As Rich Gore made his way to the front door of my restaurant, I put an arm around his shoulder, pulled him close and mumbled, "I'm gonna wipe the floor with Phillipe."
Rich pulled on his jacket and smiled casually. "Malik, I'm gonna predict a tie."
Once upon a time, I was a B-list celebrity chef with an A-list ego. And I've had a competitive nature for a very long time, and while that nature has many positives, it also comes with a bit of a downside. And that's what led me to spend an afternoon in a local shopping mall wearing a chef's coat and a red silk boxer's robe. Rich was in town with a traveling live food show (Super Chef's Live!) that included a wine tasting, cooking demos, cookbook signings and a cooking competition; but with a guy like me on stage, I planned on winning, no questions asked. Cue the theme from Rocky.
But over in the producer's corner was Rich Gore. And he was going to make sure the whole thing ended in a tie.
When show time came the next day, myself and Chef Phillipe Chin each had a mystery basket of ingredients, a picked-from-the-audience assistant, and a pantry of dry goods, the MC Bill Boggs, and a special guest in none other than Southern food authority Nathalie DuPree. We had thirty minutes to cook and an audience of a couple hundred shoppers watching and cheering us on. Like many other cooking demonstrations I've done, it was on a narrow stage with a minimum of equipment, and little room to work. But that can be a lot of fun, and I've always been good at making do with what I have. When Nathalie called time, I believe I had three different dishes. Likewise Phillipe. And I have no idea what I made, I can't remember. But I will remember the next few minutes for a very long time. Mr. Boggs announced that the winner would be declared through the audience's reaction and that our producer, Mr. Gore, would measure their reaction trough his computer. I looked down at Rich as he donned a pair of enormous headphones. In one hand he held a heavy laptop computer, in the other he hoisted what looked like the antennae from an old Chevy. The antennae had a wire wrapped around it and it was plugged into his computer. And those of us on the stage were the only ones that knew the laptop wasn't turned on. Rich stood up and waved that antennae around and pretended to listen intently to the beeps of his reaction-judging software while Bill Boggs had everyone cheering first for me, then for Phillipe. After a couple of minutes, Rich whipped off his headphones and with unbridled enthusiasm announced: "It's too close, we gotta do it again!"
And I stood up there laughing myself silly.
We did the whole thing again and Bill really got everyone screaming and yelling, first for Phillipe then for me. Rich directed his antennae towards the loudest screams and the shouts, his eyes wide and intent on judging their enthusiasm. Finally he ripped off his headphones, threw his arms into the air and with a look of shock and disbelief announced a tie.
"It's too close to call. It's a tie!"
Phillipe and I were both laughing so hard that Phillipe chided me. He was afraid we would give away the secret.
"Chef! Behave, behave."
So what if it was staged. What was at stake? From the chef's point of view, not much. Phillipe and I both had solid reputations; there was no money riding on the outcome, no contracts to star in the latest cooking show, no kiss from the local beauty queen. What was at stake was Rich's reputation and his desire to be successful. And he measured success in the audience's laughter, smiles, and applause. So what if the chicken dishes were thrown together in thirty minutes or less -- did the audience enjoy the show? And the answer was yes. When we came off the stage, me and Phillipe signed autographs, took handshakes and returned a lot of smiles. And the biggest one was from Rich.
"What'd I tell ya, Malik? It was a tie."
That's a lesson I've carried with me for a long time. Is your audience getting what they came for? Have you engaged your audience, your staff, your customers, or your family? Are they having a good time enjoying the show, their job, or just their day? Because when you're on the stage, the real winner should be the audience.