I Binge-Watched Top Chef and Learned 5 Things about Feedback

Managers often find it difficult to give clear, actionable feedback–especially when it’s negative. Almost everyone finds it difficult to take that feedback, but if you want to improve you need to listen. During the 2020 shutdowns, I managed to watch 16 seasons of Top Chef, and while my cooking hasn’t improved, my feedback–giving and receiving–have.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned (spoiler-free!):

1. You have room for improvement.

There wasn’t a single season in which one chef won all the challenges. There are around 25 challenges per season and the most one chef ever won was 13. It’s doubtful you don’t have room for improvement either–be willing to listen to feedback. 

2. Sometimes it’s all about the salt and pepper.

The judges often criticized chefs for too much or too little salt. Sometimes people do the difficult parts of the task very well, but leave out the basics and need to hear about it. Was the project done well and on time, but the email to the client full of grammatical errors? Was your data analysis brilliant but you came to the Zoom meeting with wet hair and an unmade bed in the background? Remember the little things matter.

3. Listen to the feedback given to others.

It’s clear that from Season Two on, the chef contestants know that “restaurant wars” is coming up. It’s also clear that they’ve watched the previous seasons’ restaurant wars and have heard the feedback given to previous contestants. Yet, they make the same mistakes–like not greeting the guests when they come in, not explaining dishes, not training the waitstaff, and tasting only the components of a dish, and not the dish as a whole. If you hear your boss giving your coworker feedback, pay attention, and apply that feedback should you be in the same situation.

4. Negative feedback doesn’t have to be mean.

Simon Cowell is famously rude when he judges. Gail Simmons is famously nice, as are Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, and all the guest judges. But, this doesn’t stop them from giving clear, negative feedback. If you did a terrible job, you’ll know it. But, you’ll also know why, so you can fix it the next round (if you aren’t told to “pack your knives and go”).  

5. The judges respect the contestants and vice versa.

While there is plenty of drama among the contestants, it’s clear that they all respect the judges. It’s also clear that the judges have high expectations of the contestants and respect them–or they wouldn’t have made it onto the show. Because of this mutual respect, most of the contestants take negative feedback seriously and improve their skills. The few contestants who believe they are smarter than the judges never do well.

It’s possible that the judges are wrong. It’s possible that your boss is wrong. It’s okay to push back (Colicchio even says he likes it when they push back), but remember that your boss is still the boss and the judges are still the judges. Ignore them at your peril.

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5 thoughts on “I Binge-Watched Top Chef and Learned 5 Things about Feedback

  1. I LOVE Top Chef!

    Interesting thing I noticed about Colicchio’s feedback, particularly in earlier seasons – while generally constructive, when certain guest judges were on he was much more likely to lean towards mean. The difference was most notable when the late Anthony Bourdain was on – as if Colicchio was more focused on bonding with the guest judge (by being snarky) than on the cheftestants.

    So to add 6 (or 5b?): focus on the person you’re giving feedback to – what you’ve observed, and what they need to hear, and don’t get caught up in what your peers/work friends might think.

    1. I would certainly care about that, especially if it was in a meeting with people outside of the organization.

    2. Yes. I would. I wouldn’t care about toys in the background and such–if you’re working from home and have kids, that may be the best you can do. And I totally understand if you’re working in your bedroom.

      But, if your bed will appear on camera, it should be made.

      Now, please note, I do video conferences from my bedroom all the time, and my bed is often unmade and i keep it out of camera range.

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