Kitchen Confidential: why failure is a great motivator

The Secret Chef considers the merits of failure and why we should consider something that we all do as a tool for improvement

I fail all the time. We all do. It’s a universal aspect of the human condition. In fact, low expectations are the only surefire armor that protects against the wounds of failure – and if you have those it’s probably time to hang up your knives and step out of the kitchen. But when you think about failure too much (which I had to do while writing this column) the concept is a bit of a strange one, one that has two distinct and very different meanings. 

It’s a term that’s applied when people have over-reached or tried out something new that hasn’t worked. A restaurant might fail to earn a Michelin star. They might fail to pull off an ambitious menu change on the first night or fail to impress a noted critic. 

But failure is also a term used when you neglect to do a task, something you should have carried out but either forgot or simply couldn’t be bothered to do. To fail to see the difference between the two is, in itself, a failure to properly analyze a situation and know precisely where the lesson is to be learned. 

Trying and failing is an important aspect of day-to-day life. These are the ways we make changes, improvements, alterations, tweaks. They edge us closer to where we want to be, they actually help us achieve our goals by showing us that we are fallible and that there is almost always a better way of doing things, or another route, or even another destination entirely. Without failure the world would be without Tarte Tatin and without the lessons learned from failure we would be awash on a sea of mediocrity instead of reveling in a culinary golden age. 

The road to improvement

Being aware that we might fail is what pushes us on. The fear of not succeeding, of falling short, is a greater motivator (for many of us) than the rush of excitement we get when we actually succeed in reaching our goals.

The experience of falling short, and knowing how crushing that disappointment can feel, is a powerful tool on the road to improvement. The worst-case scenario is that we end up with an amusing anecdote to relate to colleagues over a cold beer or on the Kitchen Confidential subreddit. 

Failing to do something that is required of us, however, is a different scenario entirely. Failing to reach one’s own expectations is one thing, failing to reach those put onto us by others is another thing entirely. These aren’t so easy to shake off, they can’t be laughed about a few weeks down the line over cocktails or so easily relayed on message boards.

Often, we don’t realize these failures are happening until it’s too late: the badly labeled sauce that actually contains nuts. The undated vac bag of something that is probably OK. The freezer door left slightly ajar over the long weekend. These aren’t the failures that make us better. These are the ones that close restaurants, end careers and cause lasting damage.

The sooner we learn to differentiate between the two, embrace the former and know that there is no place for the latter, the better the kitchen will be for all concerned.

The Secret Chef

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