My Epic Fail

None of us love talking about how we failed. We may obsess about these flubs, missteps, errors in judgment, and mortifying mistakes on constant loop in our heads, but generally, most of us aren't going out of our way to shine a spotlight on our biggest mess-ups. But how else would we improve as business people, artisans, leaders, partners, and human beings if we didn't examine where we stumbled, and how we got up again? These 22 chefs, restaurateurs, writers, sommeliers, and food world luminaries sat down with me at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and on the Communal Table podcast to share moments of painful setbacks, and the lessons they learned to move forward.
By Kat Kinsman
February 10, 2020

Hear people in their own words in a special episode of the Communal Table podcast.

Landon Nordeman

Carla Hall, chef and TV personality

In 1996, I was a sous chef at The Henley Park Hotel’s restaurant in Washington, D.C. I was less than a year out of culinary school and had probably been promoted too quickly. The chef left me in charge to oversee the catering of a wedding reception—an afternoon tea that the restaurant was known for. As a former caterer, I felt pretty confident. I had organized all of the orders and prep ahead of time so that on the big day we only needed to bake off scones, assemble desserts, and fill trays. All was going well, until it wasn’t. 


Halfway through the reception, we ran out of delicate, carefully crafted sandwiches. The scones were going like hotcakes, and I quickly realized that all of my calculations were off. My staff went from somewhat calm, collected, and organized to scrambling, scattered, and à la minute cooking of items that were meant to be make-aheads. I felt like I had upended a ship that I was entrusted to steer. I was embarrassed, and I felt like a failure. Even though the chef wasn’t there to say so, I felt like I was letting him down as well as the cooks and waiters. 


As much as I wanted to quit, give up, or run out of that kitchen, I had to do all that I could to keep the train on the tracks. I jumped in to help make sandwiches, figured out how to stretch desserts, and made a lot of somethings out of nothing. I had busboys running to a sister hotel to get bread and other ingredients that we were low on. As a team, we pulled it off. In the end, my biggest lesson was that no matter how much you’re left in charge, it’s always the team that gets the work done. Whether I’m working in a restaurant or on a TV set, I learned to operate like there is no low man and there’s no one in the corner office. Every single job is needed to keep the ship from upending.”

Landon Nordeman

Gail Simmons, TV personality and cookbook author

After culinary school, I worked as a cook and as Jeffrey Steingarten’s assistant at Vogue magazine for two years, and then I needed to move on. Martha Stewart Living had a job opening for an assistant food editor. I thought, ‘This is my big break.’ Jeffrey put in a good word for me, and I had three nerve-wracking interviews and a recipe writing test and spent a day cooking in the test kitchen. It was grueling. I put my heart into it. I didn’t get the job.


I was heartbroken. I cried for three days. I had thought I was good, and I felt like a fake. I failed. But I still needed a job, so I kept looking and went to speak with Daniel Boulud so that he could give me a pep talk. He said, ‘I think you should just come work for me.’ 


It was a sharp left turn from my path. My path was to be in food media, to be a food writer, and to be an assistant food editor, or something at a magazine. I also knew that when Boulud offers you a job, you take it. 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.

Landon Nordeman

Michel Nischan, chef and founder of Wholesome Wave

[My wife] Lori and I entered a ‘handshake’ partnership [with a third party] in the first restaurant we owned together. The partnership went horribly awry, and we had to leave the restaurant, strip the name from it, and go bankrupt with three young children. What we felt: horrified and devastated. What we learned: how to keep going for the sake of your children and your dream—and how to answer the phone to bill collectors in a manner that doesn’t alert your children that something is very wrong.


And we learned that love conquers all. Thirty-five years, hard lessons, and still creating a lot of love.


Because of this experience, I went into New York City and met Drew Nieporent. He and I cooked up the concept for Heartbeat Restaurant in 1998, and it was the true phoenix moment of my career, still defining who I am to this day. What we felt: resilient and relieved. What we learned: never, ever give up—and no matter how bad things can get in business, even if it threatens your family, it’s not a death sentence. 


Surviving serious adversity to the point of thriving defines us far more thoroughly than any success.

Chintan Pandya, chef, restaurateur, and co-owner of 2019 Best New Restaurant: Adda

My life is all about failure. Trust me. As chefs, when we make a dish we are emotionally attached to it. And if I give this dish to someone and that say they didn't like it, the first reaction is that the person doesn't like me. That is a normal emotion. But what I feel is that as an individual who's coming to my restaurant, and paying money to eat something, he has all the rights in this world to say whether he liked the dish or not. The only thing we can do is tweak it. 

If I make a dish and out of 100 people eating it, one person says that it's not good, then I can talk to him and say maybe. But if out of 100 say 30 people or 40 people, 35 people say it's not good, it's not good. I have to either rework on the dish or think about it as a different concept and relaunch it in a different way. That's how I look at every dish. 

Landon Nordeman

Junghyun Park, 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef and restaurateur

After finishing my job at Jungsik, I was looking for an investor or someone to work with me as a partner. But it's really tough to find someone who understands what I want to do. I was very confident about the restaurant, but the reality's not that. I'm very new in New York. I just moved to New York about seven years ago. I'd been working for Jungsik about three years. I knew some of the industry people, but I'm not very known. I just realized more about myself, became deeply concerned about what I really want to do. I wanted to open fine dining first because I've been through that, but not too many people want to invest in that kind of business—so I changed my mind. "Why don't I try some more fun and enjoyable things?" The Atoboy idea came out of that.

Landon Nordeman

Traci Des Jardins, 1995 Food & Wine Best New Chef and restaurateur

When I opened Jardinière, the first restaurant I owned, I was coming off incredible accolades [from my time at] Rubicon: I was a Food & Wine Best New Chef and a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year. Huge expectations. In the opening weeks, I’d go into my office, have an espresso, sit and collect myself, and then go expedite during service. I started having panic attacks, had to breathe into a paper bag.


I always trained like a racehorse. The work I knew like the back of my hand, but the restaurant was a lot bigger, and all eyes were on me. It was something I just had to work through. I had to talk myself off the cliff and reorient, do the thing that I know how to do. I still get anxiety attacks from time to time, but I’ve learned to deal. Sometimes it takes a Xanax, sometimes breathing exercises, to reground. It’s part of me.

Landon Nordeman

Will Guidara, restaurateur and Welcome Conference co-founder

People live in constant fear of failing, and 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, so I call them setbacks. Failure seems so resolute or so irreversible. We’ve had plenty of setbacks, bad reviews, challenging financial times. Whether it’s the competitiveness within you, or a desire—if you’re in the world of hospitality—to be loved, you work that much harder. Sometimes it’s impossible to show a return on investment on paper, or to explain why practically or pragmatically an idea makes sense. But if you feel something powerfully in your gut, you just need to listen to that.

Landon Nordeman

Hugh Acheson, 2002 Food & Wine Best New Chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author

Failure is just a seven-letter word. Growing is also a seven-letter word. I have failed many times in cooking, in running restaurants and businesses, in being a good human, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a formative, maturing experience, each and every time. The important thing is to learn from the mistake and triage ways to not repeat it. If the duck is overcooked, then the duck is overcooked, and your job as a chef is to deduce how to make the duck come out consistently correct after that failure.

Akhtar Nawab, chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur

I steer away from where people may say, "Hey, that was perfect." Let's try to please as many people as we can. Let's be as creative as we can, and let's have fun. We can still start over again at the end of the day. It becomes a little more empowering. 10 years ago it felt like the end. You totally failed. And that's how we used to look at it. I was seeing a therapist for a long time. He's like, you should hear how you talk about yourself. It sounds like you hate yourself. 

Landon Nordeman

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.

Landon Nordeman

Cheetie Kumar, chef and James Beard Award semi-finalist

I ended up opening a restaurant [Garland, in Raleigh] because we had a lease on this space with a music venue upstairs and a bar downstairs, and that’s where our comfort zone was. But then this restaurant was in the middle floor, and it was built out. It was ugly, but there it was—my restaurant. 


I knew how to cook for maybe a dinner party of 30 very comfortably, but this was a huge challenge. I was terrified and insecure about my ability to do it. My husband and I had some partners that didn’t believe in me. 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.’ That was a huge setback for me, and also, in a way, a blessing looking back on it. 


I was so hurt and scared that they were right. But that challenge really set me on fire. I took it as a dare. We parted ways in the restaurant and eventually in the whole space. 


There were some very quiet nights in our first year and a half. People would quit because it wasn’t busy and they were bored. The restaurant business is all about bouncing back from setbacks. We still have them every day, but it doesn’t feel as terrifying—usually.

Landon Nordeman

Jacques Pépin, chef and culinary icon

I started cooking professionally in 1949, and I worked at many restaurants in France and eventually in America. I suppose my goal, like any chef, was to open a great restaurant. However, in 1974 I sustained 12 fractures in a car accident. I broke my back, two hips, pelvis in two places, my arms; I wasn’t supposed to walk again. I recovered enough, but it changed my life. I had already started writing a little bit for House Beautiful, and the accident pushed me in the direction of writing, bookmaking, recipe developing, and so forth, as I couldn’t withstand the 12 hours a day behind a stove that a professional has to endure. What could have been seen as a failure to do something I always thought I would do, opening a great restaurant, turned into a lifetime of opportunities I never could have imagined.

Landon Nordeman

Sheldon Simeon, chef and James Beard Award Semifinalist

Oh, man. My biggest failure was definitely 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, cook from the heart, and that’s it. That’s what I try to do, just represent my family and my background. In my new restaurant [Lineage, in Maui], we serve a dish called pork and peas, which is a humble dish that my father makes and my family makes. It’s exactly how we serve it at home. It’s not deconstructed or cheffed up and made pretty. I’m super proud that we can do that in our restaurant. A few years ago, I’d have been too scared to do that. I’d think that I had to take it apart and just be inspired by it—not serve it how it really is.

Landon Nordeman

Steve Palmer, restaurateur and Ben's Friend's co-founder

When I started my company Indigo Road [in Charleston], I took over a failing restaurant. We lost money for two years. Then I changed the people. I got the right people who culturally felt—like I did—that we had to first be hospitable to each other before we could be hospitable to our guests. It changed everything overnight, and the restaurant got busy. Now it’s 15 years old and having a great life.

Landon Nordeman

Vinny Eng, 2019 Sommelier of the Year and Mental Health Advocate

I sat in the wine cellar enjoying my first meal of the day at 11:30 p.m. I was tired, and I felt proud of the work, but something felt deeply out of alignment. The restaurant was doing well, but I felt unwell. Tired and consistently lacking in peace of mind. I was taking care of so many people, but I was failing to take care of myself.


It was time to let go, to step down, to create space for myself.


I learned the value of acknowledging when we need to take a pause from serving the ambition of others. No one can do that for you—you have to give yourself permission to do so, and to do it well.

Landon Nordeman

Ruth Reichl, James Beard Award-winning author

This probably isn’t going to be the answer that you want, but when I went to the Los Angeles Times, they basically brought me in to push out the woman who had been the restaurant critic for 17 years—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. And I never really got over that, the ageism in America and being part of it.


It took her a long time to leave. And she was gracious about it, but we were never really friends. And 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.


Later on, when I went to Gourmet, I was, for the first time in my life, in a position of hiring people. I said, ‘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 really trying to change the makeup of the magazine. Actually, when I went to Gourmet, there were only two men on staff. So my first goal was to get some more men on staff.


I think that one of the ways to walk through the world more happily is to go with a yes attitude instead of a no attitude. And it’s so easy to say, ‘I don’t hire this; I don’t run this; we have rules,’ and I have always wanted to throw the rules out.

Melissa Rodriguez, chef

I look at failure in menu development a lot. The menu development in the restaurant is collaborative. My sous-chefs and I have meetings where we talk about what we want to change and how we want to change it. We taste food. I look at failure in small increments and not like "I'm going to die because this is totally not where I want it to be."

The first iteration that you do of something is hardly ever perfect. But then you etch away on what's missing, what needs to happen, what needs to go away, what needs to be added, how do we make this better? I look at failure in that way and try to remove it a little bit so it's never a catastrophe. Maybe it's not the greatest start, but it's a start. If you just look forward to making it better and being open to discussing how, then you don't have to feel like you're always failing.

Landon Nordeman

Ellen Yin, restaurateur

My mother was diagnosed with leukemia and then suffered a massive stroke. Like everybody in this industry, I worked from morning till night, wrapped up in my own little world, and suddenly it came to a screeching halt. You have only one set of parents; you gotta do what you have to do. I did, and it was a really difficult time because I was used to being so hands-on and being the owner-operator. It really changed my entire gestalt. 


Today, she’s still hanging in there, but she’s paralyzed on her entire right side and can’t speak, though she understands. Your mother is your mother, and no matter whether she can speak or not, you just know. There’s this intuition. 


As a hospitality person, you have to have some intuition; 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 and don’t wanna talk? The same with your team. Every person needs to be nurtured in a different way. We try our best to figure out what that is early on so we can continue supporting them, giving them the longevity we want.

Landon Nordeman

Bobby Stuckey, restaurateur and master sommelier

I was working at The French Laundry with Thomas Keller and Laura Cunningham—really supportive bosses. I had flown to London to take my Master Sommelier exam, and I had failed tasting for I think the fourth time. I was having a big struggle getting to the diploma, and I came back and so many of my peers were 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 my wife, Danette, and people around me who said, "Hey, just keep plugging away at it."

Landon Nordeman

Lisa Donovan, chef and James Beard Award-winning author

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 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, which is 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 work-life balance. It was always that one thing was going really well and the other thing was going kind of okay, I could never keep all the balls as high in the air as I wanted. 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 got to dive back in with a little bit of a replenished spirit,, I had been 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, I had been raising kids since I was 20 and juggling it all and trying to make sense of things for a really long time. 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.

Andrew Zimmern, restaurateur, author, and TV personality

I think it's the fall of 1980, which should have been my first semester sophomore year but I'd been kicked out of school. I ran away to Europe, and was cooking over there back in the days when you really could knock on the back door of a three-star Michelin starred restaurant, and stage there. It took me two months to get to the point where they would allow me to put something on a plate. The guys who were shucking oysters were not that great at it, and I was really good at opening clams and oysters. One of the sous chefs immediately put me on that station.. A couple weeks later it's a very busy night. A conventional oyster knife here in our country is either round-tipped and dulled, with a pointed tip that's dulled and slightly curved or flat. A French oyster knife is very short, has a very, very pronounced pointy piece, and it's thin.

I'm terrified of where this is going.

I still have the scar. There was no safety glove. I had a towel in my hand, but it had gotten wet, and it had slipped down. I was hustling, and young, and not operating on a lot of sleep, and doing bad things at night after the restaurant. I put the oyster knife through my hand, and I knew the way the French world worked back then, if I left to go to the hospital, I don't have a job when I come back.

I looked up over the pastry section where I they had vodka or brandy. I poured it all over my hand. I wrapped it in a clean towel, and I just kept working. At 1:30 in the morning I showed up at the emergency room, and they put a butterfly thing on one side, and a single stitch on the other, and I went back to work the next morning. That was a defining moment for me because I bought in to what had been modeled before me: Tough it out. Stuff down the feelings. Don't tell someone what happened. It was a watershed moment for me because I found a solution that I thought worked, a way of thinking that would turn on me later, and cause me cataclysmic problems in my life that required a lot of work to overcome.

Landon Nordeman

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.