What Chef’s Table Can Teach You About Design

When I stumbled upon Chef’s Table on Netflix, I figured it was just another cooking show. You know, those shows which are impossible to watch without gaining a few pounds per episode.

And if you’re like me, there isn’t a show that deserves your undivided attention — besides Game of Thrones. You know how it usually goes, you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed while some series flashes in the foreground.

But from the moment I saw the opening scene of Chef’s Table I was sold. It forced me to put my phone to the side and demanded my undivided attention.

The opening scene till today is one of, if not my favorite opening scene ever. Everything just comes together. Typography, food, timing, emotion, aesthetics, music — everything just sets the mood. It’s like a well-set table paired with the perfect ambience.

What I expected was to see a bunch of chefs talking about their food. What I actually saw in these capsules of time was a reflection of myself as a designer. If we can look past the surface value of Chef’s Table, we can find a great deal of design lessons and inspiration.

Find Inspiration Along the Journey

It’s been almost a year since I became Head of Design at Yieldr, but I didn’t start out there and neither does a chef start out as the Head Chef. You have to climb the ladder, starting with little experience, but plenty of drive and ambition.

They all start with an event that triggered them to become a chef. Everyone had their own reason. Just like designers do.

What resonated with me was their journey. It all starts with the basics that you learn during school and from there, you work your way from Prep Cook all the way to Head Chef. First you peel potatoes in the back and in the end you are the one creating the menu.

All chefs are inspired by something or somebody. Be it a famous chef, restaurant or cuisine. What do you do when you are inspired and young? You copy. You try to replicate it. And over time, you invent and find your own voice. We make our own version of it, and it’s the same with designers.

I myself have many inspirations. When it comes to chefs, the likes of Naoto Fukasawa and Dieter Rams put out really amazing dishes that excite me. When it comes to kitchens, I absolutely love the concepts of Wonderwall — a firm founded by Masamichi Katayama — because of the emotion they evoke, the user experience they deliver, the creative output and the care taken towards human empathy.

Looking at other tech companies, I appreciate the tone of voice and presentation of Intercom and really dig how Marvel and InVision are creating products for designers by designers. I take a bit of each of these ingredients and plate my own dish.

Leave Your Ego in the Pantry

One thing I learned through my unfinished journey was to set aside the ego. This was beautifully captured into words by Jeong Kwan in season three of Chef’s Table.

“Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly." — Jeong Kwan

"Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free. There is no way you can’t open up your creativity. There is no ego to speak of. That is my belief.”

Jeong Kwan (Baekyasa Temple) © Netflix

This one really hits home, as egos unfortunately have a major presence in the design world. Designers are of course very creative by nature, but this same creativity also breeds egoism.

This becomes a very dangerous game as our egos build silos and make us unreceptive to outside feedback. At Yieldr, we believe in the mantra iron sharpens iron, meaning we should continuously challenge our thoughts and ideas against those of others because it makes us better and stronger.

Just as a chef needs to have others taste his/her food before adding it to a menu, a designer needs to test his/her creations before releasing it to end users. Put simply — embrace the feedback!

Focus on the (User) Experience

I really fell in love when I started to see resemblance between their approach and respect towards food and mine towards design.

People need to eat. That’s a given. It’s one of our primary needs. It doesn’t need to taste or look good; it needs to keep our bellies full. Kind of like a product. There’s a MVP version, which does exactly that; fill our basic appetite, but nothing more.

But then the desire to eat food one truly enjoys arises. Simply eating for the sake of gaining sustenance no longer suffices. You can find this at your own dinner table or at a no-frills restaurant. As a chef or designer you could choose to stop here. You’ve done your job.

But if you want to excel and create something unforgettable then you need to push yourself to another level. People want to be wowed and experience something that exceeds their perception of food. This is so true in design as well.

Everyone can design the basics; a product that works. But if you are like me, that doesn’t satisfy you. Because you want to wow your users like a chef wows his/her diners.

One of the chefs that really resonated with me was Niki Nakayama of N/Naka. There was a modesty to her which spoke to me. Yes, she puts out amazing dishes, controls every technique, but she keeps herself in the background. It’s about the food and the customer enjoying it. Not about her.

Niki Nakayama (n/naka) © Netflix

One of her big takeaways while working at Takao was a very strong sense of responsibility to the guests that come in. And that’s something we as designers should all feel towards our users. But not just our users; also our colleagues (stakeholders) and engineers.

Takao believes, “When a customer returns to my restaurant, I already know what they’re going to order. Of course I know what you are going to order. You are my customer.”

I love this! We should all strive for this; knowing what our users need in any stage of their experience.

“I have this incredible sense of responsibility towards the guests who have made plans, saved and done their best to put together this experience for themselves, and I owe that to them to provide the experience I have envisioned for them.” — Niki Nakayama

We should all do this, especially designers. We can get so caught up by the design, development and marketing, but in the end there is a customer who is paying for your product. And we owe it to them to provide the experience we have envisioned for them they have envisioned for themselves.

Another core value at Yieldr is the user leads. This means everything we do should be done with empathy towards our customers. By keeping the user front and center and paying attention to details that enhance the overall experience, we as designers can strive for a new level of greatness.

Be Purposeful in the Details

The dish is the design. People see the end result. They don’t see what happens in the kitchen. That’s where we design. Where we cook.

There is a story behind every meal. It didn’t just end up there on your plate. Nothing is a coincidence. Everything on the plate is exactly where it should be. There is a consistency and harmony which is at the base of the experience.

The amount of attention to detail they put into a dish before sending it out is unfathomable. It’s something my team and I strive for; high quality is a way to pay respect to the customer.

Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn) © Netflix

The dish is the end design. Make sure everything which ends up on the plate has a purpose, adding something to the dish as a whole. The experience should be consistent for every customer. Consistency and harmony is one of our design principles at Yieldr. We expect our users to have a unified experience across all of our entities.

“When I’m plating a dish, my mind is completely shut off. It’s all based on feeling. This has to be there. This has to be here. This feels right here. This looks right here.” — Niki Nakayama

Niki Nakayama (n/naka) © Netflix

A good meal evokes emotion. Good design as well. This should all translate into an epic experience for the user.

Nakayama further articulates, “When I’m cooking, I’d put as much heart into it as I can. It translates to the people who eat the food."

Dish by Alex Atala (D.O.M.) © Netflix

Lead by Serving

Within the kitchen, you have the Head Chef that creates the menu and different cooks with different disciplines that each have their part in preparing the dish for the customer.

It’s very common that chefs no longer work in the trenches with the rest of the team. Instead they spend their time on thinking about how to push the menu.

In Season 1, Episode 2, we meet Dan Barber who is one of the chefs that still works in the trenches.

He asks himself, "Why haven’t I set up two kitchens where they truly run on their own? Why haven’t I figured out a formula where I’ve extricated myself?"

"It’s not just because I wanna drive the team. It also fulfills something in me that I need, apparently."

Personally, I still love to “play in the dirt” and get my hands dirty. Not only do I find this fulfilling and helps me stay in touch, but I think it’s a great example of leading by example. There is something so inspiring about being on the battlefield alongside your team.

Dan Barber (Blue Hill) © Netflix

In Season 3, Episode 5 we meet Tim Raue. A Berliner. Or as he is described, a Berliner Schnauze. That means you openly say what you think and you do what you think you have to do. Berliners just don’t take a certain politeness into consideration.

And this reflects in how he interacts with his brigade. “Sometimes I can be very mean… but I never cheat them, never betray them. I’m very straightforward.”

I wouldn’t say that I am a Berliner Schnauze and I definitely don’t think you should be mean to your team, but I do believe that you need to be straightforward. It needs clear language to lead.

This is one of the things we value here in our Design Team — open communication. So much time and energy can be saved simply by having direct, frank discussions with one another.

Within this same vein, In the episode about Grant Achatz he takes a more teamwork approach. There are nights where they take a look at their menu and collectively think about what they could do differently and change.

Grant Achatz (Alinea) © Netflix

I like the team effort in his approach where everyone’s opinion matters and every member contributes to the menu. He talks about the evolution of the experience being almost as important as the experience itself.

This approach is also a great way to keep things fresh. A red line throughout the series is that all the chefs at some moment in time get bored of their food, their menu and want to put out something new. Something that will excite the customer, but also themselves.

Which is a common theme in design. Most of the time we are perfecting, improving our dishes, but eventually there comes a time where we get bored and just need to reinvent ourselves by doing something completely new.

By getting the whole team involved and sharing ideas and inspiration, you can always take a new perspective. At Yieldr, we believe in thinking independently together. This means bringing our diverse international team together and tackling complex issues through our collective experiences.

This all goes back to my previous statement about iron sharpens iron. We believe that we get better through collaboration, communication and honest feedback.

Grant Achatz (Alinea) © Netflix

Last, but certainly not least, we believe in having fun. I’m a big believer that you need to have fun in what you do. And it will show in your work.

Mexican chef Enrique Olvera has a beautiful anecdote which describes this. “Just one day, out of nothing, I walked into the kitchen. And every time they had music on when I was not there. And I walked in and they turned it off.”

Over time he realized that he was taking things too seriously. “I was too obsessed trying to produce really high-quality food, and I forgot about having fun.”

So the next day he walked into the kitchen and told his team it was fine and to leave the music on.

That just changed the whole dynamic.

“Once the cooks were enjoying their work, they performed much better.”

While all of these chefs have different styles, you can take ingredients from each of them and find your own way of leading. One thing these varying styles have in common is that they lead by serving. They discover and do things in the best interest of the team. As a leader, it’s all about putting your team members in the best possible position to succeed.

While I could go on and on about Chef’s Table to the point of where it becomes religious, I’ll conclude by saying that inspiration can come from anywhere, including cooking. What we can take away from the kitchen is:

  • Enjoy the process and find inspiration along the way
  • Ditch your ego and be receptive to feedback
  • Focus on the Customer and Experience
  • Be detailed and make sure your details have a purpose
  • Lead by setting up your team for success

Now, let’s start cooking!

This article was originally published on Medium.

Robin van der Vliet

Robin van der Vliet

Head of Design at Yieldr