Monday, June 1, 2009

In Search of Excellence

Of late, one of the best shows about quality and service I have found is Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. The restaurant business can easily be compared to the photography business.

Food = Images
Kitchen = Darkroom/Post-Production space/Image Management
Decor = Photographer attire
Servers = level of service
Hostess stand = initial phone call
Roaming manager = follow-up after shoot

And so on. What I like so much about Ramsay is his commitment - and demand - for excellence. He demands excellence at every turn. Here is a clip from his show:

You must unequivocally be committed to the highest level of excellence as a photographer for every client for every shoot.

(Another video, after the Jump)

Here's another clip:

And one more:

Ramsay makes no excuses for his level of expectation, and neither should you.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Dave Buchanan said...

I am happy to see that I am not the only photographer that gets Chef Ramsey. He accepts no excuses for not meeting his expectations of quality. He sometimes come accross as a bit of a jerk until you understand his passion.

Thanks for the post !

AdvRdr said...

My son-in-law is an Executive Chef (married to my oldest daughter a Pastry Chef) who's worked all over the country at top-rated restaurants. It was a real eye-opener for me when I started listening to his kitchen stories and those of his pals from some of DC's premier eateries.

Not all Executive Chef's manage the kitchen the way Ramsey does -- but they all have a passion for excellence. Those with fired-up tempers can create problems for themselves and the restaurants they are associate with.

For example, Richard at Citronelle threw one temper tantrum too many and his entire staff walked out between the lunch and dinner servings on day awhile ago. He had to scramble to find replacements -- teach them how to prepare the items on the menu -- while assuring management that the evenings reservations would be honored without damaging Citronelle's reputation.

One highly respected Exec Chef in DC had it with a customer who kept sending back her steak because it wasn't cooked 'raw' to her expectations. The chef went to the fridge and grabbed a raw steak -- walked to her table -- picked up her fork and with it -- slammed the steak onto her plate. He then told her that no one questions his kitchen.

From what I've seen and heard about, chefs and their kitchens are far more violatile than any shooter I know.

But your analogy makes some sense. But I disagree with the restaurant decor = the photographer's attire. I'd say the decor is more aligned to the shooter's photographic style/vision. As is the menu. Both are an expression of the Chef/Owners vision.

Anonymous said...

I feel that photography is far more sophisticated and complex from a artistic,social and technical standpoint to compare to Hells Kitchen.

It does however, exactly compare to the types of photographers out there that feel they are the only one's with the right to call themselves photographers and would love use this comparison as an excuse for their poor behavior imho. Present company excluded.

Anonymous said...

Nobody likes working with (or for) an asshole.

Most of these guys in these videos seem like ones, immediately blaming others for their collective mistakes ("you're making me look like a moron...").

Reality TV has made it more acceptable for people to behave like assholes. Glamorizing such behavior hurts everyone.

Hopefully, good photographers will recognize that their clients (and employees, assistants, suppliers, etc.) will want to work with them because they have a genuine concern for these relationships and treat others as fellow human beings.

Being an asshole doesn't.

When I encounter a fellow photographer with an attitude and approach like Ramsey, I want nothing whatsoever to do with him or her.

Why on earth would you think this is something photographers should aspire to?

Anonymous said...

"... Why on earth would you think this is something photographers should aspire to?"


Unknown said...

Unfortunately, since the video is hosted on Hulu, it's unavailable outside the US....

Arsenio Locsin said...

Insulting and degrading behavior are not justifications for motivating people to your passion and standards of excellence. You can just as easily inspire others to meet or exceed your level of passion and excellence through positive actions.

I would not want to berate others with very easy access to very sharp knives, very heavy pots, and fire.

Boston Photographer-MWynne said...

Very interesting comparison. I have found that most photographers I speak to that attended school for photography also considered going to school to be chefs.

There should never be any excuses. It's either right or it isn't.

Anonymous said...

As a photographer i would never aspire to being anything like Chef Ramsay. Yes, the pursuit of excellence is grand and all that, but at all costs? He comes across as an asshole at worst and a jerk at best. I used to watch his show but dislike his belittling approach to education on the job in front of their peers. It like yelling at pigs: it does nothing for them and makes you look like a fool for trying.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what Beaumont Newhall, the legendary curator and an excellent chef, would think about this misguided hpothesis? The drive for excellence is one thing but abuse as a means of management, hidden in the guise of raising what Howel Raines called "creative metabolism", just sounds one of the myriad dysfunctional newsrooms in the business. The resounding characteristic of photography masters I have met has been their down to earth humility which is part and parcel to their abilitiy to connect with their subjects and inspire those they teach. Sorry Jon, you put this one up and it is wide right!

Anonymous said...

The business of photography already has too many jerks in it.

It's a sad day when someone who should be respected in the industry, like you John, holds such behavior in high regard. You do a tremendous disservice to your fellow photographers, and yourself when you promote such behavior as a "pursuit of excellence."

We could all do with a lot less of this kind of self-important attitude and ego. As others wrote here previously, you really blew it on this one, John.

John Harrington said...


No one likes to see how sausage is made. I am not celebrating beratement here, but rather his absolute commitment to the best quality food and service, and he consistently gets top ratings where it counts.

He also suffer no fools, and there are many poseurs in the food service business. I will highlight one in a day or so from the show.

If you think I blew it on this one you have missed the point of the post.

Anonymous said...

No, John. I think you are missing the point.

You seem to be arguing that the end justifies the means here -- that it's OK to treat people you work with like crap because it means they live in fear of you. Thinking that because the end result (product) is judged to be of superior quality, is nothing more than short-sighted justification for continuing to be an asshole.

You have to remember the classic triangle of elements that keep good people around - whether they be clients, customers, or even employers/employees.

Those elements are:
1) the job,
2) the people, and
3) the pay (price).

Most people need at least two of these three elements working in their favor in order to continue in a professional relationship.

In other words, we'll work for very little money if the job is interesting AND the people we work with are stimulating. Or, we'll tolerate working with jerks and a**holes, as long as the job is interesting AND we're getting paid well.

But if you only have one of these elements working in your favor, you're not likely to last long.

For a photographer, being an a**hole like Chef Ramsey and others in your videos, means you've already cut one leg off of your support tripod. If either of the others come up short, you've lost your client - no matter how "excellent" your results might be. In particular, you've backed yourself into a corner of having to offer "good" (i.e. low, from the client's perspective) pricing.

If you're a jerk and you charge high prices, no client is going to want to work with you or hire you. If you're a jerk and you don't pay terribly well, no assistant, stylist, or office staffer is going to want to work for you either, no matter how interesting the job might be. When your support staff and your clients both go away, your ability to produce "excellence" goes away in turn.

John, you either got sucked into the reality TV myth that a Simon Cowell or Chef Ramsey approach is the key to success in life, or you just didn't express yourself terribly well.

Frankly, as a fellow photographer OR a client, I wouldn't want to have anything to do with you if you were to follow the lead of these guys in your own "pursuit of excellence."

Anonymous said...

Dear John:

Make sure you don't miss the point here. The people that post here and visit your blog do so out of respect for you. That should be an honor to you and I'm sure it is.

Other websites leverage their experience and contacts to control those who seek to rise through the ranks and be a part of their profession. They use words like spewed, bottom feeder, posures, wipe hard and often, asshole and many many more. They use black lists and have joy when they can facilitate or be a part of bringing another person to their knees. Nuff said.

Your different and respected for your knowledge and generousity. It's unbecoming of you in the recent posts, to be resorting to the kinds of speech and references you are using.

I guess you guys at the top don't realize that your very different from those you shoot but you are similar in certain ways as well. Here is a link you should watch.

There are so many people in the world who have never had the opportunity to be a photographer and digital gave many that opportunity.

There are also many women who have slaved and worked harder than any of you could hope to raising a family and have done it with integrity and now are putting themselves out there following a passion and a dream. They come here too and they trust you. There is an honor for you.

There are so many talented and accomplished people in their own fields of endeavor who love photography and hang on every bit of knowledge you share.

Be honored and respectful to those hero worshippers who come to you for an autograph (figuratively). Lose those with the kinds of disrespectful attitudes that feel otherwise. Life is not about money it's about character and compassion imho.

Thank god you respect individuality. It's refreshing.

Your a leader John. Lead don't follow.

Be well.

Charles Carstensen's Blog said...

Chef Ramsay is an ID10T. He could not lead me to a drink of water.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment above; but in the DC world of photo, John hasn't been much of a leader. People seek him out, on occasion, for business advice but that's it. This past year he's notched it up a bit because he wanted a certain association position and in doing so he's step on a few toes and alienated others. But all in all he's just another photographer, one with a vocal agenda.

Anonymous said...


You left out depth, intellengence and quite a few other adjectives that sets him apart. If he stepped on a few toes he should wear that as a badge of courage imho.

From my vantage point over the last ten years, I've seen Hyaena's with better manners than many in this profession.

No disrespect to you intended.

Anonymous said...

Jon wrote:" No one likes to see how sausage is made. I am not celebrating beratement here, but rather his absolute commitment to the best quality food and service, and he consistently gets top ratings where it counts. "

In a word, bullshit.

Jon, there is a legend of unemployed sausage makers who have been dispatched by absolutist newsroom managers posessing
a fraction of the experience of those whom they have shown the door.
Most of those editors had an "absolute commitment to the best quality" of picture editing but their newsrooms didn't give a rat's ass. Most of them are kind and encouraging coaches and mentors and don't need abusive tactics to inspire excellence. Somehow their value wasn't properly recognized. Let's explore that disintegration instead of poofing a horribly abusive celebrity chef, por favor.

Chris said...

He's a tough customer but it is a tough business. It's tougher than photography.

In nearly all of Ramsay's shows the suffering restaurant is a small family business which is about to destroy that family's financial tree.

When more than 90 percent of businesses fail in the restaurant world, sparing complacent and unaccountable individuals' feelings isn't a luxury many can afford.

My fiance works in the restaurant world. I've spoken with many prominent chefs and they all said the same thing:

Every great dining experience you ever experienced was pure hell for the people that delivered it to you.

Chefs have to be tyrants. The level of hostile bluntness isn't necessary so much in photography but that level of comittment is necessary.

Anonymous said...

One highly respected Exec Chef in DC had it with a customer who kept sending back her steak because it wasn't cooked 'raw' to her expectations. The chef went to the fridge and grabbed a raw steak -- walked to her table -- picked up her fork and with it -- slammed the steak onto her plate. He then told her that no one questions his kitchen.

Urban myth

Anonymous said...

If your brilliant you can get away with far more of this behavior than when you are merely average. I am not saying it is right but it is the case.

btw It's only a tv show folks. Do you really believe he is that harsh in his own kitchen? (Though, I am sure he is tough.) If you watch the BBC version of the show, he is much less harsh.

Newer Post Older Post