Put 60 newspaper editors into a large commercial kitchen, arm them with knives, fuel them with alcohol, and turn up the heat insisting they work as a team to create something edible. Then you’ll have a recipe for fascinating insights into what is both great and alarming about our industry.
The recent Australian News Ltd. Editors’ Conference featured a group bonding exercise based on the extremely popular television show Masterchef.
Masterchef is a reality television show where amateur cooks are put through their paces competing on a range of challenges from complicated Michelin-starred recipes to inventing restaurant-quality meals from just a handful of seemingly unrelated ingredients.
The show has been a phenomenon in Australia, racking up millions of viewers every week and breaking viewing records for its finals. The show has just finished its third season and has become a major cooking franchise with spin-off magazines (owned by News Ltd.). Its judges — Matt, George and Gary — are household names synonymous with food quality, and new words such as “plating up” have joined the Australian vocabulary. Everywhere, kids and adults who have ever held a wooden spoon dream of owning their own restaurant or food business.
So excitement levels were indeed high when the News Ltd. crew realised that they were in the official Masterchef studio kitchen. And what happened next was equally hilarious, madcap, organised chaos, fabulously creative, and somewhat troubling.
Editors were broken up into six teams of 10 people, given a box of mystery ingredients, and told they had an hour and a half to produce two dishes with which to wow the judges. This is how it went down in my group.
Our team captain was the editor of one of our Sunday papers. We had team members from magazine division, regional newspapers, community newspapers and the major metropolitans. There was also the Group Editorial Executive and a divisional executive — some impressive journalistic firepower. There were also two Masterchef helpers — trained chefs to ensure no one was poisoned by our final creations. I really hope they’ve recovered from the trauma of the evening by now.
The mystery box included artichokes, spatchcock, fresh trout, potatoes, rice, cucumbers, chilies, lime leaves, chocolate, walnuts, honey, figs, spinach, flour, bread and a handful of other basic ingredients. Some interesting ideas, but what the hell do you do with all of that?
The first action of our fearless leader was to call the two women to his side and suggest that because we were female, we’d be able to do most of the cooking. He was, as a result, given detailed instructions on where to shove his spatchcock. (Editorial observation No. 1: Find someone who looks like an expert regardless of any knowledge about their experience or background, give them authority to do a task and assume they will know what to do).
Step two was to gather everyone around the bench and brainstorm on what we could cook. There were many varied ideas, none of which “held together” as a meal that would impress the judges. The flavours that were suggested clashed violently. Our two chefs came to the rescue providing direction. (Editorial lesson No. 2: someone on the team — the people you know nothing about — will have the skills to do the job. Make sure the opinionated people shut up long enough to find out who they are).
And then we were off and cooking.
Except the meal that had been devised — even with multiple elements — didn’t quite have enough things to do to keep 10 editors — all used to being the person everyone else came to for instructions — busy and engaged. Therefore, we started to freestyle.
Two-thirds of the group were given tasks and started to do what they were told, stopping only when unsure of what to do next. In the absence of the two chefs — busy trying to keep all the elements together — the unoccupied third decided to step in and provide advice and guidance, regardless of whether they knew what they were doing or not. As such, cream was overwhipped, cucumbers sliced before they were peeled and spinach wilted beyond recognition. (Editorial lesson No. 3: Over-enthusiasm is a dangerous thing that must be managed).
Bored with giving advice, the third started to “help” in other ways, deciding to make a salsa. The editorial director chopped far too many chilies with a brilliant uniform precision; we added the unpeeled cucumber and made a dressing that we burned. Another took it upon himself to hand grill bruschetta with olive oil and garlic — effectively creating posh toast. It was rejected as part of the final presentation, but we all ate it with the salsa and agreed that it was delicious. (Editorial lesson No. 4: There is always content left over. Don’t waste it. It’s fabulous).
There was then that moment that occurs in every deadline when all around you appears to be chaos and the fear starts that you’ll never get over the line. Our poor trained chefs swapped a look of combined bewilderment and desperation. At which point, it all stepped up a notch: we behaved like true newspaper people and we stopped. We awaited instructions. Some of us stepped back and then we all did as we were told to achieve the final vision. (Editorial lesson No. 5: It will all be alright at the end — probably).
Our meal consisted of tea-smoked spatchcock with coconut and spinach rice and a rather dodgy accompaniment of chili salsa. For dessert, we had a fig-and-walnut pizza drizzled with chocolate, which according to the judges sounded delicious but tasted a bit boring. The final verdict was that it was a good effort — the best spatchcock of the evening — but we placed a resounding third.
For me, however, the exercise gave perfect insights into the challenges that we need to face as an industry. Everyone on our team was good-natured, professional, experienced and committed to doing their bit, helpful and cooperative. But placed under deadline pressure, with a job that needed doing, we were too slow to plan, too quick to “do,” and too much was done unnecessarily as a result.
The final product we served up had merits, but elements suffered from a lack of focus around execution. If we had taken a step back to plan at the start, made the time to work out what we were dealing with in detail, understood the skill sets we had at our disposal and developed a plan to use them to our best ability, we would have invariably achieved a better result — and not burned the sauce.
(P.S. No editors were harmed in the creation of News Ltd. Masterchef, and all knives were returned to their blocks).