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Selling And Great Cooking

by David Brock on June 8th, 2022

The other day, I read a great post from David Masover, comparing sales with great cooking. It’s really an outstanding analogy and way to think about selling.

I’ve been fortunate to hang around some of the best professional chefs. My wife, after a career in technology sales, decided to pursue her dream. She attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to learn–even though she was already an outstanding cook. It was a rigorous 3 year program. After graduating, she did a number of things–cooking for private dinners, some catering, some events. Eventually, she fell into teaching. She wanted to help people learn how to enjoy cooking and the creativity it involves. She, also, served as an assistant to some of the very famous chefs doing classes. (The picture is Kookie working with Giada De Laurentis, teaching a class.)

Watching her, I learned there are great similarities between great cooking and selling.

First, there is mastery of the basics. The very first course in the CIA was knife skills. Students practiced for hours learning how to use their knives. They learned the difference between chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing, julienning, chiffonade, and so forth. Mastering these basic skills, doing them “at speed” took hours of time and practice (not to mention a good supply of band-aids). Other basic skills included things like basic sanitation, making stocks, making basic sauces, how to fry/saute and so forth. Even how to manage time. Think about all the different things you need to prepare for a meal, each with differing prep and cooking times—how do you get them to come together at just the right time to serve a perfect meal? And from the point of view of a restaurant chef, how do you do this dozens of times every evening?

The first few months of school was just focusing on mastering the basics. These continued to be refined over the remaining years at the CIA.

The second thing I learned, was great chefs have the right tools. It’s not a lot of tools and gadgets, but it is a small number of the right tools. I made the mistake of trying to buy Kookie a lot of gadgets to help in her cooking. There were special things for eggs. There was a device for slicing avocados, another for dicing potatoes, etc. There were pans that eliminated the need to flip something, pots that seemed magical (or at least were presented as such on the infomercial.). She made me return all of those, asking for a few high quality knives, which were kept very sharp. A few of the right pans, pots–all made of the right materials. The right tools, properly used, made a huge difference in helping improve efficiency and productivity in the kitchen.

I learned that every dish starts with a basic recipe. When I think of great chefs and meals, I think there is great artistry in preparing a memorable meal. I used to think that somehow they just threw things together and they came out with a marvelous dish. But I soon found that every dish started with a basic recipe. (As sellers, we would call this the selling process.)

This point became very clear when I tried to cook. I am always impatient and “wing it.” I don’t take the time to find a recipe, to make sure I have the right ingredients. Instead, I grab a few things from the refrigerator or the pantry. I throw them together, drown them in too much cayenne, paprika, and other spices. The result is only edible by me, no-one else.

But the recipe was the starting point, it provides the basic structure for a dish. It’s the starting point for a great dish. For everything, except baking, the recipe is the starting point. Great chefs take the recipe, adapting and modifying it for the diner. For example, some people like spicy food, some want great depth in the flavors and tastes, some have allergies and substitutions to the ingredients need be made. Sometimes, the event or occasion would inspire a different adaptation and presentation of the food. Two chefs starting with the same recipe, will adapt them to create very different dining experiences.

Great chefs, adapt their recipes, but not for their own preferences, but to maximize the experience of the diners. Their measure of success is not preparing food they think is great, but meals their diners love, meals that cause them to come back for more. Chefs create dining experiences their customers will talk about and refer to others, “You have to go to this place….”

Great chefs got to know their customers very well, they learned what they liked and disliked. If preparing for a special event or meal, they talk to the customer and learn what they want, what they dream of, what they don’t like. They know the customer can’t always describe their tastes and preferences, but great chefs know the questions to ask to help in preparing a great meal. Things like the experience their customers want and want to create, other foods they like/dislike, who else will be there, the best meal they’ve ever had, and so forth. They know the right questions to ask the customer to design a great dining experience, based on what the customer wants.

At the same time, they take that knowledge, leveraging that to help create a new/different experience for the customer. Something, they may not have thought about, a preparation they’d never imagined, even a type of food they thought they didn’t like, but prepared a new ways is stunning.

Great chefs have deep and rich experiences around how to combine things in just the right way. They learn how to blend flavors to create a richness and depth of taste that is unique and fulfilling to the customer. While I try to cook a lot of the recipes my wife developed, I could never create the depth and richness she did. There was a magic in her experience and the subtleties in how she combined ingredients. And she and great chefs never prepared the same thing twice, each was tweaked and adapted to the diner, creating subtly different experiences.

Great chefs know that a large part a great dining experience is not just how the food tastes, but how it is presented. What does it look like on the plate? How is it combined with other parts of the meal to create a great visual experience? What are the different colors/textures the customer sees on the plate? Simple things like grill marks, the way the sauce may be placed on the plate, some accenting herbs that contribute visually and flavor-wise. How is is served, what are the plates, tableware, and so forth. All contribute to the quality and richness of the customer experience. The focus is on the complete dining experience for the customer.

After each big event or meal, after each evening in a restaurant, great chefs do an “after action,” analysis. What worked, what didn’t? What might be changed or adapted in the future? How could they improve, whether in the flavors or the presentation? They constantly learn and improve.

Before each event or meal was just as important. What’s the right menu–is it something that creates unique experiences for the diner? Do we have the right ingredients, the right utensils/tools? Do we have a plan that enable us to present the food in the right way, at the right time? Great cooking is about having a great plan, executing it with precision, but knowing things will go wrong and having the ability to adapt.

Finally, great chefs are constantly learning and improving their capabilities. They learn from each other, they explore different foods/cuisines. They go to different restaurants, less for competitive analysis, but to learn and discover different things. Kookie had over 400 cookbooks, and thousands of recipes on her computer. They experiment with new things, trying not only to improve, but to innovate, to create new experiences.

I’ll stop here, but I learned a lot about great selling by watching and talking to great chefs. Like chefs, we have to master the basics of great selling. This mastery enables us to adapt how we work to the unique situations/contexts presented by our customers. But we always start with a recipe, adapting that recipe based on the needs of the customer. The right tools, not a lot of tools, are critical, as is preparation. Debriefing and learning from what we have done. Constant learning, innovation is critical. But over all of this is great selling is always about the customer and creating a great, unique experience for each customer.

Hmmm…… I’m hungry!

One Comment
  1. Dave Olson permalink

    Hey Dave — I just love this post. Being great at sales involves behaving or living in a “plan-full” way with lots of room for innovation and adaptation. Be genuine, show up, take some chances, have fun and you will win your share of the deals and create your share of amazing meals too.

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