How Flow States Fuel the Kitchen
You're working on the line in a hot kitchen on a busy Saturday night. Service is about to start. Everything is ready to go, you just have to wait for the orders to start coming in. In this calm before the storm, you have a few moments to relax and joke around with the rest of the team. First order comes in. Everyone springs into action. You fire the Appetizers. Mains get set up. The timing is established. Second Order comes in. Fire Appetizers. Mains Set up. "Time on apps table 1?" "Two minutes!" you reply as you finish cooking the appetisers and get plates set up. Third order comes in, immediately followed by the Fourth and Fifth. Check apps for second order. Finish plating apps for first order. "Pickup table 1 apps!" Fire apps for order three four and five. Sixth order comes in. Plate apps for second order. "Pickup!" Check on apps for orders. Fire apps for sixth order. Plate apps for third order. "Pickup!" Fourth and fifth order. "Pickup!" Orders flying in, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth. Fire apps. Plate sixth. Check cooking. Plate. "Pickup!" Repeat. Time disappears. Only the rhythm of the work. Eleventh, twelfth. Fire. Orders come in and fly out with equaling speed. Everything comes out perfectly. Thirteenth. Fire. You're lost in the action. Hours Pass. Right now there's only the work. "Pickup!" Then, next thing you know, you're done. No more appetisers tonight. You move to support the rest of the team. Same rhythm, even more communication. Service finishes. Kitchen celebrates and cleans up. Flow has made this incredible level of performance possible.
What is a flow state?
Flow is a state of extreme focus and effortless productivity. Flow is an optimal state of consciousness from which we gain increased performance and happiness. In flow, everything except for the task at hand slips away out of mental cycles. We move fully towards a single goal, losing ourselves in the process to make great strides. Flow is free and available to everyone, everywhere, you only need to trigger it.
Flow states are integral to kitchen operations. Without flow, the work of a professional kitchen becomes much harder and slower. Flow gives us effortless productivity and intense focus in our work. Without flow, it would be nigh impossible to do an efficient service. You need to be able to keep track of order tickets, what you're currently cooking, and timing it all with the rest of the team. It's a common phenomena for restaurant staff to realise during a lull in service how much time has passed in what seemed like a short while. This is a marker of flow. In flow, self and time disappear to make room for the intense focus and productivity it grants us. Flow states are vital for any kitchen operation. I'm sure we've all had a few shifts where for whatever reason we couldn't get into the flow of the kitchen. Things become harder to us than they should be, we lose track of the orders we're working on, things take longer than before, and we make more mistakes. It's much more difficult to work in kitchens when you can't tap into flow. Lucky for us, the nature of work in the kitchen sets the stage for launching us into flow states. By understanding what helps to trigger a flow state, we can look at what we can do to help encourage them for our own benefit.
Flow triggers relevant to the restaurant industry
(Sourced and adapted from The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler)
In the kitchen, we know what the outcome should be for a dish. Having this in the back of our mind, we don't need to constantly try and figure out what we need to do next. It's a set process that we need to work through. This helps us focus on what we're doing moment to moment.
While cooking, you get the immediate feedback through your senses. You can see how ingredients react to cooking. You smell the cooking. Taste, though, is the most important for us, seeing as we work to produce something for our guests to taste. By tasting a dish as it comes along in the cooking process, we get the feedback from our work. If something's wrong, we can correct it immediately, instead of having to go searching for an answer. We stay in the flow by getting feedback from the work as we complete it.
Challenge : Skills Ratio
When you're pushing yourself a little in the kitchen, you force yourself to focus on what you're doing. The goal is to be on the edge of challenge without trying to do something too daunting. Small challenges will force your attention into the minutia of your actions, encouraging flow. If a task is too simple for you and becomes a bit boring, then there's no need for flow. Not for mindless activities. Push that little bit more.
Being in a Rich Environment
Working in the kitchen, you will get used to the kitchen itself after a little while, but the things that go on in it are always changing. This novelty forces you to pay attention and focus on what's going on. Changing menus, special projects, new hires, and special requests from guests all contribute to the novelty and complexity of the kitchen. From the outside, this may seem like a lot to process, but, by being forced to, you can be launched into the flow of what's happening.
Complete concentration on what you're doing will help get you into flow. Concentration is also a necessity in the industry, especially during service. During the rush of service, you can't think about some tv show you watched or something you heard in the news. During service, none of that is important. The only thing that matters is the service and getting through it. If you don't give your full concentration to the work, then productivity slips, guests meals come out late, mistakes start to happen. In a complex environment like the restaurant kitchen, complete concentration is a necessity.
Good communication with the group
To help the whole team get into the flow of kitchen work, they need to communicate well, otherwise, they'll end up knocking each other out of flow. With clear goals for the team, everyone knows what they're working towards and can focus on that, instead of having to guess along the way. Checking in with each other is a necessity in the kitchen. Getting through prep, the check in is important to make sure everyone is on track. Then, if someone's falling behind, they can get the help they need from the rest of the team. During service, this communication is vital for timing dishes and maintaining the pace of the service. Everyone needs to be on the same page and understand what's going on. When you're new to a kitchen, this can be a little difficult, until you adapt to how your new teammates work. Thankfully, though, most kitchens share a lingo and general structure, so even if you're new to a particular kitchen, you won't be far out of place.
What can I do to encourage flow in my work?
Integrating the flow triggers above into your working life will help get you into flow more often. Lucky for us, the nature of kitchen work helps to get us into flow. In the kitchen, we're presented with a rich, novel environment. There's always something new going on that forces us to pay attention and focus on our work. We have clear goals and expected outcomes that guide us through our work. We know what the end result of a dish should be. We don't need to guess along the way, we are freed to focus on the task. As we work, we're always getting feedback from our work. We can see how the food is cooking and can correct things as we need to, without searching for solutions. The nature of kitchen work forces us to focus on it, but sometimes, when we've gotten comfortable in a position, we let our minds wander away from work. This will drop us out of flow and will make our work more difficult. To cultivate flow in our work, we need to stay engaged in it. Staying mindful of what you're doing at work will help get you in flow, but by challenging yourself you can force yourself to be engaged. The idea here is to present yourself with little challenges in your work. By having to do something harder, you're commanding your focus. Too big a challenge though and things will backfire because of anxiety and fear of failure. Finally, you can work on communicating with the rest of the kitchen brigade. Continuous communication helps to keep everyone present in what they're doing and what the rest of the team is doing. It helps to stop the mind from wandering and brings the focus back to the work.
Flow is a fascinating state if being that most people will have experienced at some point. It's that rare great day where they were able to get things done effortlessly. For those of us working in kitchens, though, flow states become a necessity on a day to day basis. When we're working on tight deadlines during service, looking to send out perfection each time, flow guides us through. Flow backs up our skills and talents to help us effortlessly time our cooking and coordinate it with the rest of the team. To meet the demands of kitchen work, we need flow. To help cultivate flow in your work, focus on the work itself. Be present and try and limit your mind from wandering too far. challenge yourself to stay engaged and use team communication to stay focused and on track. Flow states are an interesting field of study that's still relatively new. As more research comes out, we'll learn how to get into flow more reliably, so that we have fewer days where things aren't working for us. To learn more about how flow affects us and how you can get more of it in your life, check out The Rise of Superman, By Steven Kotler. While focusing on extreme sports, there's a lot of insight to be found in the book and ideas that you can apply to your own life.