Business lessons from Masterchef


This articles first appeared in Marklives.

Slumped on the sofa, glass of wine in hand, watching a handful of frantic Aussies desperately spill and burn things while the clock ticks — one wouldn’t think it was the ideal place to learn life (or business) lessons. But life is funny like that and sometimes the greatest little gems of insight pop up when least expected.

I had one of those moments recently, when catching up on a Masterchef extravaganza. British celebrity chef, restaurateur and TV personality Marco Pierre White was stomping around the room, leaving quivering aspirant chefs in his wake, while making them mindlessly chant “Yes, Marco!” each time he barked an instruction or insult. Gripping TV at its finest.

But, in the middle of his tirade, a lucid comment about some unappealing disaster of a meal stayed with me and made me think: “Perfection is a lot of little things done well.”

Isn’t that true of so many things, especially, I think, a successful business?

I have written at length before about how important attention to detail is. A stroppy email bcc’d to the wrong person; a mistimed tweet about a sensitive subject; or a typo-ridden piece of communication have all been subject of our derision or cause of some poor soul’s redundancy package. For how can an agency position itself as an expert in communications, and charge for it, when it cannot get even the simple things right?

On the flipside, I’ve always believed that a strong business or brand is one that pays attention to all those little things — one that ensures that, every single time someone comes into contact with its branding, people or physical presence, she or he has a consistent and pleasant experience. A lot of little things done well, in truth.

In keeping with the Masterchef theme, and White in particular, another of his favourite sayings is “Time is not your friend; it’s your enemy.” Again, perhaps there’s something to be learned by us armchair-foodies that we can take into real life — For those who do well in the time-pressured situations on TV are those who have focused on their mise en place, simply translated from French as “putting in place” or “preparation”.

For we PR types, our mise en place is not the chopping of millions of vegetables or deshelling of hundreds of prawns, but rather the slow and steady planning and preparation that belies a good campaign or piece of work. It’s an exercise of mindfulness and concentration.

There are many people I have come across who believe that the loudest or most-noticeable person in the room is the most competent, often the one running around making everyone else run in circles.

Yet I would argue that the ones who really have it all under control are those who are quietly keeping things moving in the background — the ones who have thought out each potential issue in advance and prepared for it; the ones who have come equipped with the tools to make things happen and the phone numbers of people who can make it happen if they can’t. Yes, the ones who have done their mise en place.

Who would have thought that little gems of insights could come from watching reality TV? I don’t suppose much can be learned from the latest episode of the Kardashians, except perhaps how to be vulgar and how to stretch the boundaries of good taste. But I do think that inspiration and life learnings may unexpectedly come from many places, so why not in a plate of steaming risotto or the bottom of a beverage glass?

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to