Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012
the sounds of the kitchen

Recently, Charlie Rose interviewed Daniel Humm, the chef at Eleven Madison Park, a much-lauded New York City restaurant.Charlie Rose | This is a recording of the interview.  Humm talked about how the restaurant’s thematic approach is inspired by the music of Miles Davis.

Rose noted that Davis’ music is played in the dining room, but not in the kitchen.  Humm said, “The kitchen, I think, has its own music.  And when I’m in the kitchen, based on the sounds, I know if we are having a good night or if we are struggling.”

There are certain rhythms of activity that just seem right.  With your eyes closed, you could probably get a sense of how the members of a basketball team are playing together.  Or whether a man shingling a roof is in a groove.  You can certainly tell if the members of a musical group are in touch with each other, no matter if they are playing jazz or classical or country.

For those of us that work in offices and make decisions for a living, the nature of our conversations can say much about whether we are being productive or destructive.the research puzzle | As noted in an earlier posting on this site, “A business is only as good as its conversations.”  Quite apart from the content, the sounds of a meeting indicate whether much is being accomplished at all and whether it is just a forum for broadcasting opinions and emotions or one for making effective decisions.

The electronic age changed the vibrations of our working lives.  Information comes to us individually and many of us can choose a relative isolation from others if we want.  Think of a row of computer programmers, side by side, each with headphones blocking out everything else.

When it comes to the investment world, some of the sounds have changed dramatically.  The ticker machines clacking away are long gone, but back in the day there were market players who listened to their noise to understand how the market was changing.  Early in my career, the “broad tape” machine spit out the news, a bell ringing for the big stories.

Of course, the sounds of the New York Stock Exchange and other venues are nothing like they once were.  That guy on the floor that used to give you color doesn’t see (or hear) fear and greed manifested in the way he once did.  There are exceptions; some of the commodity pits are still plenty lively, but the machines have taken over by and large.  They are silent and so fast that we couldn’t divine the music even if we could hear it.

Trading rooms have changed too.  There are lots of empty desks where there used to be traders and generally fewer calls with fewer people.  Testosterone is still on full display at times, but in general the dynamics aren’t the same.  The human element of trading has been altered and a certain sense of the moment has been lost.

In previous postings on this site, I have used the image of a tablethe research puzzle | This one, called “thus spake the king,” is about how leaders and stars can distort the conversation that should be taking place. to set up pieces about how members of a group interact to make investment decisions.  One industry veteran told me he felt the construct was outdated, because so many investment decisions are made virtually these days.

Wherever you look, it’s harder to find the “kitchen” now — where it all happens, in an investment sense — or to hear in the activity there the things we used to be able to hear.  I get a sense that the changes matter more than most of us think.