Masterchef: step out from your comfort zone into your learning zone

It’s been a tense few weeks, but after a neck-and-neck final, singer Kimberly Wyatt was crowned winner of Celebrity Masterchef 2015 on Friday evening. Following a gruelling three-way cook-off against X Factor and Big Brother celebrity Rylan Clark, and television presenter Sam Nixon, the American was good value for her triumph.

We know who you are, the people at home know who you are; what we’re about to find out is: can you cook or not? That’s how judge Gregg Wallace welcomed the first round of contestants, and it was a fair summary.

On Celebrity MasterChef, the only necessary qualification is absolutely no cooking skills and a willingness to expose your inadequacy in a series of daunting challenges. I haven’t a clue who these celebrities are. They’re clueless in the kitchen at the start but by the end of the series you have to admire the dishes they produce.

First up was the invention test, which required creating a dish from pork fillet, chicken wings, butternut squash, wild mushrooms, chilli, prunes and pears. Hopefully not all at once. Unable to correctly identify the slab of pork in front of her, one contestant opted to cook the chicken instead, with a sauce of her own invention, consisting of mustard, red wine, water and flour.

Aussie judge John Torode raised an eyebrow at that: It might be good for hanging up the wallpaper, but I don’t know how good it will be for dipping chicken in. Another contestant had the nerve-racking job of handling the stunningly expensive £200/kg Japanese wagyu beef at top restaurant Novikov in London.

The previous episodes saw contestants cook Michelin-star dishes for some of the country’s best chefs, and then came the real challenge. With much fanfare, the arrival of critics William Sitwell, Tracey MacLeod, Jay Rayner and Charles Campion sent chills through the kitchen.

This brought various harsh comments. Never one to mince his words, or his food, Jay moaned constantly. The ever stoic Charles said: It’s vague, it doesn’t reach out and say ‘I’m a pie’, and after seeing burned pastry crisps, Charles growled: The whole plate looks like it should go straight into the dishwasher.

In the episode prior to the final, Rylan went for a trio of purple lavender mayhem – a violet crème brûlée, some flat purple lemonade and frozen lavender bits – using liquid nitrogen to make up part of his wacky dessert. Tracey praised the purple trio, saying it shows promise and individuality, before Will summed up his thoughts: It’s a whole new level of ostentatious lunacy, the amazing thing about this that nothing tastes like lavender.

In the final episode, Rylan, Kimberley and Sam all displayed brilliant culinary skills, having learned from Michelin-star chef Angela Hartnett. In the closing task, Rylan attempted to make a chocolate and ice cream pudding inspired by The Shard. While he didn’t quite plate up in time, the judges allowed him to finish his construction, applauding his ambition and inventiveness. The judges named him the most improved contestant ever to take part in the show.

Sam created the notoriously tricky beef wellington, managing to sidestep any issues and impress both Gregg Wallace and John Torode. He also delivered an ‘absolutely perfect’ sticky toffee pudding, according to Wallace.

Kimberly dished up loin of lamb with celeriac puree, which the judges declared ‘an absolute triumph’. Her ‘Sinatra cheesecake’ – ‘served my way’, she joked – was also a hit, leaving it down to the wire as to which contestant would take the top spot. Kimberley tackled every task as if it were an attempt on Everest, and deserved to win.

A celebrity MasterChef final is a departure from reality television convention. No big fat record deal or celebratory fist-bumps from Ant ‘n Dec await the victor. Instead, the kitchen epic is all about the journey and the insights it offers into the human condition. It’s about ambition, learning and determination..

As ever though, the charm lay in the suspicion that the contestants, for all their alleged celebrity, really were rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in, each with obsessive concentration throughout, because the challenge to themselves was more important than winning overall.

Forget being in a rock band, my inner-teen self has been unleashed again, now I want to be in a top restaurant kitchen! That feels like a rock star adrenalin rush. I want to hang out with the dudes in the kitchen and cook like that. I’ll even wash the pots just to be there. I’m reliving memories of all the TV cooking shows I watched, from Fanny Craddock and Johnny, to the Galloping Gourmet to Delia, Rick Stein and James Martin.

I’m pretty awesome in the kitchen.. My speciality? Big portions of fantastic tasting food. No fancy presentation. Lots of nice flavours. Anything Mediterranean, no boring baby vegetables on the side nonsense, or big white white plates with empty space, oh no, fill it up. I don’t do fancy and I don’t do show off, get it covered with piping hot rich, home made sauces.

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! If you came round to my kitchen you’d have an amazing time, there’s nothing that my old battered tins of herbs and spices can’t improve.

Take artisan sausages, homemade speciality ones from your local butcher. Seasoned with Italian spices, seared in hot avocado cooking oil. Oh and rhubarb. I love rhubarb. I can’t get enough of rhubarb. Rhubarb and okra sweet and sour soup, a classic Vietnamese dish, or Danish rhubarb cake with cardamom and custard, and my signature dish, pan-fried mackerel with rhubarb coleslaw.

But back to Masterchef. 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 and absorbing the experience.

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 confidence, triggering anxiety. Hands shake uncontrollably as they struggle to place the final drizzle of gravy on the plate.

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 look for 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 have to think through each and every small activity from the ingredients they require, to the time allocated and presentation. 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. All businesses operate in a dynamic environment and unplanned events having adverse impact occur. The ability to recognise these risks and 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 as expected? Yes, you have a Plan B, but Plan B is now under extreme pressures and there isn’t time to deliver fully. You have to stay calm 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.

Be clear about the big picture – the end product Contestants visualise the process and the end product.  The same applies to business outcomes.  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 Contestants are often asked Have you tasted it? and often their response is No. Sometimes such trust in their own ability pays off, 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.

Masterchef is a good example of getting out of your comfort zone. It’s important to push the boundaries. 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 goes back to an experiment in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximise 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. I call this the learning zone.

We all know that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. However, pushing too hard can cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. I call this the panic zone, and the next is blind panic zone, where you really are uncomfortable.

You should operate with optimal anxiety in the learning zone. Staying in 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.

So ask yourself:

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like?
  • 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?
  • Are you curious, focused on the art of possible and the future?

As Gregg 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 and seasoning, 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’.