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Leonardo Da Vinci’s Kitchen Nightmare

Leonardo Da Vinci

“It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” (Leonardo Da Vinci)

In a previous article, I wrote about the 5 Sketching Secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci, where it seemed like everything Leonardo did was successful. This, however, is not the case.

Some of Leonardo’s projects failed because of their execution. The strange tale of Leonardo’s “Kitchen Nightmare” plays out like a Shakespearean “comedy of errors” where a visionary designer’s experiments all work perfectly to extremely disastrous results.

Our Story Begins

Once upon a time, the Duke of Milan asked Leonardo Da Vinci to help his kitchen staff prepare an extravagant meal for a large dinner party. Leonardo was well known for his dietary practices (he was a strict vegetarian) and his many inventions (parachutes, tanks, gliders). So, Leonardo set about to see how he could innovate in the kitchen. Seeing several opportunities before him, Leonardo created several new innovations:

– Developed a series of conveyor belts in the kitchen to bring food to cooks faster
– Created a large oven to cook food at higher temperatures than normal (at the time)
– Designed a sprinkler system for safety, in case a fire broke out
– Invited local artists to carve individual entrees into works of art for guests to eat

As you can guess, it was Leonardo’s “kitchen nightmare.”

When Works As Designed for a Designer Still Fails

Imagine this scene in your own kitchen. A designer comes over to “help” you cook dinner. He creates a conveyor belt in an already crowded kitchen. You have never seen or used the new oven that cooks faster than what you have been using for years. The designer installs a sprinkler system, which further crowds the kitchen. Finally, the designer invites 50 or so artists to build edible art for the guests. Your kitchen is super crowded. You feel impending doom at the chaos that has invaded your kitchen.

Disaster strikes!

The comedy of errors begins with the conveyor belts running too slow. With a quick adjustment by Leonardo, the belts run faster. Soon, the food piles up. The belt needs another adjustment. Next, the new oven works as designed, but the cooks burn the food, using this unfamiliar oven. Besides burning the food, the new oven causes a small fire. Naturally, the sprinkler system is used. The sprinklers works perfectly, but it ruins most of the food. Finally, the artisans carving the food are too slow. The guests, who were promised an extravagant dinner, are starving. Most of the guests go away hungry.

The Duke, of course, was embarrassed and angry. Leonardo was publicly humiliated.

Three Lessons for Designers

Leonardo’s “Kitchen Nightmare” offers several lessons for designers. I will talk about three lessons here:

– Do not be afraid to fail
– Use positive judgment to explore the value and benefit of ideas
– Do not underestimate the importance of executing your ideas

First, do not be afraid to fail. Da Vinci was using conveyor belts long before the Industrial Revolution. He was experimenting with higher temperature for cooking, developing his own oven, and using artists to improve the presentation of food. Leonardo developed a sprinkler system, which contains the fundamental design still used today. When faced with a task of preparing an extravagant meal for the Duke of Milan, Leonardo was inspired to improve the current state of technology in the kitchens of the day. He was not afraid to fail. Leonardo was no “Iron Chef.” And, he failed in a spectacular way. Again, do not be afraid to fail. Leonardo was not.

Second, use positive judgment to explore the value and benefit of ideas. Consider yourself as the Duke of Milan, who was just publicly humiliated by Leonardo’s “innovations. Would you take the time to notice the value and benefit of conveyor belts, new ovens, and sprinkler systems? Would you think about the creative concept of using edible art designed by local artisans for your guests? The answers to both questions is, probably, no.

When faced with new ideas or failure, we are quick to judge things negatively. We fail to explore lessons learned. We fail to see the benefits and values within new concepts. We do know the Duke publicly humiliated Leonardo for his “kitchen nightmare.” Ironically, the Duke’s own army could have used the same technology (conveyor belts, ovens, and sprinklers) to build more weapons faster. Instead, the Duke scoffed at these new innovations because he was embarrassed.

Third, do not underestimate the importance of executing your ideas. Leonardo made significant inventions for one dinner party. The inventions did work as designed. The conveyor belts moved the food. The oven cooked at a higher temperature. The sprinklers put out the fire. The cooks (ie users) were not ready to have three different inventions at the same time. When you add 50 or so artisans, the kitchen gets very crowded, very fast.

Execution is critical. If you have ever watched today’s cooking shows, you see chefs running around with high-tech blow torches to build works of edible art. Da Vinci was right about his kitchen technology and its uses. The problem comes from his cooks not being properly trained on the conveyor belts and the new oven. These cooks understood the current technology being used and the cooking times of their recipes were for a different oven that simply cooked less hot. It was not a matter of turning a dial. These cooks did not have this convenience.


Leonardo Da Vinci did not always succeed. When he failed, it was a spectacular failure. It was a living nightmare. Yet, his failures still show us lessons from Leonardo. Do not be afraid to fail, as you learn the most from your attempts. Judge new ideas with a positive viewpoint to explore the value and benefit of potential ideas. The execution of a new idea can be as important as thinking it up. You can design like Da Vinci.

What designs make up your own “kitchen nightmares”?

3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Fire Sprinkler Systems: History, Types, and Uses

  2. Jack

    Very nice article. I like the contrast between the designer view and the user view.
    Question for you @Brian, is this story about Da Vinci documented anywhere ?

  3. Pingback : A Brief History of Fire Sprinklers · Valley Fire Protection Systems

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