Food and Leadership P1: What are you doing to provide sustenance to your team?

Events of the past few weeks have humbled me. What I thought I was prepared for as a leader—what I trained for, what I learned doing my MBA—was pretty much thrown out the window. Even things that I learned and held close as my personal foundations of leadership, formed over the past 35 years of working professionally—these things seemed no longer relevant. I found myself constantly second-guessing my motives, my strategies, my communication with people. Am I doing enough? Am I making the right decisions? Should I be deciding anything right now?


I was talking to one of our consultants this week and made the observation that the COVID 19 crisis has made all of us much more primal in our actions, desires and motivations.  The hording phenomenon that is occurring in our local grocery stores is evidence of this.  But even more, the fact that people are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) their basic need to feed themselves and others as a primal, yet fulfilling act, has become of particular interest to me.  Why is  cooking-providing nourishment to our loved ones, giving them sustenance in times of radical change—such a profoundly personal and beautiful metaphor for leadership?


An article posted in HBR back in 2010  “Fueling an Appetite for Leadership” paints this analogy in a way far more eloquent that I could.  In it, the author asserts that it is easy to feed a group that is homogenous, has the same tastes, and whose table has been set in the same, consistent way for a period of time.  People know where their place settings are, they know what tastes to expect, and, if you occasionally throw them a new entrée with unknown and previously untested ingredients, they are open to trying and accepting it, because they know that the basic menu and setting has not changed.


Now flip this scenario to one where not only has the menu changed, but the ingredients that you have to cook with are scarce and limited, your homogeneous group has suddenly become comprised of people who may have never sampled your cooking before, have their own personal tastes, and don’t know where they are supposed to sit at the table.  Oh—and guess what?  The table itself is built on rollers, and it sits on the deck of a ship that is being tossed around in a Category 5 hurricane.


What can you, as the leader (chef) provide to this group of diners (your team) to give them sustenance, to settle their stomachs, to energize them, and to give them confidence that no matter what ingredients you may have left in your pantry, they will survive?


At Refinery, we have for years done an experiential exercise known as “The Chef’s Challenge.”  In a nutshell, we give leader/participants a set period of time to shop for ingredients, plan and prepare a menu, plan entertainment, décor and service elements for a dining experience that needs to impress a distinguished, experienced group of diners coming to their restaurant that evening.  This challenge has seen some amazing experiences over the years, from participants working together to develop full-on, multi-course French inspired menus with live entertainment, to more recently, an authentic Mexican-inspired experience where diners were serenaded by Spanish love songs sung by two of our participants, while enjoying a tequila tasting.


We throw the participants curve balls during this exercise, to add to the chaos.  Sometimes we tell them (after they have already planned, shopped for and begun preparing their menus) that they have to incorporate a new ingredient to their menu—that we choose.  Other times, we tell them at the last minute that one of their diners is celebrating a birthday, or has a special dietary restriction, or has a physical limitation.


After doing this experience for so many years, we have seen some remarkable acts of leadership and teamwork.  And, as we expect, we also see leaders who normally are controlled and calm become militant, bossy, de-humanizing creatures who have succumbed to their primal instincts to just survive.  And we see diners who are judging this team based solely on their personal experience during the evening.  These same diners don’t care how much careful work and planning the chef’s team put into the menu, or how much preparation and thought went into the entertainment and setting.  All they know is what they see, hear, taste and feel—and they will provide their diner reviews based on this.


The next day as we debrief the experience, it is remarkable how little we have to draw correlation between the Chef’s Challenge experience and what happens in real life with leaders and their teams. It’s the beauty of experiential learning—getting people to feel what they need to learn about themselves.


So, here is my invitation to you:  Consider your current table.  Who is sitting at it? Are they new?   Are they expecting a menu that they’ve seen before, or have you prepared them to expect something new?  What about your kitchen crew?  Are you communicating to them about the new ingredients (or lack of ingredients) that you have to work with right now?  How will you work with your front-of-house team to ensure that your diners feel safe and secure at a minimum, despite the fact that their table could be moved at any time?


Food and cooking is a metaphor for communication, love and community.  What are you doing to provide sustenance to your team?


I’d love to hear from you.


Susan’s Cheese Scone Recipe


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 T baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 T granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup well-chilled butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups shredded cheese of your choice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix together dry ingredients in electric stand mixer.  Add butter and mix until chunks of butter are the size of large peas.  Add cream and mix just until dry ingredients are incorporated.  Add cheese and mix just a few seconds into dough.  Scoop out a handful of dough, compress lightly into a flattened ball and place on parchment lined cooking sheet.  Place in oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, checking every 5 min after 15.  Let cool on pan slightly before removing them to a plate.