A Comparison of Leadership Styles

For most of my life, I considered myself a defensive television watcher. That meant my television habits were guided by what would be discussed in the office or by my clients. Those shows included Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal, and the Superbowl commercials. I was thrilled once the good commercials were posted on Youtube by the next morning, sparing me from hours of game time.

One event I always watch, unless I am there in person, is the Army-Navy game. Go Navy!

But all that changed in 2021

But all that changed in 2021, when I bought a new home in a HOA community that provided basic cable to all residents. I found myself watching more TV than I ever have, due to the isolation and also due to my interest being captured. One show that grabbed my attention was Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. I watched season after season of wannabe chefs suffer the abuse dished out by Chef Ramsay. The yelling and the subsequent drama made for great TV, but I really felt for the individuals coming under his glare.

Many would describe the work environment in Hell’s Kitchen as toxic. But it sells to the television clientele.

I did not have the opportunity to be present in one of Chef Ramsay’s restaurants when he was in the kitchen. But I have had several meals at Chef Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, at the chef’s table, where I was able to watch the entire kitchen.

I thought that, based on these experiences, it would be interesting to explore their leadership styles.

Tough Love

Chef Ramsay, at first glimpse, could be classified as a bully. He screams at the teams, throws food around, and will summarily fire individuals or kick entire teams out of the kitchen, seemingly on a whim.

Yelling is his way of getting the chefs-in-training to improve. He revealed in one episode that he yells because he thinks that his chef-trainees will remember the lessons he imparts better if those lessons are loud. He encouraged a young chef-in-training to do the same in her future kitchen.

As the field of potential chefs dwindles in Hell’s Kitchen, and the skills of the remaining chefs are honed, Chef Ramsay will still yell if he sees things not to his standards, but he also shows, in his one-on-one or one-on-two interactions, that he has a strong interest in the chefs’ wellbeing.

Quiet and Ordered

In Chef Lagasse’s kitchen, things are quiet and ordered. The different teams talk to each other, but they are talking, not yelling. I’ve never heard Chef Lagasse raise his voice or seen him get upset. Things go very smoothly. Of course, I recognize that I’m watching a professional team that has been developed and groomed by Chef Lagasse, but the atmosphere is one of respect. Where the Ramsay kitchen it’s a cutthroat competition for television.

Diners at the Hell’s Kitchen experience often wait long periods of time for their food, and sometimes don’t get fed. Many expect this and eat before they come. They are rewarded with great theater. I have noticed in later seasons that there is a glass partition separating most diners from the noise and tension in the kitchen. But Ramsay will not send out food that is not to his specific standards. And his teams of chefs do not arrive with skills that can meet those standards.

Peaceful Dining

At the New Orleans Emeril’s restaurant, the dining room is peaceful.  Chef Lagasse did have a show on television at one point. His signature brand was to include an emphatic “Bam” as he liberally distributed spices on his dishes. His show was a teaching show for the viewers. He added flavor with his own version of theatrics.

Chef Lagasse doesn’t cook in his kitchen. Neither does Chef Ramsay, unless he shows a new technique to his chefs. 

In Emeril’s restaurant, you are there to experience service and cooking at its best, and his entire team is committed to that vision.

Two leaders. Two different styles

Are they both effective? Chef Lagasse’s style is in keeping with the vibe he wants throughout his restaurant. He has a loyal clientele and delivers on expectations. Chef Ramsay’s style is in keeping with engaging television, the restaurant experience seems to be secondary. Both are extremely successful.

Would I want to be subjected to the Ramsay Rage? No, that would not work for me. If I’m yelled at, I tend to turn off. Yelling shuts me down and I have a rather long recovery time. But if I was able to survive that kitchen, I would have some awesome skills in preparing meat, fish, sides and appetizers.

But I’m not in his kitchen

The devotees who are working to earn a place in one of his restaurants run the gamut of emotions about him. The negative ones tend to be weeded out. Even with Ramsay’s yelling and rage, his underlings want to make him happy. They want to improve their skills and be given a shot at the job of a lifetime. For them, the reward is worth the abuse. The ones who stay to the end are those who recognize the opportunity to learn and their desire to be the best. They put up with it because of the perceived benefit, even if they aren’t the final winner.

Would I want to work in Chef Lagasse’s kitchen? His kitchen is an environment that would work better for me, but I saw that individuals were in one station and learned that one station very well. The repetitive nature of their jobs would drive me crazy. The Emeril chefs are very focused and take great pride in doing their job to perfection.

Earned Respect

In chatting with the many wait staff and a handful of sou chefs in Chef Lagasse’s kitchen, they all have tremendous respect for the man and are grateful for the experience of working in his kitchen.

I’d happily enjoy a meal in either of the Chef’s restaurants with the notable exception of Hell’s Kitchen. That environment, even with the drama that plays out every night, just doesn’t appeal to me.

Remember your brand

I did see an article saying that decades ago, in the emerging days of reality television, Chef Lagasse had been asked to create a chef’s challenge show. Chef Lagasse declined, citing that was not something he would be interested in. That was a wise move for him. A competition show like Hell’s Kitchen would not fit Chef Lagasse’s brand of calm and respect.