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Leadership Lessons from Renowned Chef Daniel Boulud

A few weeks ago, I stepped into a historic building-turned-playhouse in Charleston, South Carolina to attend a Food & Wine Festival fireside chat with one of America’s leading culinary authorities: legendary chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud.

Boulud is revered in the food world. His culinary empire spans the globe, and his remarkable leadership is iconic. Within minutes of meeting him, I fully understood why Boulud is such a rare breed.

The panel included other culinary luminaries like Top Chef judge Gail Simmons–not to mention chefs Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable, Jean-Francois Bruel, executive chef of Daniel, and Andrew Carmellini of The Dutch, all of whom have worked under Boulud in his kitchens or in his business.

Once on stage, Boulud’s descendants waxed lyrical over his immeasurable teachings. They each offered up a beloved “Daniel-ism” like an amuse-bouche, so we could all taste these lessons for ourselves.

The similarities between chefs-as-leaders and business leaders is something I find fascinating. The dysfunctions found in restaurants are the same in every type of business, and the leadership skills required to run a kitchen like Boulud’s are the same required to make any team successful.

Here are three tenets leaders can learn from Chef Boulud:

1. Don’t Work Like a Caveman

A great chef will tell you there’s one secret ingredient to running a successful kitchen–working clean. When I conduct leadership workshops where the company is having serious culture problems, I always start by looking at how well-kept the office is.

If it looks like a pigsty–uninspired and unloved–it’s my first indicator as to why the culture might be sloppy. There’s a difference between looking like a bright think-tank and looking like a junk yard.

Boulud is notorious for demanding the kitchen be clean, even while cooking. The greatest leaders and organizations understand what you work in affects how you feel.

If you work like a caveman, stop now. If your shop gets messy, take a minute to tidy up: Wipe down your station, put your tools in their places, and get orderly.

The act of cleaning and organizing your space helps to clear your mind and regain control. It also makes for happier employees.

That messy, chaotic, disorganized circus show you’ve got running in your business? Clean up your act and help your tribe do the same.

2. Defy Mediocrity

Many people would argue that perfection kills productivity, but I argue that accepting mediocrity is far worse.

The word mediocre comes from the French term mediocris ‘of middle height or degree,’ from medius ‘middle’ + ocris ‘rugged mountain.’ It literally means “halfway up the mountain.”

Extraordinary leadership is rooted in defying mediocrity, pursuing excellence, and climbing to the top. Chef Kaysen noted, “I had to remake Daniel’s signature dish–Crisp Paupiettes of Sea Bass in Barolo Sauce–countless times because it failed to meet Daniel’s level of excellence.” Kaysen said this shaping made him a better chef.

Countless Boulud stories were shared by his protégés, from his relentless attention to detail and insane work ethic to his brigade-like command of the people cooking his food. By striving for perfection and defying mediocrity as a chef and mentor, this mindset separates Boulud as a leader both inside and out of the kitchen.

3. This is a Ballet, Not a Rodeo

Gail Simmons said one of the most valuable pieces of advice Boulud ever gave her was that the art of cooking is a ballet, not a rodeo. She considers this exceptional life advice, and so do I.

Leadership is about orchestration, flow, and inspiring teams to do what you need them to do. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to look effortless.

I see countless leaders undo themselves and their teams with impatience, frantic behavior, and bull-dozing their way through life. We have spoiled ourselves into believing that greatness is instant, and it’s ruining our ability to give the attention and devotion to areas which need precision and thoughtfulness. This could never be truer than when leading an extraordinary organization.

If you want your your business to be well orchestrated, refine your style. Harmony, beauty, and grace take devotion, nurturing and most of all, time. That’s how you put on the performance of a lifetime, day after day.

PHOTO CREDIT: Thomas Schauer

Sunny Bonnell

Described as a visionary thinker, Sunny Bonnell is co-founder at Motto. Sunny was named GDUSA's Top 25 People to Watch and has been featured in AMEX, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Inc. and more. Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.