The Iron Chef Paradox

Jim BensonPrimers12 Comments

You have one hour. Just sixty minutes to prepare a meal for four, five courses of the highest possible quality, and with conspicuous creativity. The key ingredient comprising the meal is kept a secret until the last possible minute. While you’re used to working in a kitchen you control, surrounded by people who are trained to ensure your success, you and your team are preparing this meal in an unfamiliar location. Relatively speaking you are a novice, while the individual you are competing against is a celebrity chef of international renown for whom this type of challenge is second nature. And if these conditions aren’t stressful enough, once your meal is complete, every chef on earth will know what you’ve created, how you’ve created it, and what the judges thought.  Oh, as will millions of viewers worldwide.

Your reputation hangs in the balance. Failure is not an option.

How can a chef create five dishes all at the same time with this much existential overhead? Is five not a WIP-busting number?

It’s the Iron Chef Paradox.

In the book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell invokes the “10,000 hour rule,”  based upon the research of sociologist Anders Ericcson that suggests if you do something for 10,000 hours you become an expert. But what does it mean to be an expert?

Our brains are pattern recognition devices. The more we practice something, the more we’re  able to process its intricacies efficiently and effectively. Whether it’s golf, cooking, or even empathy, practice creates proficiency.

So-called “Iron Chefs” do not see five dishes in progress. They do not see a WIP-busting workload. They see one meal for one group. The meal for them is a pattern.

They can see patterns foremost in the food itself. Chefs know what the current level of completeness is by sight. The food – for them – is a visual control. Simply looking at a fillet of sea bass on a grill from across the kitchen is sufficient. As it transforms from translucent to milky-white, the chef knows how close it is to done. This is known as prototype matching.  As we work through those 10,000 hours, we build up a library of pattern prototypes to recognize.

Understanding prototypes allows Iron Chefs to effectively prioritize under extreme duress. You put your rack of lamb on long before you plate your ice cream. Without understanding both the time and sequence of the patterns, effective prioritization is highly unlikely.

Patterns are all around us, we just need to sensitize ourselves to them. We need to be aware of what we are practicing and do it purposefully. With Personal Kanban, we have a visual control and can actually practice living. In the past, we just worked. Even though we‘ve all had a lifetime of starting and (sometimes) completing tasks, we’re often oblivious to the patterns and unaware of the prototypes of our work. Without recognizing these, without understanding how our choices impact our future, our WIP limits have been strained sending our stress levels through the roof.

Chefs like Bobby Flay understand the patterns and prototypes of cooking so well, they can create dessert out of tuna.

What can we  accomplish on a Saturday with a mixed backlog? What can we create with our colleagues at the office in a week? What patterns are there to help us recognize pitfalls and find success?

(Order an Iron Chef Apron here)

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS
Jim BensonThe Iron Chef Paradox

12 Comments on “The Iron Chef Paradox”

  1. Patty

    I am constantly conscious of patterns, but I haven’t always been. Just recently I have been really taking the time to look at my pk, my work, my flow, not only as I am working through it but after as well. (Something I haven’t always practiced, bad I know.) Having the pk’s in the classroom has taught me to do this sometimes on an hourly basis when we are working through the board during class time. As I become more and more busy and time becomes more crucial I realize that understanding patterns will be the key to my success.

  2. Jim Benson

    Not only that, but your kids are seeing new patterns all the time. Letters and numbers are already a pattern, but with the in-class PK’s you’ve created they are seeing patterns not only of individual, but of group success.

  3. Curtis Stuehrenberg

    This is one of the better metaphors for the difference between a craftsman and a practitioner I’ve yet to read. Extending it out, you can make the case for a practitioner reading recipe and surmising it will take 3 mins on a side for the sea bass to cook through. The craftsman, on the other hand, waits for the steak to tell her its done before plating. In one case thousands of people will be able to cook sea bass with a reasonable level of assurance it won’t be raw in the middle or burned. In the other case the diner will get to partake of a delicate meal cooked to the point of perfection.

  4. Jim Benson

    What’s also important here is that a chef craftsman cannot over specialize to be on Iron Chef. Knowledge of all types of food, their flavor profiles, their range, their chemistry, cultural norms and ranges, textures, colors raw/cooked/altered, etc. are all necessary to succeed. Therefore, a transdisciplinary approach is mandatory.

    1. Curtis Stuehrenberg

      True, but they do all have a “style” which in this case is probably analogous to a paradigm or methodology since the “signature” is usually a deep understanding of basic ingredients, flavors, pairings, and techniques. It’s only when they’ve internalized these elements that they can truly diversify and see anything as a premium dish.

      1. Jim Benson

        Yes, I think there’s a difference between being transdisciplinary – having vital expertise in multiple areas in order to create a coherent whole

        being a generalist who knows a little about many things but does not tie them together in a meaningful way


        being a specialist, which would say “NO THE FISH ALWAYS TAKES THREE MINUTES BECAUSE THE BOOK SAYS SO.”

  5. Maritza van den Heuvel

    I love that you had been working on this post while I’ve been coming to similar conclusions thanks to Personal Kanban!

    As a mom of two boys, also working full-time in a challenging industry, my stress levels were off the chart until I started practicing living. Over the last two years, Personal Kanban has truly revolutionized my ability to see patterns in so many different contexts. From that understanding, has come a greater confidence to change things where needed, and to continue building on the positives that were already there.

    And ultimately, through it all, I am much more at peace with myself and life than ever before.

  6. Edward Vielmetti

    Iron Chef has it easy! Someone went shopping for him, and he has a whole hour to make a meal. His dinner guests are not tugging at his shirt sleeves telling him how hungry they are, and they don’t generally complain and insist that he cook something else if the meal is not to their tastes. I’m pretty sure he starts with a clean kitchen, and doesn’t have to scrub his pots before he starts cooking in them.

    The challenge I seem to face weekly is not the one hour sprint to dinner; it’s the weekly menu plan, which has to take into account all of the possible recipes, all of the produce at market that is or might be good, what the leftover situation is, who has a tough day without much time, and how much you are willing to order out for meals.

    In some sense the iron chef challenge would be a lot easier, since you are already working within extreme constraints and have a lot of decisions already made.

  7. Jim Benson


    Seeing as how your comment was left at 3 in the morning, I’d have to believe it. 🙂

    There are certainly short cuts for the Iron Chefs, while they don’t know what the secret ingredient is ahead of time, they do know what it might be – meaning they come with a set of plans in their head. And I’ve been doing some thinking about that.

    They are given five potential ingredients and know it will be one of them. So they have to come up with 25 awesome dishes for the 5 they prepare. This means that when the platform rises, say you are a BBQ Chef from Tennessee, and the possibilities were ribs, brisket, chicken legs, suckling pig and kale, … and it ends up being kale – not only do you have to kick 20 recipes out of your mind and focus on the relevant five – you also have to deal with the remorse of losing those other 20 options.

    For busy families like yours, I’m willing to bet that we could create a meal plan kanban that would be multivariant. Nutrition, taste, seasonality, and still leave flexibility for sales and what looks good when you get to the store or farmer’s market.

    I tweeted a couple of days ago that many of my meals ended up seeming like I was a contestant on Chopped. Often I’ll buy things that look really good or are on wicked sale – then get home and wonder how to pull all that together.

    1. Evan Davey

      I think home kitchen management is something that we all ignore – assuming it is a simple problem and therefore not worthy of focus. But like all things it is often this attitude that leads to wastes that add up to hidden extra stress and lost money (when you actually stop to think about it). It’s always the simple solutions that are the hardest to achieve . That’s why I love the Japanese approach – it’s simple, visual and therefore highly accountable. Here’s my attempt to implement a Kanban system in the kitchen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *