What Anthony Bourdain Taught Me About the Similarities Between Cooks and Designers

Perhaps the least unique thing about me is that I am a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. His storytelling style. His personal style. The way he exposed audiences to people and cultures through food, drink, and adventure. The way he pushed himself and the team around him to go bigger, deeper, weirder.

A couple weekends ago, I read his book, Kitchen Confidential. In it, Bourdain details his personal journey through life as a chef–telling stories of the people and places he encountered.

Anthony’s path was filled with learning, struggle, and sprinkles of success. Almost immediately I started to note parallels between Tony’s experiences and personal philosophies in his chosen craft of cooking to mine in design. I took note of a few wisdom-filled passages and how I felt they applied to my industry.

On dedication and professionalism:

Cooking is a craft, I like to think. And a good cook is a craftsman – not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen – thought not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying. And I’ll generally take a standup mercenary who takes pride in his professionalism over an artist any day. When I hear ‘artist’ I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up at work on time.

I have long held the belief that design is a craft more than it is an art. The mark of an accomplished designer is the ability to convey the important parts of a communication with the fewest visual elements. To bring clarity through simplicity. Beauty is, or can be, a byproduct of this exercise in minimalism.

Skilled designers have a tried, logical process. Design is more organization, logic, and science than it is fine art or expression. Because the human brain is programmed to look for exceptions to absolutes, I will grant you that designers who specialize in custom typography or album artwork may identify more as artists. Still, it’s true that the majority of designers chief responsibility is to whittle away at the extraneous to arrive at the core of a message.

The best of us search for what can be removed versus what can be added. We insist on hierarchy, alignment, balance, and contrast–all repeatable and observable principles we dutifully re-apply project after project.


On reliability:

Skills can be taught. Character you either have or don’t have. Bigfoot understood that there are two types of people in this world: those who do what they say they’re going to do – and everyone else.

I look at design as a practice and believe that work ethic and consistency trump brilliance that relies on inspiration. I believe creativity expressed through design is a result of discipline.

When hiring, I look for someone with high confidence and low ego. A person who can explain the why behind their output, is liked by teammates, and completes a high volume of work with proficiency. Someone who isn’t above any task, meets deadlines, and speaks up when deadlines are at risk.

There is nothing more poisonous to a team dynamic than arrogance. I would sooner choose a teammate that comes with less natural talent but brings blue-collar work habits over a brilliant flake. As it relates to design, I appreciate a clear viewpoint and process over talented expression with no discernible philosophy.

On preparation:

Do not **** with the ‘meez’ – meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked peppers, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system – and it is profoundly upsetting if any other cook, or, God forbid, a water  – disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system.

No fingertips on my monitor.

But seriously, the concept of mis-en-place (“meez”) is relatable. Think about your productivity when working at home on your laptop (or on a brand new machine) versus at the office with your dual monitor setup. Ever tried to work on another designers’ machine without your carefully selected typefaces, creative cloud libraries, and browser plugins/bookmarks? Hard pass.

Although our desktops can turn into digital junkyards in mere hours, organization or “working clean” pays dividends for designers. I recall my colleague Michaela Reubel telling her team of project managers to “go slow so you can go fast” related to organizing files on their machine (go slow) so that when you’re running around before a deadline, you can find what you need (go fast).

Above are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom from a book I was long overdue on reading. The ideas, flavors, and philosophies Bourdain shared with his viewers over several years of inspiring television will not soon be forgotten by me, or millions of others around the globe.

Thanks, Chef.

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is available on Kindle for about $6.