Last week I re-watched Chef – written, directed and starring Jon Favreau – on Netflix. The film is about Carl Casper, the head chef at a high-end Los Angeles restaurant who loses his cool, loses his job, loses a lot of peoples’ respect, but then finds himself on a cross-country, Cuban-sandwich-slinging road trip with his protégé and his son. It’s heartwarming. It’s funny. It’s a feel-good movie experience. You will also learn a lot about your career by watching it. Here are eight professional lessons from the movie Chef.
Oh boy does Chef Carl Casper crash and burn when he gets called out by food critic/blogger Ramsey Michel. Here’s the uncomfortable scene that captures Casper’s meltdown:
Find your edge
Casper’s ex-wife knowingly advises that he will “never be happy cooking for someone else” – he finds his edge when he travels back to Miami, where he rose to fame as a chef, and when he harnesses the inspiration of Cuban street food. Casper also keeps things simple by creating a menu of a few tasty sides, but focusing on the Cubano sandwich is what captivates his local customers and the Twitterverse, too.
People find their edge, their zone, and themselves in many different ways. I strive to put myself into uncomfortable situations so that I can learn from the experience. And when I really need to reflect on what life means to me I do it on the back deck of the house where I grew up. This reflection, which I practice a couple of times a year when I visit my parents at our family home, helps me refine my edge or find it when it’s been lost.
Be a craftsperson
When Casper’s son, Percy, asserts that the construction workers who helped them load the range into the food truck should be served a burnt sandwich because “they’re not paying for it”, Casper takes his son aside and explains to him what the art of food means to him:
“…I love it. Everything that’s good that happened in my life came because of that. I might not do everything great in my life, ‘kay? I’m not perfect. I’m not the best husband and I’m sorry if I wasn’t the best father. But I’m good at this. And I wanna share this with you. I wanna teach you what I learned. I get to touch peoples’ lives with what I do. And it keeps me going and I love it. And I think if you give it a shot you might love it too. Now, should we have served that sandwich?”
“No, Chef” was obviously the answer. Whatever you do in life, strive to be a craftsperson. Pretty much anything can be art if you apply your talent with intention. Just ask leadership guru Robin Sharma about his thoughts on what he calls “meticulosity”!
Inspire a great team
Martin, played wonderfully by John Leguizamo, leaves a Sous Chef position to join his disgraced former boss in his new venture. Inez, Casper’s ex-wife, brokers a deal for the food truck through her other ex-husband and lets her son travel the American South in a food truck for the summer. Percy, Casper’s social-savvy-son, can’t wait to re-join his dad and Martin in the food truck once their epic trip has concluded. Because of his passion, his vision and his dedication to his craft, Chef Carl Casper inspires folks in his community.
In Carl Casper I see elements of Adam Grants philosophy of giving more to get ahead – the chef gives so much of himself to his food and his clients. Casper’s enthusiasm is contagious and when yours is, too, people will want to work with you. Finally, the team’s trust with each other is incredible. Martin trusts that Carl knows what he’s doing with the menu. Carl trusts that Martin knows how to season and prep the food to high standards. And the two foodies trust that Percy knows how to use social networks to drive traffic to the food truck and to the team itself. With trust comes inspiration!
Build an authentic community
“Austin Midnight” is the name of the sandwich that Martin and Carl bring to Texas. It’s a customization of their traditional masterpiece based on the local, slow-cooked brisket (instead of pork). Wherever he goes, Casper puts an authentic, local dish on his menu.
As a leader or a colleague, you need to customize your communication and style to meet the needs of your direct reports, teammates and customers. Don’t be the guy or gal who gives the same pitch to everyone.
Try different things
Carl Casper gets into a professional mess because he tried something new that he didn’t totally understand. That thing was Twitter and the Internet. His foray into this medium eventually turns positive, especially when he lets go of control and puts his story in the hands of Percy, who is much better suited at crafting a compelling digital narrative.
According to Adam Grant, “originals” are non-conformists that drive change in the world. One of the ways that original thinkers show up differently is that they read stuff that is beyond the scope of their profession. For example, a bank manager reading books about gardening and the history of basketball instead of just financial planning reflects how one might dedicate time to topics beyond their professional craft. Broadening our interests enhances our perspective and allows for much for original thought, which is why I’m watching Scandal out of the corner of my eye with my wife right now.
Three of Casper’s most value-adding collaborators are unlikely advisors by most peoples’ standards. His ex-wife, his ex-wife’s ex-husband, and his nemesis all play important roles in his personal and professional success. Inez is his greatest cheerleader and brings Carl to Miami. Marvin sells him the truck. And Ramsey eventually becomes Casper’s financial partner in a restaurant venture.
Relationships drive work and life and you should be building and maintaining them every day. In his great book about relationship building, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi highlights multiple ways to maintain relationships by sharing meals and remembering special events, like birthdays. With so many social networks there is no excuse not to be connected to colleagues, mentors and future friends, so invest some time in at least one relationship this week because it will absolutely benefit you.
Sharpen the saw knife
“Sharpen the saw” is the seventh habit of Stephen Covey’s renowned 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Carl Casper sharpens a knife, not a saw, though. I love how the chefs in the film – the good ones, anyway – are never satisfied with what they’re making. Casper is always experimenting, refining, and testing new ways to feed peoples’ soul.
Whenever people say “practice makes perfect” I always tell a short story about how Larry Bird – who Millennials have to Google – approached practice. He was known to say that “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” And he’s right. If you practice something with mediocrity then that’s how you’ll perform. Strive for perfection when you’re sharpening your professional knife.
Photo: Open Road Films