Firm but not Abusive: Lessons from Chef Eric Ripert

Chef Eric Ripert demonstrates the fine line between genius and foaming-at-the-mouth abuse in his 2017 autobiography 32 Yolks. He would know, too, having earned his culinary chops under the breathtakingly imperious Joel Robuchon in 1980s Paris.

Chef Eric tells us that Robuchon liked to stand on an elevated platform in the Jamin kitchen, an eagle’s nest from which no small error escaped his gaze and verbal reprimands designed to invoke fear spewed from his lips. One thinks here of symphony orchestra conductors of an earlier generation such as the Berlin Philharmonic’s Herbert von Karajan, who excelled as demeaning and dehumanizing his acolytes. Nonetheless, such cruelty came from a gifted genius with a record of prodigious achievement who made many of his people better at their jobs. Ingmar Bergman, Bobby Knight and Sir Alex Ferguson, anyone?

To underscore Robuchon’s approach, Ripert also wrote in 32 Yolks that chefs at Jamin were required to sign in and out for bathroom breaks. It seems the boss thought they were spending too much time in la salle de bain. As Ripert put it, “Cruelty is one of fear's most common by-products.” The book The No Asshole Rule (2010) by Stanford’s Robert Sutton certainly comes to mind here.

The cost of workplace abuse is often incalculable. How many employees check out emotionally, then mentally and, ultimately, physically in the face of tyrannical bosses with immense personal insecurities? The number seems countless. Given this incalculability, we can never really assess the lost productivity and sacrificed innovation owing to the personal demons of some people in leadership positions. There is no appropriately holistic accounting line item for the many Costs of Abuse.

And yet, if only it was all that easy. After all, people choose to continue working for cruel bosses. Why? Well, many folks need the job and feel like economic hostages. Some people remain in place because they want the personal brand-building association with the mad genius. They want to learn about their craft from the very best, about the insistence on the highest-possible standards and, yes, like so many of us, about what not to do as a leader.

These workplaces become Darwinian proving grounds that can help people understand what it takes to be great, to achieve it and then to sustain it– if employees survive. In reality, of course, some professions are more naturally the domain of the totalitarian master. The restaurant business with its traditional brigade mentality is certainly one of them. Remember the 2012 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi? Good grief.

Professor Sutton is right to remind us that context really matters. As he told MIT's Michael Schrage in a 2013 Harvard Business Review piece, "'To me it is all about context and culture,' he told me via email, 'and the history of the relationship. So in some settings, yelling is accepted and is not viewed as a personal insult, but an expected part of leadership.'" Yes, some outbursts are just fine as long as they boost learning and motivation and do not become habitual or personal.

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen? Well, sure. Let’s work to ensure, however, that kitchens and all workplaces are generating more light than heat. That’s what prompted Chef Eric to write in 32 Yolks, "Maybe there was a way to lead without using anger and fear as the primary tools." Well, he’s doing so, perhaps leavened over the years by his conversion to Buddhism and its daily, meditative rituals. He is balancing in his leadership of the wildly successful, Michelin 3-star Le Bernardin a commitment to decency and humanity with firm, ongoing expectations for maintaining the highest possible standards. In walking this fine line, he is a model for us all.

Image courtesy of The Sales Blog.