On Failure and Confidence

Last week when I was interviewed by Lady Smut, Kiersten Hallie Krum asked me a bunch of interesting questions, but the one that stuck with me was if I had any funny failure stories to share.

I said that it was rare for me to have a failure any more, but I’m not sure that’s strictly true. I think I’ve changed my definition of what failure is. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of hilarious kitchen disasters. I nearly gassed myself with pureed onion and the wrong kind of curry one time several years ago. I set oatmeal on fire when I was eight years old. I over-salted a batch of eggplant so badly that now I only buy the tiny ones because they’re tender enough already (yes, that was scarring). And it’s true that those kinds of failures have become increasingly rare as I’ve gained experience and confidence.

That said, I do an awful lot of kitchen experimentation. Last week, I made three sauces to go with sea scallops for my review of Jeffe Kennedy’s Ruby. I made the cilantro sauce twice, the chocolate sauce three times and the mango sauce four times. The first step was to be sure the sauces all worked and tasted good on their own. Putting the cilantro yogurt sauce in the fridge overnight with the lime added at the food processor stage resulted in a curdled sauce the next day. The first batch of the chocolate sauce involved balsamic roasted strawberries that smelled terrific and tasted terrible. The mango sauce worked like a charm the very first time, but mellowed too much in the fridge overnight. And when it came time to serve them all together, it got lost in the other two and didn’t pair well so I had to start over with a different base. And yet, I don’t count the first six tries as failures. They were merely steps on the way to the final product. Like revisions on a novel. I even had editors: my husband and a couple of friends who came over for dinner.

The first time it occurred to me that I might have stumbled across a “right way” of doing recipe development was when we saw Chef earlier this week. There’s a scene where Jon Favreau’s character is creating a new menu and there are ingredients and tupperware containers scattered over the kitchen. My husband leaned over to me in the theater and said, “Well, that looks familiar.”

On Tuesday, Delphine Dryden wrote a post at Wonkomance about a story she had started years ago and that lived in the back of a desk drawer until she came back to it recently. I’m not a writer, but I did glean something from her post: it’s important to fail. Pushing myself to cook based on inspiration outside my own head makes me a better cook. Not only would I have not likely succeeded at something as complicated as coming up with my own sauce recipes years ago, I wouldn’t even have attempted it. Until I did it last week, I didn’t even know I could. Until I saw that movie, I didn’t know that I was doing it right, whatever that is.

Which brings me to my point. I’m not a writer. I’m a cook. But as creative people, and especially as female creative people, I’m not sure we give ourselves enough credit. I’ve read a bunch of Delphine Dryden’s books. And let me just say that she knows what she’s doing. And it’s hard for me to type this, much less say this, but I know what I’m doing too. And not only do I know what I’m doing, I’m getting even better.

There are lots of people out there with more experience, better training, better ideas, but your story arc is yours. And you do know what you’re doing.


  1. Great post! I too have had my share of kitchen failures in the quest to get things right. One of the reasons that I really like the Cook's Illustrated Recipe books (from the PBS show America's Test Kitchen) is that they test all sorts of things in their recipes to get to the best final product. That appeals to the chemist in me đŸ™‚

  2. It’s not failure — it’s a hilarious story waiting to blossom! I love cooking disaster stories. My friend tried to juice an onion once — I was reminded of it by your phrase “gassed myself to death” because that’s what happened to him. They had to evacuate their house for the day. Then there was the framboise experiment that resulted in a raspberry waterfall off the ceiling when the giant wine thingy exploded. (I tell that story all the time.)

    Was it M.F.K. Fischer who talked about always having a ton of alcohol on hand for dinner parties? So if things burn, if pets destroy food—you can just serve more wine and all will eventually be well. A meal is not just nourishment for the body and senses — it’s a form of community and to some a sacrament.

    Ultimately, I think of the spirit is strong — failure is not the end all be all. Failure teaches you exactly how strong you are. So many biz folk have failed once or twice or more before their big successes. And I think that this is a part of their success. They know the world doesn’t end. Friends and family still love them. They will survive and live to fight another day.

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