On Tuesdays in January, inspiring chefs and entrepreneurs share the lessons they wish they could tell their younger selves. Here, Top Chef alumna shares tips she would tell her younger self.
F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. On Tuesdays in January, inspiring chefs and entrepreneurs share the lessons they wish they could tell their younger selves. Use the hashtag to tweet your tips to live by (@foodandwine) for the chance to be featured.
Oh, to have the chance to whisper wise words of advice into the ears of my younger self!
Perhaps the trickiest part to moving on from heartbreaks, blows to our professional pride or any of the other ego-checking lessons that we experience as we grow up is to recognize that life has given us the lessons we need to create a better strategy for dealing with any similar challenges that may arise in our future. Below are some of the lessons that I have learned and how I dealt with them. I hope that they come in handy for you in your life journey. I know they have certainly come in handy for me and continue to do so. If you’re still learning, you’re living.
1. Life happens for you—not to you. There have been too many occasions to count when I wanted something—be it a thing, a job or an experience—and I didn’t get it. Although the disappointment loomed, sometimes longer than expected, I eventually learned that what I wanted wasn’t necessarily the best thing for me, but what I wound up getting was exactly what I needed or better than I wanted.
In all fairness and transparency, the realization sometimes takes years to become crystal clear, but it’s happened enough times in my life that I’ve learned to stop and consider why things are (or are not) happening. In 2009, I was considered for a show on The Travel Channel, and the contract negotiations dragged on and on. In the end, Scripps Network bought TTC, and the whole thing was panned. In 2011, I landed The Chew.
2. Experience takes longer than you think. I had a lunch delivery service for five years before going to culinary school at 30 years old. Once I was in culinary school, it dawned on me that I was putting theory, the “why,” on top of the experience that I had before, which made culinary school easier—ish!
After graduation, I worked at a restaurant and realized that I still needed even more experience. In life, there are many times that you think you come into a situation ready, and it’s great to be confident, but there is still always more experience to get. Always...no matter how long you’ve been on the job.
3. Remember to give back how and when you can. Giving back is important—whatever your discipline is or what level of success you achieve, there is always a group of people who need what you have, and it is important to share it. Giving back and contributing your expertise where your community needs it is also a wonderful thing to do for yourself. It nourishes the soul and can be a way to re-energize yourself and your passion for what you do.
4. Do not underestimate your worth. When you are passionate about what you do or the industry that you are in, you put a lot of time and effort into soaking up knowledge and building your skill set. Your worth is the balance of your experience. When it comes to asking for money or putting a price on your skills, it is all too easy to talk yourself down and undervalue that worth. Remember to evaluate all of your skills and experience—we learn from the highs and the lows, and those experiences all have value.
5. Know your palate. As someone who cooks, I know how important it is to get to know your palate. In the culinary arts, this refers to the five taste sensations—it’s important to understand which are your favorites and which you like the least. Why? Because then you can understand why you love a certain food or dish and why you detest others In the kitchen, your palate is the most important tool you have.
And that is a lesson that applies to life outside the kitchen as well: Know what you are passionate about—what you enjoy. I realized that rule applied in the kitchen and in life when I was competing in Top Chef All-Stars. As the competition went on, I began to worry that my simple soulful style wouldn’t be enough for the judges. I actually began to think about moving away from what I know best to think of newfangled dishes to impress.
Then we got a new challenge: cook a birthday lunch for comedian and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon. We would each make one of his favorite dishes—and they were all yummy comfort foods! When I found out that I’d get to cook chicken pot pie for him, I felt like I had won the lottery!
On that Top Chef episode, I nailed the dish, topping the buttery bottom crust with my light, creamy sauce and brightening it all with my homemade pea salt. Everyone who ate it could feel and taste the love. They tasted my memories of that soulful dish—and their own memories of pot pies past—and got a big hug from me with that pretty little pie. That’s what I mean when I say I make food that hugs you.
A big lesson learned that day, though: When you really want to impress at the table, just make something you yourself really love. It may be something fancy pants with a million ingredients and even more steps, or it may be a simple, homey dish. Whatever it is, as long as you’re excited by it, whoever’s eating it will be, too.