How Food Pros Deal With Setbacks and Outright Failure
Corporate motivational wisdom tends to assert that if you're not failing, you're not trying—but what does that actually look like? People don't always love to talk about the humble moments, the periods of self-doubt, the flubs, the losses, but it's crucial that we do, so we have a better understanding of how to move forward. At the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, we asked food world luminaries including Will Guidara, Ruth Reichl, and athlete-turned-vintner Dwyane Wade to share some of their setbacks and the lessons they learned.
Gail Simmons, author and TV host
After culinary school. I worked as a cook, and then I worked as Jeffrey Steingarten's assistant at Vogue magazine for two years. Then I needed to move on and find my next job. I interviewed at so many places and one of them was at Martha Stewart Living. They had a job opening for an assistant food editor. I thought, "This is my big break, this is going to be my big opportunity." Jeffrey put in a good word for me and I had three grueling, nerve-wrecking interviews with various food editors and editorial directors and then they gave me a recipe writing test. I wrote four recipes, then came in to the test kitchen to spend the day cooking in the test kitchen for them. It was so grueling and so intense. I had put my heart and soul into it. I spent that day cooking and I was totally intimidated by the food editor, who was interviewing me and tasting my food. I didn't get the job.
I was heartbroken. I cried for three days. I thought I was good and put so much energy into it and I felt like a phony and a fake. I couldn't get to where I wanted to go.
But I still needed a job, so I kept looking eventually, went to speak with Daniel Boulud, just so that he could give me a pep talk. I had come to know him a little bit, through Jeffrey. He was, obviously, an extraordinary chef who gave me some of his time. At the end of the talk, he was suggesting places that I could go, things that I could do. I was still really hurting, and felt really raw from that Martha Stewart failure. He said, "You know what, I think you should just come work for me." It took a couple months to figure out how, but he said, "I'm growing, I have books due, I have restaurants opening, and my director of PR and marketing just can't do it all."
It was a sharp left turn from my path, which was to be in food media. I knew that this was a big departure. I also knew that when Daniel Boulud offers you a job, you just say yes and you take the job. It really doesn't matter if you're scrubbing his floor because you're going to get something out of it. I did. I worked for him for three years and I like to say I got my MBA from Daniel Boulud. He taught me the business of restaurants. Three years into the job, Food and Wine came to me and offered the job that started me, with this festival, and that was fifteen years ago. In the end, now, Food and Wine and Martha Stewart are owned by the same company. Here I am at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, as a speaker alongside Martha Stewart. I am not saying I am of the ilk. I am just saying that things work out.
Dwyane Wade, athlete and vintner
I think we all have those moments of doubt, right? You can be the most confident person in the world, but at some point you have a moment of doubt. And I've had so many moments. Ultimately what it boiled down to me was, "Well, if I don't do this, what else am I going to do?" There's no other choice. Even when it's hard and it's something as simple as rehabbing from injuries.
I had to rehab from knee surgery and shoulder surgery and it was—at the time—the hardest thing I ever did. And it was kind of like, "Well, what else am I going to do?" Am I going to quit and never play basketball again because the process is painful?" You've just gotta put one foot in front of the next and get up out the bed every morning and show up. If you show up, no matter what doubts you go through, you will be able to—eventually—get through the storm. You will find that sunshine.
Will Guidara, restaurateur
Yesterday I was on a panel where we collectively identified the fact that we don't like the word "failure." People live in constant fear of failing. That fear prevents people from actually taking the risks necessary to do anything of consequence. I believe a lot in language and the importance of how you articulate things. We instead decided to call them "setbacks." We've had plenty of setbacks. We've gotten bad reviews. We've had challenging financial times in the restaurants. I think each one of those, whether it's the competitiveness within you that makes you want to get up and push even harder, or fight even more to recover, or just a general desire if you're in the world of hospitality to want to be loved. When you read things or feel things either from critics or the team or from guests you've served that show the opposite to be true, you work that much harder.
On top of a ski mountain like we are—not like a double diamond, that's a little bit too intense, but on a blue—you look down and you're scared. If people think about all the different things that need to happen for them to get to the bottom of the mountain, they're probably going to be overwhelmed by their fear, and turn around, get back on the gondola and go down. If instead you focus on the only thing that really matters in that moment, which is pushing your poles into the snow and just pushing, just that one little push. Then, you're off to the races. As long as you're willing to do whatever it takes and give all of yourself, you're going to make it down.
Ellen Yin, restaurateur
I've been in business for 22 years now, and it's been constantly a "move-ahead-a-little-bit, little-bit-of-a-setback, move-ahead-a-little-bit, little-bit-of-a-setback." I was a one-restaurant kinda gal for a really long time, and the concept of a group only really started coming together in the last five to ten years. My mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She ended up suffering when she went in the hospital for treatment with a massive stroke that left her completely paralyzed on the right side, and she had severe aphasia. I had been working—like everybody else in this industry—from morning 'til night, wrapped up in my own little world of taking care of people. Suddenly my world came to a screeching halt.
Before I professionally entered the restaurant industry, I was in the healthcare industry. The most important thing for everybody is their family. No matter what, any of my employees, if they were in the same situation, I would be like "You have to go." You have only one set of parents, you gotta do what you have to do. So, I did, and it was a really difficult time because I was just so used to being so hands-on and being the owner/operator, that really changed my entire gestalt.
Your mother is your mother and no matter whether she can speak or not, you just know. There's this intuition, and I think that is something that's really important because as a hospitality person, you do have to have some intuition about your guests. You don't approach every guest the same way. You have to look at them. Do they look like they're celebrating? Do they look like they're pissed at each other and don't wanna talk? Those are all very simple, basic things that need to happen. The same with your team. Every person on your team needs to be nurtured in a different way. So, we try our best to figure out what that is early on so we can continue supporting them and giving them the longevity that we want from everybody.
Traci Des Jardin, chef
When I opened Jardiniere, my first restaurant that I owned, I was coming off of incredible accolades with Rubicon, Food and Wine, a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year. There were huge expectations around my own restaurant. Early on in the opening weeks I started to get panic attacks before I would walk down for service. Because I had this sort of ritual, I'd go up to my office, have an espresso, sit and collect myself, and then go down to expedite during service. I started having panic attacks. I mean, like had to breathe in a paper bag, kind of like hyperventilating. I've learned to deal with that anxiety. Sometimes it takes a Xanax, sometimes it takes breathing exercises to reground myself. But it's part of me.
Sheldon Simeon, chef
On season 10 of Top Chef, I went back to the finale and did a cuisine that wasn't true to my heart. It taught me a lesson to be yourself, just cook from the heart, and that's it. That's what I try to do, to just represent my family and my background. In my new restaurant, we serve a dish called pork and peas, which is a humble dish that my father makes and my family makes. And it's exactly how we serve it at home. It's not deconstructed or cheffed up and made pretty. Just a few years ago, I'd think that I would have to take it apart and, and just be inspired by it, and not serve it how it really is. It's exactly humble like we serve it at home, and I'm super proud that we can do that in our restaurant.
Cheetie Kumar, chef
I probably spent the first year and a half or two of Garland's existence in that place, every day. I opened a restaurant because we had a lease on this space. We have a music venue upstairs and a bar downstairs, and that's sort of where our comfort zone was. But then this restaurant was on the middle floor, and it was pretty built out. It was ugly but there it was, my restaurant. Like, "Oh, my god. I've got to learn how to do this."
I knew how to cook for myself and maybe a dinner party for 30 very comfortably. Catered some, but this was a huge challenge. I was pretty terrified, and I was very insecure about my ability to do it. My husband and I had some partners that also didn't really believe in me. I don't blame them because I didn't know what I was doing. Right about six weeks after we opened, they said, "This isn't going to work, and you're really emotional about this restaurant. You really should give it up, and we should lease the space because we would make more money. It'd be more secure."
That was a huge setback for me and also, in a way, a blessing because it challenged me so much. I was so hurt by it. I was devastated, and I was really scared that they were right. But that kind of challenge really set me on fire. I took it as a dare. We parted ways in the restaurant and then eventually in the whole space.
There was some very quiet nights in our first year and a half. The cooks are just looking at me like, "What am I doing here?" People would quit because they were like, "It's not busy and I'm bored. I want to learn something and this is not my place." There was just a lot of those kind of heartbreaks where you feel like, "All right, here's my team." You always hear about the team, and then you lose somebody and it's very personal. The restaurant business is all about setbacks, but it's really more about bouncing back from those setbacks. We still have them every day, but it doesn't feel as terrifying usually.
Andy Chabot, food and beverage director
I tend to be overconfident sometimes, so I don't know that I ever look at something and think, "This is the end." I'm usually the other way where I'm like, "We can totally do this," and I'd say almost to a fault, where you're like, "No really, we shouldn't take that on," or "We should bring on more team." I think my biggest challenge is being too confident, and maybe even too masochistic in saying, "We can do it," and then it's just too hard sometimes, rather than taking a step back and saying, "Let's build a little more structure. Let's build a little more team. Let's really get ready for this before we take it on." I've never looked at something and felt like, "Oh my gosh, this is the end," but I probably should have.
Steve Palmer, restaurateur
When I started my company, I took over a failing restaurant. That was my first. We lost money for two years. I really was like, "What am I doing?" The change happened with a mantra: We had to first be hospitable to each other before we could be hospitable to our guests. I got the right people who culturally felt like I did, and it changed everything. Overnight, the restaurant got busy. Now it's 15 years old and having a great life.
Bobby Stuckey, sommelier
I was working at The French Laundry and Thomas Keller and Laura Cunningham were really supportive bosses. I had flown to London to take my Master Sommelier exam and I had failed tasting for I think it was the fourth time. was having a big struggle getting to the MS diploma. I came back and sso many of my peers, are like, "Oh, you don't need the MS, you're working for Thomas Keller, you're the wine director for The French Laundry. You've got all these great accolades already." It was at The French Laundry where I realized, well, no, I'm not doing the MS Diploma for the pin. I was doing it for my own self journey and it was just my wife people around me who said, "Hey, just keep plugging away at it."
Lisa Donovan, writer and chef
I was working at Husk and there were a lot of moving parts to that restaurant group. I had to step away after a couple of years and really reevaluate my intentions as a cook, where I wanted to find myself, and how I wanted it to go forever. It took me a minute. I left feeling like I wasn't a great manager. Like I had lost sort of a sense of ownership over research and development. Towards the end it started to feel a little bit like I wasn't good at my job. That's a really hard thing to come up against.
When I could step back far enough, I decided maybe I had been trying to make the restaurant industry work in my life for a long time as a mother of two kids, as a wife, as someone who really did need to strive for that work life balance. It was always one thing is going really well and the other thing was going kind of OK. I could never keep all the balls as high as I wanted up in the air. It was a really pivotal moment of me trying to figure out if I could even work in the restaurant industry in that capacity or in any capacity. I felt like the answer was no for a minute.
I stepped very far away and regrouped and it allowed me to take apart what actually was problematic for me. I think in what I saw as failure or incompetence or me not rising to the challenge well enough—I got to dive back in with a replenished spirit and saw that I was just exhausted. I needed to take a minute to catch my breath, not just from being a cook or running a kitchen or writing a menu or doing work that I love, but also raising kids since I was 20 and juggling it all and trying to make sense of things for a really long time.
I don't see it as failure so much now. I did then, but I'm glad I could recognize it. I'm glad that I had the strength of character to know it was time to figure something out. I didn't quite know what—I just knew everything felt like it wasn't going the way it should.
Ruth Reichl, author and editor
When I went to the LA Times, they basically brought me in to push the woman who had been the restaurant critic for 17 years out, an older woman. And I thought, "Someday, you are going to be that older woman and somebody's going to be pushing you out. This is really bad." I felt really terrible about it. I never really got over that, the ageism in America and being part of it.
It took her a long time to leave, actually. She was gracious about it, but we were never really friends. Part of it was that what I did was very different. She was a very traditional restaurant critic and I wasn't. So there was a lot of tension there.
It resonated for me when I went to Gourmet and I was, for the first time in my life, in a position of hiring people. I decided, "I will look at everyone. I will not think, oh, this person is 70 years old so I couldn't possibly hire her." I really thought about the hiring decisions and trying to change the makeup of the magazine. Actually, when I went to Gourmet, there were only two men on staff. My first goal was to get some more men on staff.