Infosec Lessons from Mario Batali’s Kitchen

by adam on December 3, 2012

There was a story recently on NPR about kitchen waste, “No Simple Recipe For Weighing Food Waste At Mario Batali’s Lupa.” Now, normally, you’d think that a story on kitchen waste has nothing to do with information security, and you’d be right. But as I half listened to the story, I realized that it in fact was a story about a fellow, Andrew Shakman, and his quest to change business processes to address environmental priorities.

I also realized that I’ve heard him in meetings. Ok, it wasn’t Andrew, and the subject wasn’t food waste, but I think that makes the story all the more powerful for information security, because it’s easier to look at an apparently disconnected story, understand it, and then bring the lessons on home:

“Once we begin reducing food waste, we are spending less money on food because we’re not buying food to waste it; we’re spending less money on labor; we’re spending less money on energy to keep that food cold and heat it up; we’re spending less on waste disposal,” says Shakman.

That’s right! Managing food waste doesn’t have to be a tax, it can be a profit center, and that’s awesome. Back to the story:

Lupa’s Chef di Cuisine Cruz Goler spent a couple of months working with the system. But he ran into some problems. After the first week, some of his staff just stopped weighing the food. But Goler says he didn’t want to “break their chops about some sort of vegetable scrap that doesn’t really mean anything.” Shakman believes those scraps do mean something when they add up over time. He says it’s just a matter of making the tracking a priority, even when a restaurant is really busy. “When we get busy, we don’t stop washing our hands; when we get busy, we don’t cut corners in quality on the plate,” says Shakman.

That’s right, too! We can declare priorities, and if only our thing is declared a priority, it’ll win! What’s more, what’s a priority is a matter of executive sponsorship. The fact that the health department will be upset if you don’t wash your hands — that’s just compliance. Imperfectly plated food? Look, people are at a restaurant to eat, not admire the food, and that plate’s gonna be all smudged up in just a minute. In other words, those priorities are driven by either the customer or an external party. No argument that any internal or consulting party brings in will match those. They’re priority 1, and that’s a small set of requirements.

But for me, the most heartbreaking quote came after the chef decided not to use the system in that restaurant:

Despite the failure of LeanPath in the Lupa kitchen, Shakman is still convinced his system can save restaurants money. But he’s learned that the battle against food waste, like so many battles people fight, has to start with winning hearts and minds.

It’s true, if we just win hearts and minds, people will re-prioritize their tasks. To an extent. But perhaps the issue is that to win hearts and minds, we sometimes need to listen to the objections, and find ways to address them. For example, if onion skins aren’t even used in stock, maybe those can just be dumped on a normal day. Maybe there’s a way to modify the system to only weigh scrap on 1 day out of 7, so that the cost of the system is lessened. I talked about similar issues in security in my “Engineers Are People, Too” talk, and the Elevation of Privilege game is an example of how to make a set of threat modeling tasks more attractive.

Lastly, I want to be clear that I’m using Mr. Shakman and his company as a strawman to critique behaviors I see in information security. Mr. Shakman is probably a great guy and dedicated entreprenuer who’s been taken way out of context in that story. From the company’s website and blog they have some happy customers. I mean them no harm, think what they’re trying to do is an awesome goal, and I wish them the best of luck.

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