F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights the top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. In this Monday series, inspiring chefs and entrepreneurs prove that mistakes can often lead to success. Share your craziest mistakes and sharpest lessons using the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine), and you could be featured next.
When I sat down to write about mistakes that have led to my success, I had a much tougher time coming up with them than I'd expected. Heck, I am sure I’ve made hundreds of mistakes! Thing is, I often don’t look at them that way. Take my personal life: I bought a house without being present for the final walkthrough. Result? A house with mold in the basement. Could I have caught it if I was there? Perhaps. (The rug covering it was pretty obvious.) But if I had been there, we probably would not have bought the house, which we have now made into our home in a neighborhood that we love. So you see, it is tough for me to look back at that as a mistake.
In my work life, I have always been the same way. I often just go for an idea without taking the precautionary measures that others would. Though I am in a great place in my career and would not change anything in my past, I’ve also learned to surround myself with smart and trustworthy people and to let them talk me into slowing things down a bit from time to time.
So since my interpretation of a mistake may be a bit different from others', I am going to list five things that have happened in the past that maybe were not the most thought-out and did not necessarily turn out perfectly. But in the end, most things worked out just fine.
1. Leaping into my first restaurant. When I was 27 and a sous chef at La Tache in Chicago, a cook said to me, “You’re good at this, you should open your own restaurant.” And so I quit my job a few days later, and that is what I decided I would do. I had a friend who was a realtor. I had other friends who let me read their business plans. And somehow I convinced the bank to give me three quarters of a million dollars to open Scylla. I could probably write a list of hundreds of little mistakes made along the way with that adventure. But even though it was only open for three years before I decided I wanted to step back and try again, it became a jumping-off point for me.
2. (Almost) turning down a good learning experience. When I got off of Top Chef, I started to work on opening a restaurant with a good friend of mine who was looking to get into the restaurant industry. I had been approached by Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group but had said no thank you, as I thought being part of a group was not for me. I wish I could remember the exact moment that I realized I had made a mistake, but I realized that opening with guys who could teach me was really what I needed, and they are partners on my restaurants. Who knows what would have happened. Could my friend and I have opened an amazing restaurant together? It’s possible. But I have a good feeling I saved myself from even more challenges than we had when opening Girl & the Goat.
3. Going intern-crazy. When Girl & the Goat was finally ready to open, I was so excited that a number of interns wanted to work in the kitchen for free! How could I pass this up? So we brought in five or six interns on our opening staff. That was certainly a mistake—one that we corrected quickly. An intern is someone who should come into your kitchen and be able to learn and spend time with more experienced staff members. When you bring on too many at once, the kitchen becomes more of a school that has too many students in one classroom. It’s better to find interns who you can have a mutually beneficial relationship with. They will learn from the restaurant and staff while participating in daily activities to help the kitchen out.
4. Going big with my second restaurant. This is another one of those things that could have gone terribly wrong (and felt like it did for a minute there) but worked out in the end. I think by the time I started working on Little Goat, I had blocked out all of the challenges of opening a new restaurant. I thought maybe the second one would come along easier. Not the case, especially because the division of time between the places becomes so challenging. There were many moments in year one when I thought I had made a huge mistake, that I was not able to juggle both. But now that things are smoothing out at Little Goat and we have an amazing staff on both sides of the street, I know it was the right thing to do.
5. Jumping the gun on new dishes. This has happened so many times over the past few years. You would think I would learn from this mistake, but it just seems to not sink in! I get a dish prepped and almost ready to go, and we put it on the menu. I go to pre-shift and tell the servers all about our amazing new dish. Then at our 4 p.m. tasting we put one up, and it’s nasty. Not the flavors I imagined at all. No idea popping in my head of what would make the dish work. Time to reprint menus, tell all the servers the dish was a failure and sulk for a bit. If I would just work on a dish a day before I planned to change the menu, I would save myself from the added stress and feeling dumb around the cooks and servers. However, on the flip side, when a dish comes together seconds before we open, it is an amazing feeling. So I’m guessing the planning- and tasting-ahead lesson probably won’t happen anytime soon.
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