Painted in Waterlogue

Is it too far fetched to consider professional cooking – a sport? Are there enough similarities to view how a restaurant line operates and interject many of the facets of a winning sporting teams development and performance? I think that the comparisons are obvious.

[]         TALENT

Restaurant or team locker room – every successful performance group needs to always seek out the most compatible talent. At the same time – every sports team or kitchen understands that talent alone will not necessarily lead to success.

[]         CHEMISTRY

Beyond individual talent is the critical factor of group chemistry. Kitchens succeed when every player is in sync and individuals work from the premise that skills must complement every other member of the team. This “fit” is of consummate importance and the best leaders make sure that they hire for fit and train in an effort to always improve that reality.

[]         STUDY

When a football, basketball, baseball, or hockey player is not actively engaged in a game – he or she is engrossed in studying past performance, and how opposing teams operate. When on the field these players need to think like the opposition in order to combat their action plan. In the kitchen, it is essential that cooks self-critique and observe how each member of the team functions independently and as a group. It is this methodical study of action that allows cooks to improve and avoid making the same mistakes again.


The more that a group of people works together the stronger they become; the stronger they become, the more confident they are; the more confident they are, the more likely it is that success will result. Whether on the field of play or standing in front of a cherry red flat top range, the results of practice will always improve performance.

[]         SUPPORT

The best team is comprised of players who understand and support each other. When one member falters, others are there to step up and fill in the gaps. Even leadership within these organizations may move from player to player. Leadership need not simply be assigned to a person with that title. We have all seen this happen in great organizations – when the need arises, someone will stand tall and take the responsibility on his or her shoulders.


“Yes Coach” or “Yes Chef” is an essential response in organizations where immediate performance is expected. In the heat of the moment there is little room for any individual to question a method or decision. There will be plenty of time to ask those questions and pitch an alternative approach after the immediate need has passed. In the meantime, discipline is the rule of thumb.


Murphy’s Law proclaims that if you open the door to the possibility of something going wrong – it likely will. The best individuals and teams plan for the unexpected so that they are able to respond in a timely fashion if things go sideways. When you fail to plan, you are likely to fail in performance as a result.


Effective teams understand that there must always be someone else who is trained and mentally ready to step in to someone else’s shoes. Every football team has a bench replacement or two, or three, for every position on the field. The same is true in every sport and in every kitchen. The person working grill must be able to step into sauté or garde manger, every line cook must be ready to man the expeditor station, and every chef or sous chef must transition seamlessly to fill in for the breakfast cook if needed. Cross training is the key to consistency in kitchens.

[]         THE PLAYBOOK

What wins games? Is it the individual talent of players, the attitude of the team in the moment, the level of passion that exudes from leadership – or is it primarily a result of the game plan going into a competition? Every team has a game plan, every coach is judged on his or her prowess at building a plan, and many games are won because the plan is executed, as it should be. In the kitchen the plan includes, recipes, mise en place, effective station training, proper front-of-the-house door management, and the orchestration of timing through the kitchen expeditor. The playbook is as important as the talent of the individual cooks.


When a team is confident and prepared; when the team knows the playbook and individuals know the part that they play; when individuals know that they can and should be able to win – then the stage is set for great results. This is absolutely the same in a kitchen. Well-trained cooks, sufficient quality equipment, tight mise en place, and a desire to produce consistently high quality food within the time frame allowed will result in a great service.


Every member of a team is important, but when that rare exceptional person with talent, leadership ability, dependability, team orientation, and loads of confidence comes along – then the team will go the extra distance to keep him or her a part of the team. This is a key element of success in any organization – including restaurant kitchens. Take care of everyone who performs well and fits, but pay extra attention to those who command respect, work for the betterment of the whole, and who always step forward when needed.


We all long to work in an environment where a sense of family exists, but at the same time it does not serve the team (family) well if a person fails to contribute, improve, and work as a member of that team. Results do matter. This is true in sports and in kitchens.


We all make mistakes, but we need to learn how to work around them when they occur and work harder still to avoid a repeat of the mistakes. To assume that any athlete will always perform well is naïve – the same is true behind the range. Cooks do have bad days – it is the responsibility of the team to help those individuals shake it off, learn, and come back even stronger. In the meantime, the game is still being played and the customer must never feel the pain of defeat that the cook or athlete is experiencing in that moment.


If you have ever been to a football game for your home team and felt the surge of energy that comes from the crowd, then you can understand just how important that crowd (12th man) is to the team. The adrenaline shared by the audience can lift a team and push them further than they thought was possible. In the kitchen, it is the positive vibe from the chef, the manager, owner, service staff, and guest who can energize the team and get them over the hill to realize a great service.

The kitchen team seems vividly similar to a sporting team, or for that matter any group of people with a common goal. It takes the same discipline, preparation, cohesiveness, and talent to succeed in the kitchen as it does on the court, field, or ice.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

One response to “THE SPORT OF COOKING”

  1. Thank you Chef for this comparison, I will share this with my students!
    I make the baseball “five tool player” analogy all the time!

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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