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I am an infrequent television watcher.

There is very little that I regard as “must watch” TV and very few programs (over the past 15 years) have been compulsory viewing for me: Frontline (current affairs spoof), This Life (young Gen X yuppies making their way in the world), Capital City (the lives of neurotic, alcoholic, Gen X London merchant bank dealers) and CSI: Miami (is there a criminal in Florida that Horatio won’t eventually bring to justice?), being the exception.

Currently, nothing comes close to Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Clearly, a lot of Australians seem to agree with me as it was ranked at number 7 nationally for total viewers (#4 in Melbourne) and it is a constant presence in the Top 10 programs across the continent’s capital cities.

Watching one of last week’s episodes, I was struck by not just how entertaining the program was, but how many valuable lessons for success in business it contained (not just for restaurants).

This week’s lead article contains the leadership lessons I have taken from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

Ramsay has roared into the lounge rooms of Australians in the past few months with Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (a combination of episodes from Ramsay’s US show for FOX, Kitchen Nightmares, and his show for Channel 4 in the UK, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares).

For the uninitiated, the basic premise of the program is that Michelin-starred British celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay, visits a failing restaurant to provide a few days of “consulting” to the delusional owner, clueless manager, arrogant chef, lazy kitchen hands and de-motivated staff, to see if his input is enough to re-float the sinking ship.

What makes it compelling television is that the show is as much about food as The Biggest Loser is about weight loss. It works as compelling television because it’s about raw human emotion, exposed under pressure.

To me, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is more than entertaining television; it provides a classic example of leadership in action.

Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his success as a businessman: Ramsay owns 9 restaurants, is the star of four television shows and employs over 1,300 people in his various businesses.

There’s plenty to learn from this success. As an avid fan of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, here are 14 reasons why I believe Ramsay’s leadership works:

1. Ramsay’s got passion: Ramsay’s on a mission. He loves what he does and everything about him exudes passion and commitment to the cause of simple, fresh food, served efficiently in a pleasant atmosphere.

2. Ramsay asks questions and observes performance before he acts: Ramsay has no pre-conceived assumptions about any of the establishments he visits. Ramsay interviews the owner, he eats the food, he questions the chef, he examines the whole kitchen and he observes the front-of-house staff in action before he recommends any changes.

3. Ramsay tells it straight: “Your food is shit”, “You’re a lazy French *%#@”, “Your attitude stinks”, “I’ve never met a person I have less faith in than you”. There’s no beating about the bush with Ramsay – you know exactly what he thinks.

4. Ramsay appeals to each person’s pride: “Did you become a chef to serve up this rubbish?”, “Don’t you want your father to be proud of you?”, “How are you going to keep your house if you keep losing money every month?”. Ramsay knows permanent changes in another person’s behavior come from within.

5. Ramsay gives everyone a second chance: Ramsay doesn’t write off the arrogant, the inept, the lazy or the control freaks. He lets them know what he thinks, tells them what they need to do differently, shows them what to do and then let’s them prove they are worth another chance (some aren’t – the General Manager, Martin in last Tuesday episode, was a classic case in point).

6. Ramsay generates focus by creating an inspiring vision for the future: Most of the restaurants Ramsay visits suffer from trying to cover too many types of food combinations (Sebastian’s 20 different flavour combinations was hilarious). Ramsay wants each restaurant to be to become known for one thing above everything else (“real gravy”, “great steaks”, “modern Indian”, “Pamino salad” to name just a few).

7. Ramsay knows his stuff: “This crab meat is frozen, not fresh”, “This tomato soup is out of a can” You can’t fool Ramsay.

8. Ramsay is hands-on: In every episode, Ramsay dons his chef’s garb, rolls up his sleeves and demonstrates to the chef(s) exactly what they need to do to meet his standards. He doesn’t ask people to do things he isn’t prepared to do himself.

9. Ramsay acts decisively: When Ramsay has summed up a restaurant’s failings, he doesn’t spend much time explaining the problems; he presents his solution and then immediately starts implementing it.

10. Ramsay keeps it simple: Down-sizing menu choices, eliminating superfluous sauces, minimising garnishes, eradicating irrelevant food presentation props (oyster shells for prawns?), removing chunky furniture and garish decor and throwing out ridiculous sized and shaped plates, have all been part of the Ramsay rampage of removing clutter to keep things as simple as possible in the kitchen and front-of-house.

11. Ramsay ensures each staff member knows their job: Confused or blurred job roles (no head chef, multiple managers, etc) are a common trait in each failing restaurants. Ramsay ensures that each person has a specific job to do and that they know exactly how to carry out their role.

12. Ramsay ensures staff meetings are short and focused: When Ramsay gathers the restaurant’s staff together to discuss the new menu or the night ahead, there is no waffle, no padding – he just gets to his point quickly to ensure that all staff are clear and motivated about what needs to be accomplished.

13. Ramsay praises people when they have delivered: It’s amazing how the personal insults, swearing and heated conversations are all forgotten in an instant when, after the night’s meal service is complete, Ramsay tells the chef or manager; “I was proud of you tonight” or “You were f**king brilliant tonight – well done”.

14. Ramsay has a keen eye for profit: Unsurprisingly, for a man who is worth over A$150 million, as much as Ramsay ensures that the food needs to be fresh and the service swift, each restaurant has to run at a profit to ensure its future growth and prosperity. Ramsay constantly seeks to have each restaurant turn their tables over twice each night to make good profits.

Ramsay may not be the model leader that our parents wished us to be (I wouldn’t advocate the swearing) but he fronts a reality television show that leaves all the others for dead as far as providing lessons in leadership and success in business.

What can you   learn from Gordon Ramsay?

For Ramsay’s famous “adult-rated” omelette recipe click here.


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Nicole Underwood

Loved the article Ross – amazing how easily these examples transfer to the corporate world leadership principles…although I can’t imagine any of us getting away with the same delivery style!


Thanks Nicole. There may be occasions where swearing could assist a leader get action and shift mindsets however used without sufficient rapport or context or used repeatedly will reduce its effectiveness very quickly.

Again, it is interesting to observe the situations where Ramsay swears and where he doesn’t.

Toby Marshall

Ross, we share TV tastes! Good lessons for management/business – wouldn’t have thought of it as watched him swear his way through.

Always illuminating when people point out the marketing or management lessons from popular culture: saw Dan Kennedy from the States do it with the film the Muse, and how she has great client control and positioning.

I thought it was just a movie!

Cheers, Toby


If you choose to do something, then be prepared and focus. Give your undivided attention to the task at hand whether it is a meeting or an event. If you do not stay in the moment, you’ll miss something important and all of your preparedness will be for naught when you overlook a relevant detail.

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