Team Building and Corporate Culture: Hell’s Kitchen vs Ace of Cakes

Team Building: Fostering a Vibrant Team Based Culture – Hell’s Kitchen vs Charm City Cakes

by Anne Thornley-Brown M.B.A., President

Executive Oasis International

Believe it or not, Charm City Cakes and Hell’s Kitchen have a lot in common.

  1. They are both involved in the culinary arts.
  2. The time pressure is intense in both environments.
  3. Both environments are turbulent and rapidly changing.
  4. Both “organizations” are small, involving teams full a team of 16 people.
  5. Charm City Cakes and Hell’s Kitchen are both team environments.
  6. To succeed in both environments, creativity and brainstorming is important.
  7. Chef Gordon Ramsay and Chef Duff Goldman both have high standards and a passion for excellence.
  8. Chef Gordon Ramsay and Chef Duff Goldman both have a reputation for producing outstanding results.
  9. Chef Gordon Ramsay and Chef Jeffrey “Duff” Goldman both celebrate success, praise and reward top performers.

Here the similarities end. If you’ve never seen these shows, take a peek at these clips that will give you a taste for the shows, a glimpse of the personality of the chefs. In the second tape in each set, you can listen to each chef speak about his philosophy of leadership:

Hell’s Kitchen



Ace of Cakes




Chef Gordon Ramsay and Chef Jeffrey “Duff” Goldman are both entrepreneurs who place a high value on quality. They excel in their work and have a clear vision of the kind of environment they want to create.

They use different approaches to team member selection. Chef Goldman tends to hire people he knows or who his employees know. While this smacks of nepotism, it is his way of ensuring that new team members possess an artistic fair, the people skills and a work style that will be a good fit with the Charm City Cakes work environment. His emphasis is on assessing performance skills and basic techinical skills. He then trains his staff to create exceptional cakes.

Chef Ramsay usually selects people who have some experience as chefs or line cooks. He also hires talented graduates from culinary arts academies. He puts them through a range of challenges to build their skills. Chef Ramsay provides coaching, praise for work well done and generous rewards. His style of providing corrective feedback is aggressive, over the top and “in your face”. He throws temper tantrums, throws and kicks things. It’s very intimidating.

In contrast to the Charm City Cakes’ calm, collaborative and nuturing environment, to work at Hell’s Kitchen involves having a high tolerance for yelling, screaming and insults.

At Charm City Cakes, no one is insulted or humiliated in public when their efforts fail. In fact, at Charm City Cakes employees are encouraged to experiment, try new things and help each other. In Hell’s Kitchen, while teamwork is important, you just don’t see the red kitchen reaching out to help the blue kitchen when they are in trouble.

So why the difference. It has a lot to do with the personalities of the “owners”. Gordon Ramsay’s leadership style is highly confrontational. Duff Goldman uses a more supportive and nurturing style of leadership and coaching. While it’s easy to foster a vibrant team culture in which everyone looks forward to coming to work, as companies grow, the “fun factor” often slips away.

Many companies start out with a corporate culture that is similar to Charm City Cakes and, as they grow, the culture becomes more like Hell’s Kitchen. In the absence of the substantial rewards, generous praise for successes, and other positive qualities listed earlier, companies experience difficulty retaining top talent and eventually, corporate performance dives. Contestants may put up with harsh treatment for a short period in the hopes of winning a valuable prize. Top performers will simply find other jobs. Weak performers will stay and sabotage corporate success.

To foster the type of corporate culture that is displayed at Charm City Cakes in large companies isn’t easy. Charm City Cakes is run by a group of friends who already work and interact well together. This type of culture won’t happen automatically when one brings a group of strangers together to form a team. A vibrant, innovative and team based culture has to be by design. It starts at the top and every member of the organization must be committed to developing the type of culture that Charm City Cakes exhibits.

Keys to Shaping a Vibrant Team Based Culture

Here are some of the key ingredients to shaping a vibrant, supportive and innovative team based culture.

  1. Clear mission and vision for organization must be identified by senior management team and clearly communicated.
  2. The cultural characteristics, values and supporting behaviours need to be identified and articulated.
  3. Identify the performance & technical competencies and skills needed to exceed customer expectations and define them clearly.
  4. Design your talent selection (through competency based interviewing), performance management, talent development, and career management processes around the values, cultural characteristics, competencies, and skills you have identified and defined.
  5. Develop a rewards and recognition strategy with generous incentives for members of your team that exemplify the specific behaviours and attitudes you want to reinforce and provide excellent role models.

In many organizations, lip service is given to certain values and behaviour but people who produce results in a manner that is contrary to what has been identified as the ideal get rewarded. Here are some of the important keys. Yelling and screaming at employees, an abrasive interaction style, and leadership by intimidaton may boost TV ratings. However, treating employees in this manner has no place in 21st century corporations.

Cultural Characteristics in Both Kitchens

  • Commitment to Task
    (Willingness to do Whatever it Takes to Produce Results)
  • Passion for Excellence
  • Open Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Persistence

Cultural characteristics & values at Charm City Cakes

  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Respect
  • Risk Taking
  • Spirit of Fun
  • Cross-Functional Teamwork
    (Notice at Charm City when 1 person is stuck, other team members will roll up their sleeves and assist)
  • Client Care Orientation

Some Helpful Tools

There is a lot more that I could say but I will leave it at that and share some tools and resources that can assist organizations as they attempt to clarify the type of culture they want to create, identify competencies and skills and add the right individuals to their team.

For team leaders who have an abrasive interaction style, 360 degree feedback and assessment tools. In fact, the use of these tools when making decisions about who to promote could help reduce the number of “toxic” managers and executives in corporations.

Tools for Identifying Performance Competencies & Skills

Lominger has a suite of excellent Career Architect tools that can help identify performance competencies and skills for any position or cluster of positions.

Tools for Formulating Developmental Plans

The Successful Executive’s Handbook and the Successful Manager’s Handbook by Personnel Decisions have a range of strategies for developing specific competencies and skills.

Business Simulations for Executives to Improve People Skills

  • Human Interaction Laboratory, NTL Institute
  • Centre for Creative Leadership has a number of simulations
  • The Niagara Institute – has a number of simulations

Business Simulations to Improve Teamwork & Cross Functional Teamwork

Executive Oasis International has a number of facilitated business simulations that give teams an opportunity to work on real or simulated project within a tight timeframe.

Cooking Simulatons

Through these simulations participants learn valuable lessons about producing results as a team by cooking gourmet dishes and setting up a simulated restaurant. They can be offered anywhere in the world but we have alliances with facilities in Toronto, Montreal, NOTL, Mont Tremblant, Jamaica, Dubai, Oman.

Let’s be clear, these simulations don’t just involve a group of people getting together to cook for fun. Yes they are a lot of fun but there is a lot more to a business simulation than “fun”. First, there is a team formation stage to ensure that the skills on each team are balanced. Each session starts with a full briefing linking working as a team to create a meal or run a restaurant to the challenges of working as a team in the business world. If you so desire, there can be trained observers or videographers for each team. A professional facilitator debriefs the whole experience. Finally, after enjoying their creations, teams are re-configured. Based on what they have learned in the simulation, they tackle real world business challenges from their day-to-day work environment and generate solutions.

Other Team Building Simulations to Enhance Corporate Culture:

Also available globally, to improve cross-functional team building and enhance project management skills:

Talent Selection & Development

To help organizations improve their talent selection and talent development processes, The Training Oasis, Inc. offers:

Photo Credit: pvsbond

Photo Credit: schultzlabs

Photo Credit: mindspiker

7 thoughts on “Team Building and Corporate Culture: Hell’s Kitchen vs Ace of Cakes

  1. sportsfuncorp says:

    Hiring creative people requires you let them do what they love to do. They enjoy creating and not the boring aspects of running a business like payroll, accounts receivable and sales. The second step is getting out of their way.

  2. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. says:

    I agree. Chef Duff knows the people he hires personally (or a member of his team knows them). He is aware of their artistic design skills and people skills before he hires them. Job interviews, assessment centres, reference checks, etc. try to gain this knowledge and assess perfect strangers in a relatively short period of time.

    I think you drew an interesting parallel between Hell’s Kitchen and an Emergency Room. You could say the same thing about Fire Departments and Police Stations during an emergency. Mind you, a restaurant kitchen does not involve life and death situations but the pace and pressure are intense. If you were to go into your hospital emergency room and the doctors and nurses were screaming and swearing at each other, that would not instill any confidence in their ability. Yes communication has to be firm, direct, decisive, and, in an emergency, one way. However, dignity, respect and a spirit of calm are essential. These are the missing ingredients at Hell’s Kitchen.

  3. michael cardus says:

    I have long thought about this.
    Charm City cakes – although you do not see it, hires talent already that are capable of doing the work. They match time span and ability to the work to be done. If someone screws up one of their expensive cakes I am sure they get spoken to.

    What HK is all about is pressure that is felt in the throws of work. I would like to think of it as an Emergency room. The patient is dying there is not time for arguing and lack luster work, you have to save the person.

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