Top Chefs and Restaurateurs on the Best Lessons They Learned from Failures
The American Express Restaurant Trade program, which has been part of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen for 30 years, brings together chefs, restaurateurs, and industry leaders to discuss the biggest issues in hospitality. At this year's Food & Wine Classic, chef Carla Hall kicked off Amex Trade with a panel called "Legacy: Meet the Masters," joined by Eleven Madison Park restaurateur Will Guidara, Ellen Yin of High Street Hospitality, chef Ashley Christensen, and Steve Palmer of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group.
Hall kicked off the panel with a frank conversation about adversity. "It's all about the recovery," she said. "This audience sees your success, when you have a restaurant group with lots of restaurants and James Beard Award nominees and wins. But talk to me about some of your failures and accomplishments, and when you recovered and how that recovery led to your next opportunity."
The group of industry leaders opened up about the biggest challenges they've faced in their restaurants—and what they learned in the process of overcoming them. Here are the five best lessons they shared about adversity.
1. Remove "failure" from your vocabulary, and replace it with "obstacle."
Ellen Yin, the successful Philadelphia restaurateur behind hits like High Street on Market and the groundbreaking Fork, says she tries to avoid the word "failure."
"I try not to use that word," said Yin. "Every day I walk into the restaurant, and there's an obstacle. If you let the weight of that obstacle get you down, you won't be able to move forward. And that’s the trait of a successful restaurateur—being able to look at problems. We’re problem solvers ... I think of myself as always trying to overcome as what I personally interpret as my own failure, and trying to make a plan and move it forward."
2. Mistakes are an important part of success.
Guidara began by citing his old boss and mentor, Danny Meyer. "One of his things was that the road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled," he said. "Our biggest restaurants are the ones that started out having the worst experiences."
And sometimes, competitiveness can help you bounce back from those awful experiences. "You're not doing what we do unless there's some profound and unreasonable competitiveness with you," he said. "When you stumble and when you fall, that makes you want to get up and try harder even to succeed." With all things, however, come balance. Guidara admitted to having "this unbelievable need to be liked" with a laugh: "I'm currently working through this in therapy right now."
3. Embrace a willingness to be wrong.
Palmer said that leaders should have "a willingness to be wrong and vulnerable and real," which involves listening to feedback from customers and your staff. "And sometimes that’s just, 'You’re right, we screwed it up,'" said Palmer. "Our best customers are the ones who hated us the most. But it's how we responded. We don’t get to be right. At the end of the day, what place are we coming from? Is it an arrogance of look who we are? Or do we genuinely want to connect with people?"
4. Encourage dialogue.
The only way to avoid making the same mistakes over and over at your restaurant is by fostering healthy dialogue and creating an environment where staffers feel safe enough to raise concerns or offer feedback.
"Our recent focus is giving positive feedback," said Christensen. "Because that creates a more open dialogue for everyone to feel safe about that chance they took or why it didn’t work ... We can't fix it and make better decisions the next time if we aren’t honest about how it went down."
5. Accept that setbacks are part of the process.
"Failure is a pretty bad word," said Guidara. "There’s not really failures so much as there are setbacks. I saw Alain Ducasse speak years ago, and he said they run their company with the full knowledge that they will close restaurants from time to time ... We call them in our restaurants 'hospitable leaps of faith.' Id rather err on the side with leaning in to much to connect with someone ... then to talk us out of ever doing anything cool."
He continued, "People are very, very scared of failure. A setback is just a setback. [T]ell your team, every once in a while you're going to fall flat on your face." And that when they do, you'll have their backs.