Christmas is upon us once again, a time of jollity, feasting and work for those of us keen to craft something special in the kitchen for the big day. Like most startups building something special, creating a Christmas dinner from scratch means there are loads of jobs to be done, a seemingly never-ending set of priorities that move from important to urgent, and in recent years, high guest expectations for indulgence from special features.
There is a long mental to-do list I’m carrying around with me, but like a startup, we are limited by time and budget. There are only so many Christmas dinner features I can create, spending a lot of time racing about in a flustered manner to get ingredients to get even half of it done.
I love the day when we have a house full of people, and cooking is my hobby, but like a startup, underneath all of the hopes and plans is that one status that seems to fixate us all: perfection. Despite being told time and time again that perfection doesn’t exist it’s easy to fall back into the same patterns and ways of thinking – for Christmas dinner or our startup – and that’s why I now challenge the stereotype. ‘Perfectionism’ is something many struggle to achieve, and that struggle creates a pressure cooker mentally.
The labour involved in making Christmas dinner happen is never shared in our house. One of my brothers-in-law is the worst serial offender for not lifting a finger. He sticks to an almost caricature form of gender stereotypes – before eating he just flits about, and when he’s finished eating, leaves his plate on the table and promptly falls asleep. Usually in my chair too.
His 84-year-old father, meanwhile, has mastered the ability to seem like he’s helping, while actually dodging responsibility for anything. He leaves the Christmas morning prep to those who know what they are doing and tries to take all the glory – I’ll take responsibility for the sprouts as everyone else always over cooks them – al dente is best. After this feat, he’s exhausted. But I really don’t mind shouldering the work involved in creating familial love through plentiful festive kitchen artisanry, but it reminds me of a startup team and the need for grafters not just people who show up.
We’ll be hosting fifteen folks for Christmas dinner, family and friends, the age range ninety years to 18 months, across two rooms, so logistics are key. My wife is World Class in this regard, she marshals the get-your-product-in-the-hands-of-your-customers brilliantly, with an elegant autocratic style amidst the mayhem and tomfoolery that will be going on around her. Build it and ship it I tell her. It’s about the experience she replies. The Lean Christmas StartUp Guide beckons.
Pondering this year’s menu, I have concluded that the inevitable stress of Christmas Day dinner is created by adverts, supermarkets, and TV chefs. It’s a Sunday dinner for goodness’ sake, we do it quite happily fifty-one weeks of the year, the only difference is that you are allowed to open a bottle of wine before you open the kitchen blinds. TV chefs tell us to stay calm, but the reality is, I will be feeling like an England rugby prop with the entire South Africa pack bearing down on me, so a bit of panic is inevitable. I get organised and create a list – it’s your Product Roadmap.
So, thinking back to startups, I’ve decided to craft an MVP Christmas Dinner and not shoot for the moon just because Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey say we should. Remember what an MVP is? It’s a first version of your product with enough features designed to show value to customers and validate a product idea. Let’s put this into practice for the Big Day and take the lessons into our startup practice.
Tools. A Big Honking Knife. I have an eight-inch Chinese cleaver. Its blunt curvaceousness has murderous intensity. A chef’s knife is a highly personal tool that reflects the image of its wielder. A serious cook is, almost by definition, a person with strong feelings about knives. My big, heavy, stupid knife can make short work of a coconut, butternut squash, or chicken in need of a spatchcock. Slicing sprouts and carrots do not present a challenge.
Don’t forget the experience Some expect the sheer force of companionable affection to create the aesthetic for the day. Then there are the artists of the dining room, who carefully plot detail: place mats, name cards, printed menu, table décor, communicating a balance of elegance and nonchalance. As I referred to above, this is my wife. She knows that hosting is a matter of skill and strategy, not happenstance for the ideal seating arrangement, knowing that intriguing flatware reliably sparks creative joy.
Takeaway: A startup needs to focus on their customers as a priority, not their product. Success is not delivering a feature, it’s learning how to solve the customer’s problems, whilst also delivering a great experience. Make every interaction count.
Turkey. Turkeys were first imported into the UK in the early C16th, British merchants bought them from Spanish conquistadors who brought them back from Mexico, where they had been domesticated. Henry VIII was the first British monarch to enjoy turkey on Christmas Day. However, it took over 400 years for the turkey to become the most popular festive centrepiece.
Whilst a huge roast turkey is a showstopper, it is a source of stress, infamously difficult to cook through without drying out. The trick is in the marinade and the browning. Get those right, and you’ll be secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing going awry inside that oven. Leave the bird overnight in a marinade of flavours you like: garlic, thyme, parsley, peppercorns, and don’t add any salt until you’re about to roast it. In the morning, brown it all over in butter and oil (the oil stops the butter burning). Don’t be shy, this is where a lot of the flavour comes from.
But It’s just a big chicken that’s all, twenty minutes per pound plus a further twenty at 180 degrees. Done. Get a meat thermometer (£3 off the Internet) poke it in the offending bird if it says 75 degrees or over its cooked.
Takeaway: Your MVP should have a core feature – for Christmas dinner, it’s the turkey. Define the objective of your MVP, get to the heart of what you want it to achieve, and think about what success looks like. At Christmas dinner, it’s about making that turkey memorable!
Stuffing. Regardless of what Jamie Oliver says, you do not need two pounds of shoulder of pork, onions, sourdough breadcrumbs, grated pine nuts and a shed load of freshly cut herbs to make stuffing. No wonder his restaurants went bust if that’s what he spends to make stuffing. What you need is Paxo, a generous knob of butter and a kettle – the butter makes the stuffing a bit smoother than if it’s made with just water. If you want to liven it up squeeze a couple of sausages out of their skins, fry gently until browned, and mix in with your Paxo granules. Sorted.
Takeaway: You MVP needs to balance wants v needs, identify those functions that resonate with your target audience and add real value, be ruthless if you want to stay on budget.
Gravy. Indulgent Jamie is copping it for this one too. His ingredients include – take a deep breath: onions, carrots, celery, smoked streaky bacon, fresh bay leaves, sprigs of fresh sage and rosemary, star anise, chicken wings/drumsticks, olive oil, sherry or port, plain flour, cranberry sauce, and a partridge in a pear tree. Hell’s teeth, it’s a banquet.
Good gravy has the power to transform a meal. I like my food moist, so a big gravy boat is essential. Jamie calls his recipe Get-ahead gravy and advocates making it a few days in advance, simply reheating it in your turkey tray on the Big Day. For me, it’s Bisto, Jamie. Other brands are available.
Deglaze the roasting tin with red wine, stir in the gravy and you’re in business. I have not got time on Christmas Eve to muck around roasting chicken wings and vegetables, adding stock and flour, cooking it for another half hour, mashing it all up and then straining the whole sorry mess to make gravy.
Takeaway: Jamie’s gravy recipe has the attributes of a classic startup mistake: too much focus on a single, secondary feature, and one that absorbs time, resources, and cost. Resist the temptation to build automatic when manual will do for your MVP.
Vegetables. So here is my one indulgence. I don’t mind spending an hour faffing around picking sprouts off the stick, peeling then shredding and frying them with bacon, walnuts, and chestnuts to make them scrumptious. If you don’t like them don’t buy them. And top tip: kids don’t like sprouts so have a bag of frozen peas in reserve, and simply microwave them in butter with some grated mint leaves. Posh peas, always a winner.
Keep the veg simple. Carrots don’t need an orange zest, blanch green veg, dunk them in boiling water at the last minute to heat through, and don’t be a la-di-da chef type, sautéing greens in excessive amounts of butter afterwards. Roasties? Shape them into the size if an egg and I par boil mine gently in fresh Deganwy sea water, rich in minerals like magnesium, zinc, iron, and potassium then roast them in goose fat. Aunt Bessie also does the same. Not the sea water bit.
Takeaway: Make sure your MVP stands out, and that it has a point of difference like my sprouts. Give your users something that makes them chose you over what is already available.
Drinks Easy, a job lot fromGwinllan Conwy Gwinllanconwy, Welsh wines from a Welsh vineyard, including sparkling Pefriog, white Pydew, red Rondo and Gwin Pwdin pudding wine. I try not to drink a week before the Big Day. I nearly made it this year, but I had to buy some milk and I noticed Waitrose were conducting its annual experiment on whether it could give me gout by slashing its prices for port down to a level where it makes more sense to buy than wine.
Not for the first time, I thought of Italy, where a litre of perfectly acceptable stuff costs something like €3. Anyway, the Waitrose offer on Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage was simply too good to ignore so I bought a bottle. The label on the back said once opened, consume within six weeks, which made me smile.
And on the day, give up on the socialised requirement to keep everyone happy. Your mother-in-law is perfectly capable of refilling her own glass, and feel free to stop reminding your dad to keep people topped up, let him handle the fallout.
Takeaway: The point of launching an MVP is to save time and money on refining your product, so you don’t want to take too long working on this first iteration; New, local wines are easy to access, provide a talking point, and start to show you’re different – adding to the overall dinner content and also experience.
You can never do a perfect Christmas dinner, nor should you attempot so for your MVP. so take note of some of the above choices:
- You’re never going to do everything, there are always going to be compromises.
- Create value but manage your scope.
- Focus on your customers’ needs, not what you want to build.
- Make your one thing your one thing.