Friday, January 3, 2014

Citius. Altius. Fortius. Simul.

Since I don’t foresee The Huffington Post or Grantland contacting me anytime soon to freelance write for them, I’ll have to make do with Patel It Like It Is.  I’ve gotten several messages lately from around the world asking me what the heck type of workouts I’m up to based on my Facebook newsfeed.  Well, let me tell you about CrossFit. 

I’ll start at the beginning and preface this by saying I’m one of those people who drank the CrossFit Kool-Aid.   I joined CrossFit in fall 2012.  It was a weird period where I hated the world and felt like life was “happening” to me.   So, I joined CrossFit to get some sense of control back and fill the void left by the end of my rugby career.   Eighteen months and thousands of squats later, I can’t imagine not CrossFitting for the rest of my life.  So, what is CrossFit?   Well, in a nutshell, Crossfit is a fitness regimen of constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity in a communal environment leading to better health and fitness. 

Whenever you walk into a CrossFit gym (aka “box”), you’re guaranteed one of the hardest workouts you’ll ever have. and each box tends to publish their daily workouts (great for workout ideas if you travel for work).  The hour usually goes something like this.  Everyone does a warmup together to get you loose and ready for the rest of the exercises.  Then comes the strength and/or skill exercise portion for ~20 minutes.  This could include anything from back squats, pull-ups, handstands, bench press, snatches, pistols, etc.   Then comes the workout of the day (aka “WOD”).  This is usually a set of exercises done for time or a fixed time workout done for as many rounds as possible (aka “AMRAP”).  The challenging and fun part is that these workouts vary every single day.  At the end of each WOD, it’s common for people to be sweating profusely spread-eagled on the ground trying to catch their breath and hoping not to upchuck.   As we say, CrossFit never gets easier, it just sucks less. 

Squat cleans, December 2013

Ass-kicking lessons
I’ve played sports or pursued athletic endeavors as long as I can remember.  CrossFit is the only thing I’ve found to be a guaranteed ass-kicking each time while also being the most motivating thing you can do.  I’ll get to the motivating aspect in a bit, but to expand on the ass-kicking element, I’ll say this.  In a given class, you will see people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and fitness levels.  That gives you some accountability and something to aspire to.  As we say, you’re always chasing someone while someone’s always chasing you.  My times, weights, and scores are not close to anything worth bragging about, but they are improving.  And, I have role models for the type of CrossFit athlete I’d like to be eventually.  There are beastly 30/40-something year old mothers who kick my ass every day in the WOD.  I think that’s great that these women are doing this for themselves and becoming stronger both literally and figuratively.  

One woman (a former DI college athlete) from my box once quipped, “Honey, never lose your figure because it’s so hard to get it back.”  Haha.  Regarding figures, I’d say CrossFit is doing a world of good in redefining what “beauty” is for women of all ages.  Maybe the day will come when teenage girls desire to be “strong and lean” vs. “skinny”.  Since I began CrossFitting, I’ve gained ~16 pounds and my (expensive) jeans no longer fit.   Except for the pricey collection of 7s and Citizens that I now need to replace, I’m OK with the weight gain and pants size increase because I know it’s muscle.  My 15-year-old self would’ve reacted differently.  

I love CrossFit workouts because they are so audacious.  I remember when I was beginning grad school in London, I met an alum who was an Italian navy officer turned Bain consultant.   He said something that was so profound and something that has always stuck with me.  
“It is only when we operate at the edge of our limits can we exceed them.”  
I would argue that most people (including me) are operating in cruise control mode for the majority of their endeavors at work, school, hobbies, etc.   I look forward to CrossFit each day because I know for that one hour, I will be physically operating at 100%.  Over time that 100% relatively becomes my 90%, and I can see and feel that improvement/growth. 

I mentioned previously that CrossFit can be one of the most motivating things you can do.  Part of that is because it’s a fitness philosophy or system that works.  We also have great coaches that cheer you on and push you to do your best.  Trust me, if you have someone like Coach Logan yelling behind you “Run like is bear is chasing you!” or (my favorite) “Payal, row like your ass is on fire!”, you will run and row faster.  Haha.  Coaching that emphasizes form and safety, snarky commentary, and someone just pushing you to do better actually makes you improve.   

Squatting well below parallel, August 2013

Furthermore, I’ve found that CrossFit has helped me to identify the subtle differences between smart strength and brute strength.   In strength training, form matters in that there are better/more efficient ways of doing things.  It’s a bit of smoke and mirrors.  An example would be the first time I did power cleans in a WOD.  I had no idea really what I was doing, and afterwards, Coach David came up to me and told me to treat a power clean like a kettlebell swing by using my hips to pop the weight up.  He told me, “Payal, put a little ass into it, and the heavy bar will float up”, and it did!  Another example would be when Coach Yannick from CrossFitAKA in Amsterdam taught me how to conserve energy by landing in the squat position when doing 20” box jumps.   I can think of so many examples of this type of great coaching I’ve received from the official coaches as well as other CrossFit members (very common for us to teach and learn from each other).  

Kettlebell Swings, January 2013

CrossFit Camaraderie 
I’m motivated to CrossFit largely because of my fellow CrossFitters and the culture of the organization.   It’s not uncommon for people to tell me that they think CrossFit is a cult.   Everyone is allowed to have their opinion, and I’m not offended by this comment.  I choose to think of CrossFit as a community.  Throughout my life, I’ve always found that anytime you can work, study, worship, or live in community, good things will happen.  I believe CrossFit is a community full of achievement junkies who just believe in better.  It’s a community where people encourage and cheer each other on in the box, in competitions, and in life.   It’s a community where failure is celebrated.  It’s a community where people say “please” and “thank you”.  It’s an egalitarian and accepting community where your socioeconomic status and place in life matter less than what you value and where you’re headed.  And like my alma materit’s an incredibly positive environment.   Whether you call it a cult or community, I’ll self select into that type of place any day of the week.

It is a bit weird to think that people who individually workout together can have such a strong feeling of connection, isn’t it?  I remember one of my co-workers once quipping, “We connect through our vulnerabilities.”  I almost laughed out loud and thought that was some royal bologna.  But, on second thought, I think there’s a nugget of truth to it.   CrossFit is not “glamourous”.  Most people look terrible at the end of the hour.  Sweat, blood, dirt, vomit, spit, grunting, etc. are all familiar to us.   And you publicly struggle.  And it is this vulnerability and shared set of experiences that create intense camaraderie just like in any other team sport.  

CrossFit Evolving (London) birthday party, October 2012

AllSport CrossFit Football Combine Workout + Flag Football, August 2013

Earlier this year, a friend forwarded me this provocative New York Times article on why it’s so difficult to make friends after the age of 30.  Sociologists since the 1950s have identified these three conditions as crucial to making close friendships: 1) proximity; 2) repeated, unplanned interactions; and 3) a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.  Through this lens, it’s easy to see why it’s so easy to make friends in college.  And, I’d argue the same for CrossFit.  Your fellow CrossFitters likely live or work close to your box.  And while you do see each other fairly often, you never know who’s going to show up in your class as peoples’ schedules are always shifting.  And again, as mentioned, when you’re working out, you’re gross and a bit vulnerable, which encourages people to let their guard down.   If any person from either my London or Houston box ever came up to me needing a favor that I had the ability and means to provide for, of course I would.   And that sentiment to go to battle with/for each other is a very common shared feeling.

CrossFit as a Global Sport (and Business)
When you think about it, there aren’t that many sports out there that have global appeal and participation.  Baseball may be America’s past time, but you won’t find many jerseys in Poland.  And while netball is popular in Europe, you won’t find many playing the game on this side of the pond.  The sports I think of as "global" tend to be popular ones in countries that were part of the British empire (e.g. soccer, cricket, tennis, rugby).  Or mainstay Olympic events like track & field.   And while there are examples of certain sports actively pushing for exposure beyond current boundaries such as the Premier League now broadcasting games on NBC Sports or the NFL committing to three regular season games being played in London at Wembley in 2014, it takes a while and loads of investment to build (and monetize) those brands globally. 

And then I look at CrossFit.  I had a chance to meet Adidas CFO Robin Stalker when I was in London.  He spoke about the rationale for Adidas’ brand Reebok for partnering with CrossFit and the investment that went into re-positioning Reebok as a fitness brand.  CrossFit from day 1 was the global sport of fitness.   Think about it, ESPN broadcasts the CrossFit Games every year, and athletes from all over the world compete for $1 million and the title of “fittest on earth”.   

I think of CrossFit as the McDonald’s of fitness in that wherever you go in the world, you will have a consistent fitness experience delivered by an organization with a strong culture and deeply ingrained values.  Whenever I travel domestically or internationally, I’ll log onto and type in a zip code in the affiliate finder tool.  I can usually find a box and will then email the owner to see if I can drop in for a workout (and usually pick up a t-shirt too).    I’ve done this for about 20 boxes in the US and also in 8 countries.  And, everywhere I’ve gone, it’s very much plug and play.  I know what to expect in terms of movements, general routine, and standards.  And because unique terminology and acronyms are used, there is a common CrossFit language wherever you go in the world.   And there’s further standardization with the benchmark girl WODs and Hero WODs named after military heroes.  Think of it like hurricanes, if you say “Hurricane Rita”, people instantly know what you're talking about.  Same thing with benchmark and hero WODs.  When my coach in London tells me we’re doing Fran, I know instantly that’s 21-15-9 of thrusters and pull-ups.  This workout standardization also allows for global comparisons of my times/weights/scores to other people regardless of nationality.  That's part of the secret of building a global sport.

CrossFit Aggieland, April 2013  (Fantastic box!!)

CrossFit NYC Black Box, March 2013 (Don't bother going here!)

The other part about CrossFit that has always intrigued and excited me is that it promotes entrepreneurship.  This very well-written article explains the business and ethos of Greg Glassman’s CrossFit.  Essentially each box or affiliate is independently owned and operated.  The “affiliate franchise fee” tops out at $3,000/year and because the equipment tends to be free weights in locations that tend to be warehouses or strip malls, the startup costs are "reasonable" compared to other small businesses.   

As this affiliate map shows, there are somewhere around 7,000 affiliates around the world.  From my own observations, most tend to be single-location businesses, so that means there are likely 6,000+ people making a living running their own CrossFit business.  (As an aside, I have seen a few CrossFit “chains” like CrossFit Copenhagen which has about eight separate locations).  I think that’s awesome.  

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CrossFit affiliate map, January 2014
Furthermore, CrossFit has a strong military element in it with the number of military members who CrossFit, the hero workouts, and common values.  I’ve noticed that several of the boxes I’ve visited are owned by ex-military personnel.   In business school, I noticed how our country doesn’t do that great of a job helping our soldiers find their next career after they’ve served their time.  I’m glad that many ex-military personnel have found their calling as CrossFit owners.     

Better Together

All else equal, I love CrossFit because it’s made (and continues to make) me a better person.   I’ve learned about my mental weakness but also my mental toughness.  Anyone who has done Murph has learned that, and I give credit to my London coach Stretch for first teaching me how to “chip away” when I desperately wanted to quit Angie.  

CrossFit has encouraged me to increase my protein consumption.  As a vegetarian all my life, I’ve just accepted being protein and iron deficient, but nowadays protein shakes, eggs, and nuts are part of my daily diet.  

CrossFit has made me a better runner, and if I still played rugby, I know the same.   I think of CrossFit as a “multiplier” in that it helps you in the rest of your fitness and sporting endeavors.  I imagine that’s why many professional athletes incorporate CrossFit into their training regime.  As a personal example, I ran my best half marathon time this fall in Istanbul with very few training runs.  I believe CrossFit is the missing link in that paradox.  

CrossFit has made me less of a hermit through our happy hours, birthday parties, road trips, Facebook conversations, and daily interaction.   My CrossFit friends are certainly not my closest friends, but in an odd way I count this motley crue as some of my dearest friends.  

AllSport CrossFit Christmas Party + White Elephant Gift Exchange, December 2013

CrossFit has given me a refreshed confidence.  It’s hard to explain, but just knowing that you can deadlift 1.5x your bodyweight or squat 1.3x your bodyweight is empowering.  I sometimes find myself “sizing up” other females in the grocery store or around town and thinking to myself “I could take her”.   

And as a woman who has always struggled to find other women I can identify with, I’ve certainly found some ladies who exhibit behaviors I’m trying to build into my character.  One woman in particular is my Houston coach Susie.  Twenty years down the road, I hope my kids, family, friends, and professional colleagues are impacted in the same way that Susie has impacted those around her because she’s certainly living my dream. 

The official tagline of CrossFit is “Forging Elite Fitness”.  That’s good, but if it were up to me, I’d borrow from the Olympics and amend to “Citius, Altius, Fortius, Simul” meaning “Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together.”  

SDHP, December 2013

Ring swings during the "12 Days of Christmas (fave WOD ever!), December 2012

Squat therapy, August 2013

AllSport CrossFit Fine Looking Friends!  December 2013

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Books finally unpacked in the house.  Amazon has made a small fortune.

Monday, July 8, 2013

London Loves

Two friends recently contacted me for tips and recommendations for trips they are making to London this summer.  I spent a good 2 hours remembering, writing, editing, Googling, etc. and thought a modified version of that email would be good to post as a blog entry.  To this day, a big piece of my heart is still in London, so I'm calling these my London Loves.

Brunch...Providores on Marylebone High Street (near my old flat).  I insist that every London visitor go here for brunch on Saturday/Sunday because it is absolutely the best brunch I found in London.  Famous chef Peter Gordon (I have his cookbooks if you want to borrow).  It's a small unassuming place but everything on the menu is great.  I always got the Turkish eggs from changa for brunch (darn delicious!).  Great dinner menu and wines too.  Never had anything on the menu that I didn’t like.

Indian...the Brits aren't known for traditional English food, but they are known for their Indian food.  My faves were Masala Zone (chain with great Indian street food), Dishoom (one of the hottest new spots), Mint Leaf (Michelin star restaurant), and Quilon (top 5 meal of my life at the restaurant in the Taj hotel on Buckingham Palace Road).  Roti Chai is another great new restaurant, and I took my parents there whenever they visited.
·     Borough Market is amazing!!  You should definitely go for lunch one day and wander around.  Think of it as an outdoor Whole Foods + Austin SoCo food truck park x 10.   The raclettes (Swiss cheese sandwiches or potatoes) are very famous.  You will smell them.   So many artisanal foods to try/buy too.  Closest tube stop is London Bridge on Jubilee (gray) line.

Mediterranean/Middle East...Yalla Yalla (fab Lebanese), NOPI (another top 5 meal of my life at famous chef Yotam Ottolenghi's newest place…also have his cookbooks if you want to borrow)

Burgers...Gourmet Burger Kitchen (chain but good) or Hache (fave for London)

Other...Duke of Wellington (fantastic gastropub!) and Blue Elephant (best Thai place in London and looks/feels like a jungle inside).  I also frequented La Fromagerie for a cozy brunch or dinner.  Walking into the impressive cheese room at La Fromagerie and inhaling deeply is other worldly.  There’s a chain called EAT, and they have these amazing honey chilli peanuts (~2 gbp/container) that I inhaled.

DRINK...Europeans love to drink outside anytime anyday.  Especially when there's a football game on.  Have a Pimm's or Magner's cider for me (traditional British drinks). Some of my fave drinkeries were:

The Windsor Castle Pub...My absolute fave for sentimental reasons because I lived across the street from this pub that was attached to school.  I was there at least 5 days a week, and if you happen to be in Marylebone or near Regents Park, you should head there.  Ask if Mick (the owner), Jackie (other owner), or Eliza (bar maid) are there.  Tell them you know me or rather "Pi", and they will treat you well!

Afternoon tea…I thought high tea would be totally lame, but actually I found it to be a lovely experience to get dressed up and go for tea in fancy hotels.  So relaxing.  I went to have tea at Le Meridien and another boutique which I now forget.  Famous places to have tea are the Wolseley and the Dorchester.  It’s about 30 -40 gbp (kinda steep), but totally worth doing in my opinion.  Also go with someone b/c it would be awkward to go solo. 

Borough Barista.  This place has really good coffee and is really close to Marble Arch and Oxford Street.  I’m not a coffee aficionado, but all my European coffee snob friends introduced me to this small place.  It’s a hidden gem, and those that love coffee know about this place.  They have good sandwiches / small pastries too.  The other coffee chains in London are Costa, CafĂ© Nerro, and Pret (all OK). 

Experimental Cocktail Club  Call ahead to get a reservation b/c this place is tough to get into.

LAB (London Academy of Bartending)  LOVE this place!!  I had one of my deportation going away do’s here.

Hilton Park on top floor of hotel with good view of Hyde Park 

Go to Olympic Park in East London (a bit of a hike).  Take Jubilee (gray) line all the way to Stratford.  You can pay 10 quid (slang for gbp) or so and ride elevator to top of Orbit and get a good view of London and stadiums.  Also, they built a giant Westfields shopping center next to Olympic Park with mall, bars, restaurants, cinema, etc.

Lord's Cricket Ground...most famous cricket stadium that you can tour and watch a match if lucky.  On Park Road in St. John's Wood.

Regents Park...this was my park and had a 3 mile running loop.

Golf...The best courses are in Scotland but there are a few good ones on the outskirts of London too. football stadium.  If you're lucky, there may be an exhibition match going on.

Covent fave neighborhood in London for Friday/Saturday night out.  Kind of like Rice Village in Houston but better and British.  Good bars.  Good shopping.  Home of the largest Apple store in the world.

Liberty of London...super famous department store known for their fabrics (on 3rd/4th floor).  J.Crew does partnerships with Liberty in the US and Target used to have a small selection, but that's about it here.  Besides fabrics and high end fashion, the store just has cool stuff and is in a beautiful iconic building.

Selfridges...forget Harrods, go here.  The food hall is really good and somewhere where you can find American products not sold in Tesco.

Fortnum & Mason...another famous department store.  Known for teas and other artisanal things found in -1 floor.  Good place to pick up souvenirs.

London Transport Museum...sounds cheesy but they have cool merchandise.  Another good place for souvenirs. In Covent Garden.

Wimbledon!  (If you’ll be there).  I stood in The Queue (the Brits love queuing), ate yummy strawberries & cream, drank some Pimm's, watched the tennis, bought really pricey merchandise at the gift shop, and wandered the storied All England Tennis Club grounds.  Perfect summer days.  

London Eye.  Very touristy but great views of London on a clear day.  Book your London Eye tix in advance to avoid hoards of tourists & the long queue.  Go for the mid-tier priced ticket that lets you book a half hour time slot.  

Museums - they are free.  My faves were National Gallery, Tate Modern, Saatchi Gallery, and British Museum.

Greenwich - easy half day trip from London where you can straddle the Prime Meridian

Musicals/theater - like NYC, shows are a big deal in London.  There's a TKTS booth in Leicester Square (pronounced Lester Square)

Walk along southbank of Thames from London Eye to Tate on a nice day...good people watching, sights to see, pubs along the way, street performers, etc.

What bank do you have in the US?  If it's Bank of America, you can use your BofA debit card at any Barclays ATM in the UK and won't pay any transactions fees (and get a good exchange rate) up to $500 / day.

If you've got luggage and don't want to deal with a long Underground ride or Heathrow Express to/from airport, you can pre-book a cab for ~35 gbp (don't tip more than 10% in London for food or cabs).  I used this cheap good cab service whenever I needed a ride anywhere in London b/c their fares seemed to be cheaper than most.  I don't know the company's's in my phone as "Cheap Good Cabs".  +44 (0)2074331000

Do you curl or straighten your hair?  Do you have appropriate adapters?  If you travel internationally from the US fairly regularly, consider getting a 220V or dual voltage straightener.  Best. Decision. Ever.  I prefer Sedu and GHD brands.

Photo: clever, cheeky sign found at Borough Barista

Monday, April 22, 2013

Don't Mess with Dishes

I was in College Station this weekend for a 3 Day Startup competition hosted by Texas A&M and Startup Aggieland.  Saw this in the kitchen and thought it amazingly passive aggressive.  Haha!

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Even though I live with my sister Binita, we don't see each other alot.  She has a crazy shift schedule while I have a corporate job with a CrossFit addiction.  Anywho, when I came back to the US, my sister mentioned there was a fancy new restaurant in Houston called Oxheart that was all the rage.  A week later my sweet friend Preeti mentioned she had been there and loved it.  And then the following week, one of my co-workers mentioned it too.  So, I decided to make a reservation for Binita and me as a "sisterly dinner".  I knew it had to be good if I had to book a reservation six weeks out and at 9 pm.  

Last Monday finally came.  The restaurant called me a couple of times to confirm, left a voicemail message, and sent a text (overkill).  Binita drove and was freaked out that Oxheart is in a dodgy part of Houston (north of downtown between 45 and 59) and scared that someone would key her fancy Infiniti SUV.  I told her to chill, there were other pricey cars parked next to the ditch.  We walked up and could tell there was a restaurant in the building through the windows; however, it took a while to find the wooden door.  It pisses me off when establishments don't even have a sign on the door.  For the record, it's the angled wooden door on the corner.  Not the club next door with trash bags out front.

We walked in to find a cozy restaurant with about 10 small tables and a U-shaped bar overlooking the kitchen. The host told us our table wasn't ready and offered us two uncomfortable metal chairs next to the restroom.  Again, I was pissed.  If I had to wait six weeks for a reservation, I expect my table ready when I get there.  This is Houston, people.  We saw waiters running about, the host incessantly refilling the silverware drawers, and no one really paying attention to us.  15 minutes later, a woman comes by and senses we're a bit perturbed.  She offers us a free glass of champagne to sip while we wait (of course I agree!).  10 minutes later, we're still waiting, and I'm wondering if we could just sit on the bar.  I pull the waiter over and ask him if the empty seats on the bar overlooking the kitchen are available.  He said that those seats do have the same menu as the rest of the restaurant.  I'm thinking to myself, "Well, why the hell did you not offer me these bar seats overlooking the kitchen half an hour ago when I was on time for my reservation?!?"  I almost wanted to strangle him, but the rest of the evening made up for the rough front of the house experience.  And, quite frankly sitting at the bar is a cooler experience than one of the small tables.

We got situated on the bar where we saw 6 or 7 chefs meticulously preparing every dish using forceps, a hundred different plastic containers, and other cool gadgets.  The two waitresses wearing leather aprons were lovely and definitely knew their stuff.  For wine, we ordered the 1999 Kalin Cellars Semillon.  The waitress mentioned that Oxheart is the only restaurant in all of Texas that serves this wine.  Apparently, the sommelier knew it was good stuff and bought all the bottles the vineyard had barring distributors from getting it.  It was an interesting dry, sweet wine that tasted like nothing I had ever had before.  It was darned delicious and a good choice by the waitress.

Binita and I both ordered the garden 4-course tasting menu for $49/person.  For an extra $30, you can get wine pairings for each course, but we were happy with our semillon.  Below is the menu we had, and I'll do my best to explain things from my perspective.

  • warm sunflower seed soup, burnt onion, puffed rices and grains, pumpkin seeds, black tea
  • heirloom carrots cooked with exotic spices and coconut, avocado, corianders
  • cauliflowers cooked in different ways, raisins and currants, brown butter, mustards
rye bread and sunchoke pudding sweetened with molasses, yogurt, and strawberries.

First course was that sunflower seed soup.  That was the most flavorful, potent soup I've ever had, and it's incredible that emulsified sunflower seeds are the base.  There were some intense flavors and all sorts of textures going on in that dish.  And the chef comes out and pours the soup in your bowl from a tea kettle explaining the 50 dry ingredients at the bottom of the bowl.  The soup actually was my least favorite course because it aggravated a sore I had on the edge of my tongue.   It's also a very heavy soup and surprisingly filling.  Oxheart usually swaps out items on the menu every month based on what's in season, etc.  This soup has been on the menu six months.  So, even though I didn't care for it that much, others obviously do.

The chef brought out warm, soft mini English muffins with spiced butter/lard after the first course. YUMMY!!

Second course was a beautiful montage of carrots sourced locally.  They base was a stack of seasoned carrot chunks covered in a yummy puree with carrot disks and flowers meticulously placed on top with forceps.  My description isn't the best because it's hard to explain, but boy howdy that dish was yummy.   This was my second favorite course.  And again, it is surprisingly filling.

Third course was cauliflower cooked several ways in brown butter.  I normally hate cauliflower, but man, that dish was damn delicious.  Binita and the waitress say it's because of the brown butter.  I would eat that cauliflower dish any day of the week.  And, it's a sign of a good chef if he can get guests to like things they normally don't.

Last course was a slightly savory dessert of rye bread pudding.  No lie, it looked a little gross, but I did think it was an appropriate end to the meal.  And, the whipped yogurt and caraway-infused strawberries were amazeball.  Because I was SO full, I couldn't finish dessert.  Lesson for next time, pace yourself and save some space in your tummy for the end.

At the end of the meal, the chef brought out some chocolate spiced hazelnuts that were to die for.  I asked the waitress how they were made, and she said the chef's secret was to put extra salt in the dish to contrast the sweetness.  At that point, I wanted to jump out and say, "I know!  I know!  That's what I do with all my desserts too!!  Case in point, compost cookies."  But, Binita was giving me the evil eye that we needed to get home since it was almost midnight.  

Overall, I enjoyed Oxheart because it was a food adventure.  This place is all about food and reminded me of the El Bulli case we discussed in my first year Marketing course at London Business School.  El Bulli was a restaurant in the Catalan region of Spain and started by Ferran Adria.  It was named the best restaurant in the world a record five times and is said to have pioneered molecular gastronomy with it's food lab in Barcelona.  El Bulli  was only open a few months a year, a two hour car drive away into the middle of nowhere, and next to impossible to get a reservation at.  But, it was a foodie's Mecca.  El Bulli actually closed in 2011, and Ferran came to LBS and HBS to ask students to help him come up with a new business model for his culinary talent as a student competition.  Unfortunately, I couldn't participate as my school life was already packed.   One of the takeaways from that Marketing case discussion was that an optimal customer experience can vary, and customers can't always articulate what they want.  Getting a reservation and traveling to El Bulli was a pain in the ass, but that added positively to the customer experience paradoxically.  And, when it came to the food, no one walked away disappointed.  Again, El Bulli focused on what it was good at: food.  My experience at Oxheart reminded me of El Bulli.

I actually saw a fab TED talk yesterday that echoed this concept.  It's by Dan Ariely, the author of "Predictably Irrational".  I had heard of the book in my Incentives in Organizations elective at LBS, but I haven't gotten around to reading it because my "to read" queue is forever backed up.  Anywho, I highly recommend watching this TED talk!  One of the best parts is where he talks about IKEA furniture that takes forever to assemble.  The effort that goes into building my IKEA furniture actually makes me like it better!  The cake mix example is so great too...haha!  See it here:

Back to Oxheart, I think there's a similar reason why I enjoyed the experience.  I had to wait six weeks to get a reservation, deal with some bad service upon arrival, shell out $150 for the evening, etc.  But, I take pride and am happy because that experience was authentic and had meaning.  To have and see the chef owner meticulously place flowers on my carrots with forceps made me feel like I was the only person in Oxheart, and his willingness to answer all my foodie questions revealed his expertise and passion.   People don't buy what you sell, they buy why sell it.  I walked out of Oxheart physically very full and emotionally inspired.

The very next day, the New York Times actually reviewed Oxheart and another Houston hotspot called Underbelly.  Read about them here:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

La Petite Américaine

My sweet friend Katherine recently launched her own sweet treat catering company called La Petite Americaine.   I met her originally through the Junior League of London and have had a chance to not only taste her delicious cakes but hear her story.

Katherine is no ordinary baker.  She takes classic and vintage recipes and puts her twist to them.  And, she's got the passion to back up her talent.  I remember sampling one of her cakes that had a jam filling.  Normally, I avoid cakes that have jam in them, but boy howdy, she made me a believer.  I don't remember the exact details, but Katherine provided a copious description of the ingredients she used and why she used them the way she did to make the cake moist.

One of my recent favorite quotes comes from one of my business school professors and goes something like "Great things happen when ordinary people become irrationally obsessed with something."  Katherine has put her heart and soul into her business with attention to the smallest of details.

If you're in London and find yourself needing to cater desserts for a party or event or just want to treat yourself, please check out La Petite Americaine.  Katherine will take good care of you. :)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Payal Style

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the famous and highly regarded Mrs. Moneypenny (her real name is Heather) at a TEDx event in London.   I was still new to Britain, without a television, and  preferred to read the WSJ over the FT each morning, so I wasn't aware of her celebrity at the time.  In any case, I was able to impress her unknowingly with my TED talk, and recently she was very generous in offering me some advice as I'm hunting for the right next career move.   I feel very lucky that I had that privilege, and this blog post is to share some of the privilege to the 5 people that actually read this blog (haha).   It's based on some thoughts I stewed over after reading Mrs. Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women and my own operating strategies of being a woman in a man's world.   Everyone needs to develop their own "style" taking things that work for them and borrowing ideas from others.  This is my "Payal style".

Confidence matters.  Alot.  Men tend to carry themselves with more confidence than women.  I don't know precisely why, but from my sample of classmates, friends, and co-workers, it's clear to see.  This confidence thing is an uphill battle I'll likely face the majority of my career.  But, at least I'm more aware of it, and can work to boost it in situations that matter.   Saw this a few weeks ago on Pinterest, and it's my new motto.

Theory #1.  I have a theory that you're an average of the 5 people you hang out the most with.  The company you keep speaks of you as well, so make sure you surround yourself and spend time with people whose values are similar to your own and will make you a better person.

Accept that life's not fair.  In 2010, a report was published by Huran listing the top 20 self-made women billionaires.  11 out of the 20 were from China.  There are a couple of contributing factors including high GDP growth in China, a culture that values ambition and hard work, and one special thing that I hadn't thought about before: cheap and stigma free childcare.  In America, it's much more difficult to outsource your home life, and I for one wouldn't ever want to.   That means I'm going to have to dial down my career at some point.

Be gracious.  One of my favorite Directors that I worked with is a woman named Courtney.  She once paraphrased a quote (I think by Laura Bush?) that has always stuck with me, and something I try to live my life by.  Forgive the inaccurateness of it, but it goes something like "True grace is making anyone, no matter what stage of life they're in, feel comfortable."

Everyone has to eat.  As a sophomore at Texas A&M, I was a student leader/mentor in a prestigious freshmen leadership organization called ASSIST.   I had 64 freshmen that I looked after, helped, and invested time in so that they would not only have a great college experience but also grow as leaders.  This was a life changing experience for me (and alot of fun), but it was an incredible time suck.  A guy in the class ahead of me named Brian gave some advice over a campfire handover session that has always stuck with me.  He said that while this experience would be incredibly time consuming for me the following year, remember that everyone has to eat, exercise, study, shop, do laundry, etc.  And, you should take others to do those things with you.  I've found this advice to be incredibly effective for me over the years.  In college, I ended up taking freshmen to go to the grocery store with me, go run around campus, or spend evenings in the library together.  What we did mattered less than the fact that I wanted to spend time and invest in them. Over the years, I've adapted this to my professional and grad student life.   I think it also brings a sense of genuineness and realness to relationships.  While I do enjoy going out to a fancy cocktail lounge or club in London, sometimes I'd much rather go explore apartments or help a friend prepare for a salary negotiation.

Get your rear in gear.  And go join a gym or sports team.  Physical fitness makes me feel better and is an endorphin rush.  Going for a run is how I de-stress and think about things.  And, my new favorite fitness programme CrossFit also helps build confidence and gives me a sense of community.  I feel all women should carve out at least 3 hours a week for physical activity.

Read something.  All. The. Time.  I have very low tolerance for people who don't read.  I'm busy, but I always have a book (fiction and non-fiction).  Reading helps me continue learning and "escape".  I think it also gives me interesting things to add to conversations.  I love trading book recommendations with friends.

Pay it forward.  I'm blessed to have a number of champions and mentors that have watched out for me over the years.  I can never repay them for the profound impact they've had on me, but I can pay it forward to the next generation.  Mrs. Moneypenny had a great saying for this targeted at females, "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." Amen, sister.

Be proactive.  An incredible Managing Director I used to work with named Chuck mentioned something to me in my first month working out of college that has always stuck.  He said that I should be proactive in managing relationships with professional colleagues.  In his words, "The relationship has to be there before you need it."

Accept that men will not cross-stitch.  Some of my hobbies like painting and cross-stitching are very girly.  No man will ever want to do those things as a company outing or social event.  Develop (or at least attempt to develop) an interest in their hobbies.  It turns out I actually love playing poker, and I'm glad I learned the game in business school while playing with a good group of friends in a weekly small buy-in game.   I suck at golf (and managed to hit my study group mate Pete in the face with a golf club...not my finest hour), but eventually I'll get there and progress past the driving range.  I've always loved American football and joined my business school classmates in a fantasy football league this year.  My good buddy Sheldon (aka Mr. Whippy) came up with this great idea as a mechanism for us to all keep in touch given that we're spread over several continents.  It's been great to play fantasy football with them (and I have a great team that is dominating the league!).  They've been very accepting of me being the only female in our league too.  I think women sometimes play the "they won't accept me in their realm" card too hastily.

Ask for favors. I learned this in my Paths to Power class (GREAT class!) at London Business School.  Men are much more comfortable and willing to ask for favors, negotiate salaries, request special treatment, etc.  Women need to do this too (in our own unique ways).  We played a game in Paths to Power that has always stuck.  Essentially, we were put into breakout rooms with 10 people.  Each person wrote two things they needed help with on Post Its and then placed them on the outline of a giant circle drawn on a white board.  The Post Its had everything from requests for interview help to places to live to asking for a coffee during the break.  The students then drew lines from their names in the center to those they could help.  Once all the Post Its were cleared off, you could see the end result was a giant web.  Humans systematically underestimate others' willingness to help, AND we underestimate the happiness that performing favors gives them.

Know the PIE equation.  I went to a fabulous London Business School / Committee of 200 conference recently.   An accomplished fellow woman from the South named Tanya Fratto mentioned something to me that has stuck.  She had a very distinguished career at GE and told us how GE folks use the PIE equation for career progression.  Performance. Image. Exposure.  Each is equally important, and women should not only focus on the P.  Performance will not take you to the top, and the sooner females become comfortable playing organizational politics, the better.  Also, they can demonstrate organizational savviness in the their own unique way.  Tanya gave the anecdote of how a macho man questioned her ability to turnaround a GE plant in small town America.  Tanya coyly remarked that she was selected because she knew how to shoot guns and drove an F-250.   When put into situations like that, women can either get defensive and go into heinous bitch mode or react in a lighthearted way and win people over.

You cannot have your cake and eat it too.  I've always strived to be a renaissance woman of sorts, and I have an unrealistic belief that I'll be able to balance a career, family, personal development, etc.  Mrs. Moneypenny drives home this point that you can't have it all.  List your priorities and make decisions based on them.  You will have to say "no" and disappoint others.  I believe there's alot of merit in this, but it's incredibly difficult for me to do.