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What the “Top Chef” finale can teach restaurant managers

3 min read


Wednesday night’s finale of “Top Chef” was as much a showcase of leadership style as it was of cooking talent. Richard Blais was cautious and collaborative while his fellow finalist, Mike Isabella, took much greater control over the dishes he created in an effort to put a personal stamp on his performance.

The challenge: to create the restaurant of their dreams. The details were to envision, prepare and serve a four-course menu to 70 guests.  Each chef was given a team of sous chefs comprised of contestants who had been eliminated this season. The point of the challenge was to make the chefs demonstrate their cooking talents as well as their organizational and management skills.

“It’s not just about being able to make dishes, it’s about being able to lead a team,” said judge Tom Colicchio.

The difference between the chefs’ leadership styles was first apparent during the one-hour brainstorming session that each chef had with their sous chefs.

“This is a team. I know what Angelo is capable of, I know what Spike and Antonia can do, I’m just gonna let them do it,” said Blais, expressing his trust in his sous chefs.  As the camera faded to a commercial, Blais could be heard in the background, addressing his team for the first time.

“Right off the bat, thank you so much,” he told them.

Isabella took a different approach

“I love to listen to other people’s ideas, but at the end of the day, I’ve got all my dishes planned out already,” he explained. Throughout the episode, Isabella maintained that his confidence and his unique cooking style would carry him to victory.

“The bottom line is, I’m gonna out-cook him,” he said at one point.

Blais’ trust in his sous team ended up paying off in the final meal, when he impressed the judges with not just the quality of his dishes, but the efficiency in which they were brought to his guests.

“We’ve got two dishes with lots of components and in a short period of time. It sounds like [Blais] has the dream team back there [in the kitchen],” said one judge after Blais’ first two courses. Isabella, on the other hand, faltered, taking 18 minutes between dishes — and the judges took note.

At the end of the day …

Throughout the episode, Blais expressed a nervousness that contrasted sharply with Isabella’s bravado. Blais admitted several times that he wasn’t sure if he could win and conceded that he had choked before important situations on the show.   His insecurity was so great that after the bulk of the food preparation was complete, he enlisted one of his sous chefs to walk around the dining room in plain clothes, observing the reactions of the guests. When the chef returned to Blais and told him that the dessert had been controversial (one of the judges had called it “freeze-dried”), Blais quickly acknowledged that the dessert hadn’t come out great and tweaked the recipe for the next round of guests. The next panel of judges loved the dessert.

In the end, Blais was named Top Chef, even though the judges agreed that both contestants had created some of the best dishes that had been on the show. If pressed to say which meal they enjoyed more, I wouldn’t be surprised if the judges said that Isabella had demonstrated more skill. Blais, however, was clearly the better team leader and, therefore, Top Chef.

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