Leadership lessons from the kitchen to the boardroom table

Giam Swiegers & Guillaume Brahimi | 30 January 2019 | 25:15

Podcast transcript: Leadership lessons from the kitchen to the boardroom table

Kalay Maistry: Welcome to the very first episode of Engineering Reimagined, I’m Kalay Maistry. In this podcast series we will explore how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it.


Today’s interview is between two friends who also happen to be icons of Australian industry.

Giam Swiegers, our outgoing CEO of global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon, and a previous 12-year tenure as CEO of Deloitte Australia, is considered one of Australia’s pioneering leaders. After emigrating from South Africa in 1998, Giam earned a reputation as a leader who can reposition large organisations in times of enormous change. He helped elevate Deloitte to become the country’s second-largest accounting firm and has led the charge at Aurecon for the past four years as the company reimagines its future.

Guillaume Brahimi is Australia’s top French Chef. Commencing his career in France, where he worked with French master chef Joël Robuchon at Robuchon's Jamin restaurant in Paris, Guillaume emigrated to Australia at the age of 23. Since then, he has owned and run multiple restaurants across the country, including the iconic Guillaume at Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House. He has also appeared on cooking shows ranging from Master Chef to Iron Chef, published multiple media columns and recipes, and currently has three bistros under his belt in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Throughout a career in the kitchen and beyond, Guillaume has successfully navigated the constantly changing, and often fickle culinary world, to not only remain relevant, but often lead the next trend, and certainly the next generation of chefs, who are reimagining the food industry like never before.

Giam and Guillaume commence their chat in the kitchen of Guillaume’s restaurant, where he explains the focus of his bistro approach, before heading into the studio to record this special conversation.

Interview begins….

Giam Swiegers: What would be your most popular dish in this restaurant, seeing that we are standing in the kitchen right now?

Guillaume Brahimi: Steak-frites. There is nothing wrong with a beautiful ranch or valley steak with some home-made chips and Bearnaise sauce. It works.

Guillaume Brahimi: And you know, not many chefs know how to do a Bearnaise sauce. Remember, you made one with me in Burgundy but it's about the basics, how to make a Hollandaise sauce, how to make Bearnaise sauce, how to make a chicken stew, how to make a terrine.

So, we've got a lot of popular dishes; it's a bistro so the feeling of a bistro comes from, what is the food that you like to eat at home, but you don't have time to cook. And, it's also the food that you always have on the menu, roast chicken, steak-frites, steak tartare, terrine, smoked salmon, so all the classics.

Giam Swiegers: Okay. Guillaume, we've known each other for 12 years.

Guillaume Brahimi: Already?

Giam Swiegers: Yeah. And in 12 years I have never given you business advice, but you've given me a lot of great meals. So, today we want to do something very different and just explore leadership, and what are the lessons people in business can learn from somebody that runs such a successful restaurant empire as you do. So, why did you become a chef?

Guillaume Brahimi: Firstly school was very difficult for me. I come from France where, when you're good academically, the system is fantastic, but if you have some issues ‒ I'm dyslexic ‒ it was horrible. Actually, I don't have one good memory of school.

And the other day I was taking my kids to school and they were all laughing in the car. I was saying, “What's funny?” And they look at me. They say, “What do you mean dad?” I said, “Well, you're laughing.” And my little girl who's 11 now said to me, “Well, are we going to school?” And I say, “You're laughing and you're going to school?” She said, “Yeah, it's fun. It's good.” And I thought, “My God!” And I reflected in the car. I said, “I don't have such memories.” And so, when I was 13, the principal called my dad and say, “We need to find an answer here because it's no point he stay at school.” And I said to my dad, “Well, I want to cook.”

My maternal grandmother is a great cook, and I used to spend more time in the kitchen with her than at the table with my parents. School being so hard for me, a very important part was, coming home after a bad day at school and opening the door and smelling the roast chicken. I was saying to myself, “Okay, okay, okay, okay, school is horrible, but look, the chicken is there.” And it was. I know it sounds strange, but it was a bit of a security blanket for me; the smell of the food and the cooking at my house.

So, it didn’t matter how bad I was doing at school, there was always this beautiful smell saying, “Everything's okay. You have two out of twenty in math, but the chicken is still roasting in the oven.” And the weekend was ... Friday it's great. It's a weekend. And I was counting the weekend as meals, so breakfast, okay, we've got so many more meals before I go back to school, and the Sunday night was the last meal before I go back to school. And after that, when I was with Robuchon, I used to have the same, the security blanket of, it doesn't matter what's happening in the world. Sitting at the table with my parents and siblings everything was okay.

Giam Swiegers: Now, it's interesting that you talk about your kids laughing going to school. Learning takes place when you're playful and you're having a good time.

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah. I think laughing is so important. It's so good when life is hard. So, when I decided I wanted to be a cook, cooking was hard. There was no laugh in the kitchen. I started from the bottom, so I spend more time cleaning up the stove and peeling onion and carrots than seeing the plate, the achievement of your work.

But I never gave up, and I was lucky ... It's so important to have ... my parents were fantastic. They back me up, and so many times I cry when I was 15. Yeah, I was working 70 hours at 15, and my dad used to come and pick me up, drive me home and took care of me. And I can't recall how many times I cry in the car saying, “I don't want to do it anymore. I just want to go back to school and have school holidays and all of that.” My dad would say, “No, no. You need to keep going. You're making an investment for your future.” And this phrase really imprinted in my mind and every time young kids start in my kitchen I say, “I know it doesn't mean a lot right now, but whatever you do, even if you don't like it, you're making an investment for your future.” And I've been carrying this line for everyone. I'm still telling it at 50.

Giam Swiegers: That's really interesting. But with the Bistro you have an open-plan kitchen I can look at ... And it's quite a heavy kitchen.

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah, it is. Now, well, I'm getting a bit softer with my old age. We have to change. You can't be the same. You have to progress. And what I realized is, when I was with Robucho ‒ and Joel Robuchon passed away, not so long ago: a few months ago ‒ we were working so hard, but we were probably the best restaurant in the world, 50 seats booked six months in advance, a table for two was table for two. You didn't put a third person. Table for four is four, and we used to have 50 people for lunch, 50 people for dinner Monday to Friday, closed on the weekend. He was the pinnacle of perfection, but there was not many rewards or thank you’s or well done’s. I meet all my friends who worked there at the time and they're all running three Michelin Stars now, from Eric Repert and we're talking, and we said, "What about if we did get a pat on the back or a smile or well done, thank you. How better we would have been? How better the restaurant would have been." Because we were giving 150%, and the food we did was amazing, but that was without any compliment or pat on the back. That really marked me and I thought, I know for some leaders it's hard to say, well done to staff and congratulate them because people think that they’re getting paid so they should do the great job. But you know what? It's priceless. A thank you and a well done and I can't do it without you, is worth more than you think.

Giam Swiegers: I never understand why leaders don't understand that it costs nothing to say thank you.

Guillaume Brahimi: I think an ego is part of it, as in my industry the ego is enormous, but also what I realise is there is not enough staff. So, what do you do to keep your staff? Well, it's pretty simple. Things you want yourself, such as conditions of work. You spend more time at work than at home, so if you don't enjoy where you spend most of your time, you're not going to be productive. You're not going to enjoy what you do, and you leave. And training; people leave after training. You don't progress. You want to keep your team. So the team must progress with you, not allowed to regress because then you have to train again.

Giam Swiegers: Now, we're in such a different industry, but I finish every one of my emails to our staff with, I hope you're having fun at work today or remember to have fun.

Guillaume Brahimi: Without sarcasm?

Giam Swiegers: Yeah!

Guillaume Brahimi: Okay. I just wanted to make sure.

Giam Swiegers: No, sarcasm. Because I always say to them, if you're in a job that you don't have fun and don't enjoy, find another one because you can't spend your life being unhappy at work.

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah. Well, yeah, 100%. But it's hard. My industry is so tough because this week, between all the restaurants, we probably cooked for close to 4000 people and you just need a couple of complaints to ruin my day. It's about perfection. Perfection is hard ... I wish I was not such a perfectionist sometimes. And I say it quite calmly: I think perfection is a disease because when all you want to achieve is perfection, it's horrible, because you just can't achieve it.

Giam Swiegers: Although, I like that you're a perfectionist, because I have had some of my best French meals in your various restaurants.

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah. But you need to find the balance. Everybody say balance is so important. So, what's perfection? Well, in my mind, perfection is, do I cook better than I cooked last year and the year before. So, it's progressing and getting better, but it's so hard. And that's why I tried to move from fine dining because I felt fine dining was too hard in Australia, because you don't get the reward you will get in Europe, in Paris especially. But I'm still a perfectionist when I roast a chicken. So it's just hard.

And you know what? We're not perfect, and sometimes you fail, sometimes you overcooked something, but that's okay. I say to my team, “You know what? You need to have the bad night to know how good you are on the good nights.” I'm talking in the kitchen, but I'm also a big believer in sport you know. I've been lucky to work with the French rugby team, and you are as good as your last game in rugby. And that's so true in the kitchen as well.

Giam Swiegers: You've now had your own restaurants for 30 years, and they've all been excellent for 30 years, but you're always innovating and doing new things. What drives you to keep on trying new things? And what lessons do you learn?

Guillaume Brahimi: Well, you look at young people behind you who push you. I'm a classical French chef. I want my food to be classical because I think French food is a pinnacle and it's a foundation of cooking, but you need to find new ways. You need to keep pushing the boundary because, if you don't, you will see people passing you.

Giam Swiegers: So, I want to go back to when you left France. And I remember you telling me that you went to your boss and said you're going to Australia. Tell me the story.

Guillaume Brahimi: Joel Robuchon ‒ it was hard because I was there for four and half years and you don't leave Robuchon. You don't leave Robuchon to work for anyone else. I was one of the Robuchon's boys. You normally stay with him forever and after that you open a restaurant with his blessing. That's the way you work in France. But when I said to him I was going to Australia, he look at me ... he didn't actually, he said, “I've never heard of this restaurant.” Unfortunately, he’s never come to Australia,. I invite him so many times. He just say, “too far!”

Giam Swiegers: I've eaten at so many of his restaurants. He is a brilliant chef too.

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing

Giam Swiegers: What role do you think reality TV, like MasterChef played getting people to understand food from their cultures?

Guillaume Brahimi: It plays a big role to get the chefs become more exposed as celebrities. It is reality TV, so there's a lot behind the scenes and it's about rating. And at the moment, the fashion is My Kitchen Rules versus MasterChef, who knows where you will be in 10 years. I think, at the moment here it's very fashionable and everybody now is a food expert. Is that a good thing for my industry? To an extent it's great because we can expose more, the great produce we've got, the farmers, the growers, and also we can push more. We've got more power with a message. Now, when a chef puts something on Instagram, you get thousands of people who will like it.

Giam Swiegers: Now technology: things like Uber Eats, that escapes going into restaurants. And technology, do you see a lot of technology impacting your type of French restaurant or not?

Guillaume Brahimi: I'm very happy to use Uber Eats for people to pick up a meal in my restaurant because keeping in mind what's killing my industry the most is the cost of running a restaurant so, if I can sell some takeaway food, it's a no brainer. But that also means people are going less to restaurants.

Giam Swiegers: I've obviously, over the 12 years, met several of your staff. And I have been so impressed with them. In our business, we teach our leaders to say, you've got to take people where they ought to go, not where they want to go. You've clearly taken a lot of people where they ought to go. What's the techniques you use to get people to aspire to that level of service and that level of perfection?

Guillaume Brahimi: Well, I think you try to lead by example, and also I'm trying with that not to micro manage. If you employ a manager, let him manage. That's what he's there for. It's very important. And I always use the example of rugby field. You've got boundaries, so you let them play between the boundaries so they can be creative, but they know the limits. My chefs in all my restaurants put specials on the menu. I'm not going to have to check them. They've been with me for a long time. They know what the DNA of the menu is. Let them have some fun.

Giam Swiegers: So it's freedom within a framework?

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah. It's a freedom with very close eye on it.

Giam Swiegers: If somebody wanted to become a chef today, what would be the advice you would give?

Guillaume Brahimi: Oh my God. Are you sure? Well, Giam, you have to be passionate. Firstly, because you work hours when ... Listen, it doesn't matter which part of the world you are. People eat lunch and dinner and on the weekends. So if you want to be a chef you have to be ready to work when people have fun. Okay. But if you're passionate about it, it's one of the best satisfactions you can get. You work to make people happy. When people come to my restaurant and say, “We had a great meal. Thank you. It was great.” That makes me happy. The best satisfaction in my restaurant is to see the plates coming back to the kitchen when they're empty. So, it depends on age but I would recommend spending some time going to a restaurant and see what it is about. See what's a normal day in the kitchen because it is not MasterChef.

Giam Swiegers: Most restaurants, and you included, have had signature dishes. Why is it important to be famous for something?

Guillaume Brahimi: Well, I think, you don't create a signature dish; the people who have it, who frequent your restaurant will decide on it.

Giam Swiegers: So the market decides that you're famous?

Guillaume Brahimi: Yeah, yeah, absolutely! It'd be too easy if you just had to say, "How much?"

Giam Swiegers: Now, how this whole thing came about ... I'm sharing the story about everybody peeling potatoes in the kitchen and downing tools.

Kalay Maistry: And now for the story that inspired today’s interview and caused Giam to think about the parallels between the kitchen and the boardroom.

A few months ago, Giam and his wife had the privilege of joining four other couples for an intensive but fun French wine appreciation and cooking course with Guillaume for a week in Burgundy, France. Guillaume makes the best potato mash in Australia and Giam was excited when he told the group they would learn how to make it.

After boiling the unpeeled potatoes Guillaume brought the kitchen to a halt so that everyone could help peel the very hot potatoes. Guillaume explained that due to the popularity of this mash, his restaurants consume more than 600 kg of potatoes per week. As peeling a vast quantity of very hot potatoes is a huge and tough job, the tradition is for the whole kitchen to come to a standstill when it is time for this job to be done. Every person in the kitchen, no matter their seniority, including Guillaume, then peels potatoes until the job is completed. In his opinion, it is the only way to make light of the toughest job.

Giam was very surprised by this act. He later checked with Guillaume’s head chef if this really happened, and he confirmed that the story was in fact true, but he added some more. He explained that Guillaume was a very respected boss ‒ not only because he is well recognised as a master of his craft, but also because he is capable of doing any task. During initiation (he employs almost 130 chefs every year) he explains to the newcomers that he will never ask them to do a job that he would not be willing to do.

Back to Giam and Guillaume.

Guillaume Brahimi: The mashed potato.

Giam Swiegers: Yeah, and I would be curious to know how many people from Aurecon have eaten in your restaurant because everybody now wants to go eat the mashed potatoes. I just think it's a really ...

Guillaume Brahimi: They don't come to help us to do it!

Giam Swiegers: What's the role of collaboration in the kitchen?

Guillaume Brahimi: Well, the idea of that is because anything is less painful when it's done quickly, and I can promise you, you give a big box of peas to peel to one person, he will spend the whole day doing it. You get eight people on it, it's a 10-minute job because there's a competition, it is quicker ... and put a time on it and make it a game. Okay. How long can we take to do that? Let's try to do it in 10 minutes.

Giam Swiegers: Playful with serious intent. It always works.

Guillaume Brahimi: Absolutely!

Giam Swiegers: So you've turned 50. Yeah. What's next?

Guillaume Brahimi: Well, I think it's 51. You know what's next? I see my children growing very quickly. I wouldn't mind spending a bit more time with them. It's been a pretty busy time since the age of 14, nonstop, nonstop, nonstop. So, I just want to find a bit of balance. I think these days it’s not to work 80 hours, and try not to do the damage you're doing, but making it ... like I don't go to work if I don't have to be at work. I know it's hard to express that. If I'm at work I want to do as much as I can and leave as quickly as I can, just being more efficient.

Giam Swiegers: So, earlier in the podcast you said you became a chef because you were struggling at school and you loved food, and food was a passion. So now time has gone on, has your "Why" changed, what drives you now and how did you reimagine your business because of how you have changed?

Guillaume Brahimi: I love having full restaurants and I love having a successful business. I'm employing people, I'm teaching people, and I'm training people. There's nothing better than seeing a young chef opening their own restaurant after being with you for many years.

I still get a lot of pleasure by going to work. And like I said before, I'm in a position now that if I didn't like what I'm doing, I wouldn't ... I don't go to my restaurant if I don't want to. But I don't want to become lazy in saying, "I don't wanna go to work." So I'm challenging myself by finding new ways, "How can I improve my business? What else can we do?" And sometime I just go in the kitchen and play around with ingredients. Sometimes I look at the P&L and say, "How can we get better without decreasing the quality of what we do? What have we done that's not right?" So there's a challenge all the time and I love it.

Giam Swiegers: Well you say because you like teaching, after spending seven days in markets and in the kitchen with you, I can tell you're a bloody good teacher. I really enjoy the way that you teach.

Guillaume Brahimi: Again, thank you. Thank you so much. But I really hope that when my generation of chefs retire, if we retire, and the retired and a young kid come in the kitchen, it will not be the same kitchen as when I arrived when I was 13. Meaning, it will be such a better place to be.

Giam Swiegers: In any case Guillaume, you've had a big impact on Aurecon by telling me or rather teaching me how to peel potatoes and everybody at work hearing about it.

Guillaume Brahimi: Quick, quick.

Giam Swiegers: Quick. And today you've been incredibly generous with this podcast. So, I just want to say thank you very much.

Guillaume Brahimi: My pleasure, Giam. My pleasure.

Kalay Maistry: We hope you enjoyed this conversation and stay tuned for the next. Let a friend or colleague know about the show – they can find it by searching for Engineering Reimagined wherever they listen to podcasts.

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Chef Guillaume Brahimi and Aurecon Chair Giam Swiegers share their leadership insights

From the kitchen to the boardroom: How can lessons learnt in the kitchen be applied to leadership in business? Australia’s top French Chef, Guillaume Brahimi shares leadership insights with Giam Swiegers, former CEO of global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon.

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, we explore the pursuit of perfection and how changing your mindset can help leaders find balance. We learn about the role of collaboration in the kitchen and hear the ‘mashed potato’ story that inspired the interview.

Guillaume and Giam also discuss why expressing appreciation is a powerful way to motivate people around you. “I know for some leaders it's hard to say well done to staff and congratulate them because people think that you're getting paid, so you should do a great job, but you know what? It's priceless,” says Guillaume.

Meet our guest and host

Learn more about Guillaume Brahimi and Giam Swiegers.

Guillaume Brahimi

Guillaume Brahimi

Australia's top French Chef

Guillaume trained with French master chef Joël Robuchon at Robuchon's Jamin restaurant in Paris. Guillaume emigrated to Australia at the age of 23. Since then, he has owned and run multiple restaurants across the country, including the iconic Guillaume at Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House. He currently has three bistros under his belt in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Giam Swiegers

Giam Swiegers

Chair, Aurecon Board

Giam Swiegers became Aurecon’s Chair in January 2021. Previously, Giam was the Chief Executive Officer of Aurecon from 2015 to 2019. He is dedicated to building a strong and diverse culture and his outstanding efforts to improve the recognition of women in the workplace have been widely recognised.

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