Don't White-Knuckle Your Life, and Other Lessons Chefs Learned from Failure and Setbacks

At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Carla Hall, Chris Shepherd, Kwame Onwuachi, and Claudette Zepeda shared their hard-won wisdom with the new F&W Best New Chefs.

View of a mixed race chef in a restaurant kitchen
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At the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, our editorial team gathered members of the 2020 and 2021 classes of Best New Chefs to kick off the fourth year of the Best New Chef Mentorship Program.

In between tastings and cooking demos, we gathered in the back dining room of Jimmy Yeager's eponymous joint—an Aspen institution that closed ceremoniously this week, 25 years after it opened during the Classic.

Here are a few highlights of the conversations that F&W's Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis and Restaurant Editor Khushbu Shah led with leaders in the hospitality industry about the setbacks they've faced and the changes they made to bounce back.

On failure:

"We don't talk about failure enough; it's taboo. But it's about learning a new vocabulary. If you have not bombed, you are not great." —2013 F&W Best New Chef and Houston chef-restaurateur Chris Shepherd

"I didn't know what I didn't know when it came to being a host of The Chew," said food personality and cookbook author Carla Hall. "There was no one that looked like me, and everything was filtered through producers. They would say things like 'The guys are doing much better than you.'"

After getting passed over to host a celebrity interview segment, Hall spoke up to the producers. "When you speak up, it is someone else's lesson, too. When there is failure, it's important to give the other person a report card as well."

On the lessons learned after the first restaurant:

"I learned how to hold on to my boundaries and morals and what I held sacred. You need to flex your moral compass," said Claudette Zepeda, executive chef of VAGA restaurant and Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas. "[At El Jardín, where she was chef-partner] we didn't serve the version of Mexican food my American business partner wanted. I learned that I will never give up that much of myself unless I own 51%."

"All the publicity was a lot of pressure—it almost broke me living up to that hype," said Kwame Onwuachi, F&W Executive Producer and 2019 Best New Chef, whose first Washington, D.C., restaurant, Shaw Bijou, closed in 2017. "I made sure I had a better team around me [at Kith/Kin]."

On healthy partnerships:

"Ask to be in every meeting. You need to learn the ins and outs. Then focus on your employees," Zepeda said. "Food is the last thing you focus on. We know how to cook!"

"Ask for full transparency," Zepeda said. "The worst thing is if you don't speak your truth and don't ask for theirs."

"For the longest time, it was just about the food—I wish I knew more about the business side [earlier]," Shepherd said. "You don't get dumber for asking questions."

"Don't be afraid of conflict; conflict is good," Zepeda said. "You need to listen to people with different experiences, different biases. It's not just the Claudette show."

On how to react to team members' mistakes:

"I love people making mistakes; I welcome failure—it's an opportunity to learn," Zepeda said. "If you don't allow them to make mistakes, they'll hide it from you."

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