Anthony Bourdain on Kitchen Hierarchy

By: Peter G. Klein
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Before Kitchen Confidential made him a celebrity, Anthony Bourdain was a real chef, working upscale New York kitchens at places like the Supper Club and Sullivan’s. Bourdain’s style is not to everyone’s taste, but he knows how to manage a restaurant crew. A chef, after all, is not primarily an artist, but a manager, facing the same set of organizational challenges — delegation, incentives, monitoring — as any administrator.

I mention this because I recently stumbled upon an interview with Bourdain in the July 2002 Harvard Business Review. Despite several attempts by interviewer Gardiner Morse to get Bourdain to endorse creativity, spontaneity, and empowerment in the kitchen, Bourdain remains an unreconstructed devotee of Escoffier’s “brigade system,” a sort of culinary Taylorism in which each member of the cooking staff has a fixed place in the production chain, a very narrow job description, and an obligation to obey his chef de partie (section leader) and the head chef without question.

Q: There’s been a trend in business to move away from hierarchies and empower workers, but you’ve embraced a very rigid staff structure and an old style of management with great success. Why do you think it works?

A: You’re defined by the job you do, not by whatever . . . predilections you have. . . . And to have any delusions that you’re better than anyone else, however true that might be as far as your technical skills are concerned, is not allowed. Your commitment is to the team effort. Everyone lives and dies by the same rules.

You have a tremendous amount of personal freedom in the kitchen. But there’s a trade-off. You give up other freedoms when you go into a kitchen because you’re becoming part of a very old, rigid, traditional society — it’s a secret society, a cult of pain. Absolute rules govern some aspects of your working life: obedience, focus, the way you maintain your work area, the pecking order, the consistency of the end product, arrival time.

This is a case where the advantages of hierarchy — the need for fast, coordinated decision-making, the ability to internalize externalities, the possession of “decisive knowledge” by the top decision-makers, and the like — appear to outweigh the high-powered incentives and Hayekian knowledge benefits of decentralization. Look for a future Foss-Klein paper (with Nils Stieglitz) discussing this tradeoff more systematically.

Originally published January 18th, 2008 on Organization and Markets

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