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Pomegranate. Coconut. Raspberry. Lavender Sponge. Mint.

5 Things I Learned about Design in a Michelin Star Kitchen

Chia Lin
Chia Lin
May 3, 2016 · 7 min read

In 2015, I spent a year working as a Pastry Cook in the searing heat of a Michelin Star kitchen so I could become a thick-skinned badass who stood up for herself. On the first day, I was yelled at in front of the entire kitchen of 30 by the head chef /owner. No I don’t know what I did wrong.

A lot of people ask me what it’s like in a Michelin Star kitchen.

“Is it all Gordon-Ramsay-flying-spit status?”

I always laugh.

“But yeah,” I’d say, “Pretty much.”

But it’s not just about the rain. In a Michelin Star kitchen, you’re expected to crush it, day in and day out.

“Everything has to be on point. All the time. All. The. Time.”

No matter what kind of trash talk, pressure, physical things are thrown your way. A plate on a 250 cover night is expected to look exactly the same as a plate on a 70 cover night. They don’t care that you had 40 seconds as opposed to 140 to finish an order. Time is just an excuse.

In a Michelin Star kitchen you push through everything.

Sickness, food poisoning, hangover, sleep deprivation, hunger, injuries, breakups, family emergencies. Taking a day off is a sign of weakness.

“Don’t complain to me about working 6 day weeks. All the sous worked 4 months straight with no days off when we opened.”

“If you wanted holidays to spend with your family, you’re in the wrong business.”

There are no excuses.

In case you’re wondering, I’m no longer in the restaurant business, unless you count the eating business. I am now a product designer working with startups to improve their digital products, but I want to share with you five takeaways I’ve found to be impactful beyond the restaurant industry.

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Teamwork. (Sock game strong).

1. Shrug Rigidity

The kitchen is set up in a way that holds individuals responsible for specific items. But no one person or one station is completely autonomous. It’s a team effort or “one team one dream” as we used to call it.

When s**t goes down (and it goes down a lot) it’s up to us to make it work with whatever we’ve got. The people who work and thrive in a restaurant kitchen all have one thing in common: we aren’t afraid of change. We think on our feet, we adapt, we try new things, we get critiqued, we get yelled at, and we’re comfortable with it.

And this is synonymous to what a design process looks like. You can plan and prep all you want, but sometimes things fall apart, clients are unhappy, files are lost. You’ve just got to think on your feet and make do with what you’ve got.

It’s ok to put out work-in-progress, it’s not ok to get defensive about critique. It’s ok to try new things and have it fail spectacularly; it is not ok to stubbornly stick to process and routine. It is ok to lean on each other; it is not ok to bail during tough times. In the end all that matters is doing good work. Doing correct work. Doing it as a team.

2. Decide. Execute. Fail. Repeat.

Everything I put on a plate goes out there, to a real person, with real eyes and a real mouth and stomach and tastebuds and everything.

The first plate I ever plated was atrocious, I apologize to that unfortunate soul — I bet you gained a few karma points. But I did it without hesitation, got critiqued, and did it again. Every plate is part of a constant process of improvement. It’s about perfectionism in the long run, not about perfectionism in the moment.

A lot of designers are scared of showing the works-in-progress out of pride, fear of criticism, or of appearing incompetent. It is important to show work early, show it often, and never let the feedback define your self worth.

It’s business. Not you.

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Tomato. Plum. Pomegranate Molasses. Goat Cheese. Fennel Sorbet. Buckwheat,

3. Internalize Satisfaction

Contrary to what Food Network has made you believe, as a chef, you rarely get recognized for your work. When was the last time you had a truly mind blowing meal? Did you think of the people who slaved over it 14 hours a day for three straight months without any days off?

It’s similar for designers. Good design is often invisible. When it’s done well, no one talks about you (which suits my on-going plan of staying out-of-the limelight but that’s a separate problem for me to handle).

Coming from the background I come from, I’ve one piece of advice to give: learn to internalize the sense of satisfaction. I cannot hinge my metric of success on whether the client tells me he loves me and wants to adopt me as a third daughter. Sometimes they will be angry. Sometimes they will be disappointed. All you’ve got to tell yourself is, “I did the right work. I made the right decisions.” That should be all you need to feel proud of a project.

Internalize that gratification.

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Honey and Almond- Almond granita. Meringue. Pollen. Beeswax. Honey.

4. Exhibiting Discipline

After one year in the kitchen, I walked away with my guiding principle:

OHIO — Only Handle It Once

If it’s a matter you can finish in one go and finish well, do it. No one likes sifting through a file and aligning all the elements to the grid, but if it can be done once and done right, take 2 hours and get it out of the way.

And if you don’t like what you’re doing, do it faster.

I often ask myself and ask my friends when we want to put off doing something undesirable, “Will it be easier to do this now or to do it later?”

If the answer is now, do it now. Stop being lazy. No negotiations.

If it’s later, do it later. This is a mixture of priority and efficiency. Find the balance and only handle it once.

I once sillily lined up 6 usability tests back to back with no breaks in between. I could’ve cancelled, but it was easier to just push through and do it then. So we did. The four of us powered through 12 back-to-back usability tests in one go. And it was glorious.

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Panna Cotta. Watermelon Granita. Pickled Rose Petals. Mint.

5. Grow Thick Skin

And of course, I cannot finish this article without touching on the stress aspect of working in a kitchen. When I began my time in the restaurant business, I had one goal in mind: grow thick skin.

Growing up, I was an intensely introverted and reserved girl with overactive tear ducts and traitorously large eyes. Tears come and there is no way to hide them. And I did not want to be the sensitive girl who cried in stressful situations.

Remember how I got yelled at on my first day? Oh yeah, you guessed right, I definitely cried. And that for sure wasn’t the last time. Times get rough in a kitchen, when it gets to be too much, you take 10 seconds to breathe and let the tears out, but your hands don’t stop, your feet don’t stop.

Though cursing and abuse [hopefully] don’t exist in the design world, working with clients and stakeholders can still be intensely stressful. A lot can be said about someone who remains cool and composed even in times of high pressure, and that’s definitely a skill useful in any role.

In beautifully symmetric symbolism, on my last day in the kitchen I also got yelled at by the head chef/owner. This time, I calmly looked at him, explained myself, and walked away.

No tears. No cringing. No hurt feelings.

Just a new layer of thick skin ready for all kinds of arrows life wants to throw at me.

*Now, there are truck loads (and then some) of people with much more experience, insight, wisdom to offer than I have. Hopefully they can find some morsels in my post to identify with. I would love to hear opinions, stories, or anything at all from dear chef friends out there. Thanks for reading my two cents.

**All photos and plating done by yours truly. Creation credit to my tremendously talented head pastry chef Melissa.

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