Harness Your Chefs Subconscious Brains

A few years ago I was an Executive Chef in charge of a Sydney airline catering facility responsible for two international airlines’ Business and First Class menus.

The three month-long menus spanned from soups, salads and sandwiches to appetisers, breakfasts, main courses and desserts. On every menu rotation there was always a large-volume cold entree (approximately 175 portions per day) that featured portioned protein, for example 1 x 90g slice of duck terrine, 3 x 15g slices of tuna tataki or 2 x 20g slices of white cut chicken.

As these dishes were destined for high paying customers, we had to adhere to extremely high quality standards, both ours and the clients’. The weight tolerance for a 15g slice of tuna tataki, for example, was 13g - 17g and there were visual guides for how the slices must look, from colour to diameter to thickness of slice.

Our client audited these dishes on a daily basis and any out-of-spec product was subject to an NCR (non-conformance report) which counted against us not just in reputation but also business continuity, should we exceed an allowed amount of NCR’s annually.

Because of the volume, we spent approximately 8 chef-hours per day to prep, cook, chill and slice the protein, a significant cost to the company: 8 x $30/hour (average local chef pay rate) x 365 days = $87,600.

As Executive Chef, one of my most important jobs was to maximise operational productivity and efficiency in order to drive our company’s profitability and bottom line. Therefore, when it came to slicing 525 slices of tuna tataki per day, I was always looking for ways to speed up the process without affecting quality.

The most time consuming part of this process was the slicing of the tuna tataki. When I first started at the company, this it how we approached it:

We would set up four chefs, one on each corner of the bench, each with a chopping board, set of scales and a knife.

A tray of seared chilled tuna logs would be placed in the middle of the bench, with a clean tray for the cut slices placed on either side of the tray of logs. Each chef would take a tuna log and start slicing, weighing each slice to ensure that it was at the correct weight then placing these slices on the clean trays. When a tray was full of slices it would be covered, weighed, a label would be written to identify it and the tray would be transferred to the assembly coolroom. Each day the assembly teams would take the product and plate the dish, selecting three slices to arrange alongside the garnish.

This process worked well enough. However, when I studied it closer, I became convinced that it could be done more efficiently. Here are some of the issues I observed:

  1. The assembly teams would often finish a tray of sliced tuna and be left with around six odd slices which didn’t look good together, so they discarded them; money in the bin!

I realised that instead of the assembly teams portioning the tuna, which felt logical initially, why not get the chefs to portion the tuna into groups of three slices so all the assembly staff needed to do was lift a single portion up and place it on the dish, resulting in zero odd leftover slices?

We tried this technique with the chefs weighing each slice, this time selecting a group of three slices which looked visually appealing and consistent. This seemed to solve the problem, meaning we would recover around 24kg usable tuna slices over a three month menu.

The chefs were on a higher hourly rate so having them taking on the portioning duty was potentially more expensive, but I soon realised that despite this being true, they were significantly faster at the job than the assembly teams, which more than made up for the difference in hourly rate.

But this scenario also threw up a new possibility: if the portion was now defined by the chefs, maybe instead of weighing each slice, we could focus on hitting a total portion size of 43g - 47g instead of each slice at 13g - 17g. If the assembly staff chose 3 slices and they were all within tolerance but hit 17g each, then this would be a portion of 51g, generous for the customer, to be sure, but a big hit to our food cost. Imagine doing this to, say, 40 portions per day, this would add up to 21kg of tuna across the whole menu rotation!

So I double checked with our client’s QA and confirmed that as long as we hit the total weight then they would not worry (too much) about the weight of the individual slices.

So I was now able to train my chefs to cut two slices of tuna each portion and then weigh these, only then correcting their aim in order to ensure the final slice contributed to a total of 45g. This made sense in theory, but when we put it into practice, I was alarmed that the chefs were routinely getting bogged down checking the weight and concentrating on the last stage of each portion. And their accuracy was poor too!

I decided that perhaps I had misjudged this scenario. As it didn’t seem to work, we reverted to weighing each slice. At least there was a flow to the chefs’ actions and we could be sure the product was to-spec.

But then one day I read a book that changed how I saw this entire type of process. Unfortunately I can’t recall the name or author of the book, but it was about the power of the subconscious brain. The premise was, roughly: If one practices a single task with enough repetition and frequency then the subconscious brain is far better at performing this task than the conscious brain.

One experiment the authors did was with a pro golfer on a tee who was told to concentrate as hard as possible in order to hit an accurate drive under the three different circumstances:

  1. Absolute silence
  2. Someone talking to them as they hit
  3. Loudspeakers set up on either side of the tee with loud white noise pumping out as they tried to focus

What do you think was the most accurate and most consistent?

They found that using supreme concentration with the oversight of the conscious brain (Scenario 1) was not particularly effective, resulting in inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

Being constantly interrupted (Scenario 2) also produced poor results.

However, they concluded that for someone who was at ‘expert’ level, who had had a significant amount of prior practice with a lot of repetition, if this person was distracted enough for their conscious brain to be absent then their subconscious brain took over and was far more effective.

To put it simply, if someone has had the benefit of repeated practice at a single task, they are better off to stop trying to concentrate and let the task happen ‘by itself’.

So, I went back to our chefs with the tuna and I tried the following experiment:

I made sure that all chefs on the tuna station at the time of the experiment had previously sliced at least 1000 pieces of tuna tataki, to ensure their subconscious brain was capable of taking over.

Then I asked them to start slicing but to not concentrate. This was met with laughs and incredulity, but I insisted that they try.

Initially it was hard for them to stop overthinking each slice, the angle of their arm, hand and knife, the thickness and shape of each log of tuna. But as they started to relax into this new way of operating, they found that the accuracy of their slices was surprisingly high. They would be looking at a piece of tuna with a unique shape and size and, without any hesitation, make a cut, and 9 times out of 10, hit 14g - 16g per slice.

So when they became accustomed to this new process, I told them to cut the first slice without weighing it, then after cutting the second slice, weigh them both, hoping for a weight around 30g. And then to adjust their hand accordingly to make the final cut, but not to weigh the final portion, trusting that the last slice was good. And then finally I asked them to only use the scales for every 10th portion only.

So we had gone from weighing every single slice to weighing every 10th portion.

When I calculated the time saved it looked a bit like this:

Status Quo

Per shift, 525 slices x 0.05 minute (3 seconds to weigh each slice) = 26.25 minutes x 365 (days in the year) = 9,581.25 minutes = 160 hours x $30 per hour = $4,800

Compared to:

(175 portions per day, every tenth portion checked for weight) 17.5 x 0.05 minute (3 seconds) = 0.875 minutes x 365 (days in the year) = 319.38 minutes = 5.32 hours x $30 per hour = $160

Total saved = $4,640 per year.


After I discovered this technique, I successfully applied it to many other, similarly repetitive processes where speed and consistency were of paramount importance, resulting in really significant savings to the company.

Train your chefs to harness the power of their subconscious brain.

Save money, increase morale, increase productivity and increase profitability.