able to respond with a back-up plan is vital.

Stay cool when the heat is on What happens when the dish doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? Yes, you have a Plan B, but often Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay clam and present what is completed with conviction even if failure is on the back of your mind, go with what you have.

Be goal-oriented and time-aware As the saying goes, If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. In each episode there is a challenge, with a clear goal, but a ridiculously short amount of time to complete it. The contestants are motivated to win, but it’s remarkable how much pressure the contestants put themselves under to achieve success.

Processes deliver productivity Cooking to a recipe is very much following a process with clear instructions. In business, ambiguity or inaccuracy in a process can lead to wildly varied quality and results. The importance of including detail and clarity in a process so that the same results can be delivered every single time is a key element to successful outcomes in business. The pressure of Masterchef is a perfect example of how to get things done when the heat is on.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants are shown the dish they are required to prepare, and they visualise the process and the end product.  The same applies to business outcomes we want to achieve.  We need to use our imagination, to visualise our goal, to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it and keep it in our heads at all times through the ‘cooking’ process.

Leave yourself enough time to test the final product During the presentation of each dish the contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a big risk to take in business.  Leave yourself enough time to not only put the final product together (plate it up) and make sure it works, but to also test it with some of your colleagues and selected clients to see if it can be improved.

Masterchef is a good example of getting out of your comfort zone. It’s important to push the boundaries, and when you do, it often feels like a big deal. But what is the ‘comfort zone’ exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar routines? Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimise stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to an experiment in psychology in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called Optimal Anxiety, and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.

The idea of Optimal Anxiety is familiar to the Masterchef competitors and anyone who’s pushed themselves to get to the next level to accomplish something. We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It’s a natural state that most people trend towards. But don’t demonise your comfort zone as something holding you back, we all need that headspace, but Optimal Anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak.

Whether you love or loathe the programme, the tension and the occasional temperamental chaffing of the competitors, there are great personal and business lessons to be gleaned from cooking under pressure in terms of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, as shown by the amateur chefs. For example:

  • Be open to learning
  • Remove the boundaries and barriers
  • Curiosity
  • Do it in small steps
  • Focus on the positive past to envision a positive future
  • Accept that it will be uncomfortable

Breakout and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown, push and stretch yourself and you’ll configure new perspectives by taking risks and making yourself a little scared. I don’t want to be a ballroom dancer, but I’ll push myself time and again to learn and experience new things. Optimal Anxiety is the only place to be.

A second thought for me from the kitchen recalls the thinking of Dave Brailsford, once Performance Director of British Cycling and latterly head of Team Sky, who was instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for competitive team and individual cycling in Great Britain. His performance philosophy was based upon ‘marginal gains’ – the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics and developing training interventions, which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

Brailsford is a keen student of management technique and attributed some of success to Moneyball, a book written by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in US Major League Baseball. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed was flawed, based on traditional, outdated indicators.

Beane’s focus was analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, which informed Brailsford’s own analytical approach to individual performance. What we do at the Velodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford took Beane’s viewpoint and revolutionised an analytical performance system based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s potential and ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in both track and road cycling. The philosophy of marginal gains is simple: To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

So, what can you distil from competitive cooking, the concept of the comfort zone and the philosophy of marginal gains into application for a business context to take your performance to the next level?

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for yourself?
  • How often do you review how you’re performing, examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • When is the next opportunity to learn some new skills?
  • When do you envisage you’ll next get out of your comfort zone to embrace a challenge?
  • Have you identified what the marginal gains are for the way you perform?

As Greg says: Cooking doesn’t get any harder than this. Business life does occasionally throw eggs at us. We have to be ready with our oil, salt and pepper, and the world is your omelette. Mary Anne Radmacher’s words sum up this attitude: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.