Why the Most Successful Chefs and Restaurateurs Are Thankful for Their Failures

Chef John Currence
Courtesy of Chef John Currence
Courtesy of Chef John Currence

No matter where you are dining in the world, the sound of glass shattering as it hits the floor provokes a universal reaction. A mistake happened, a staff member cleans up the mess, and life goes on.

However, most fails in hospitality occur without the guest ever knowing. Sometimes it’s because there aren’t even guests there to begin with. No matter the type of accident or oversight, hospitality professionals are better off failing in the end.

So, what are some of the common themes chefs and restaurant owners share when it comes to failure? As I learned from a few chefs with thick skin, it’s rarely ever related to just the food on the plate.

Right Idea, Wrong Location

Neal Bodenheimer’s efforts to bring sophisticated cocktail destinations to New Orleans, like Cure and Cane & Table, have been well rewarded, with accolades like the 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program forever linked to his name. However, it’s the restaurant he closed that we’re talking about today. “We opened a place called Cafe Henri and named it after my father,” explains Bodenheimer, who used his dad’s nickname to give the space a homey touch. What Bodenheimer didn’t realize until months into Cafe Henri’s opening was that the neighborhood he chose never turned into the neighborhood he envisioned.

Taking over the space from another ownership group, Bodenheimer originally thought that company had overextended itself. After all, closing a brand-new restaurant in New Orleans’s Central Business District within five months did seem a bit strange.

Cafe Henri
Bodenheimer closed Cafe Henri in New Orleans after realizing the neighborhood wasn’t turning into what he’d envisioned.
Courtesy of Sharon Pye

However, what Bodenheimer discovered was that the surrounding apartment buildings and houses were actually short-term rentals, and the only traffic businesses were getting was on the weekends, typically by marketing themselves as destination spots.

“It was a perfect storm of a real estate location issue,” notes Bodenheimer. The changing demographics of a post-Katrina New Orleans were continuing to devastate local businesses.

To make matters worse, the name on the door was a constant reminder of Bodenheimer’s family and how the best of intentions can turn into a personal nightmare. “You do it to honor somebody, and you feel like you are dishonoring them,” Bodenheimer says.

Yet after making the decision to close Cafe Henri, Bodenheimer’s luck would change as it forced him to seek advice from New Orleans entrepreneur Gary Solomon Sr. “We went from closing a restaurant to less than a year later winning a James Beard,” Bodenheimer says.

When You Get Slammed on Day One, It Makes You Rethink Everything—Forever

Adam Biderman’s experience in fine dining—not to mention blocking for Eli Manning at the Isidore Newman School—taught the chef and owner of The Company Burger how to handle an oncoming rush of human beings.

But his foray into fast-casual service provided him a moment his staff still teases him about eight years later. The disaster? The positioning of a seasoning tray in the kitchen. From grinding his own meat to slicing his own American cheese, Biderman avoided incorporating traditional fast-food systems in a quest to give his hometown of New Orleans a ridiculously tasty burger. And when he officially opened his doors to the public, the crowd showed up.

“We could never have predicted 800 people when we opened,” says Biderman. What he also couldn’t predict was that placing the seasoning tray down the line from where his grill man would expedite the food would cause havoc.

“After the first 45-minute ticket times, we knew this was an immense tactical error,” Biderman recalls. “It was the only moment of true panic I’ve experienced in this particular restaurant,” he adds.

Needing to simplify his workspace, the chef went out and bought a three-foot-high cart where he could stack trays right next to the griddle. This one move changed his entire operation. “Once we could see all the tickets that were priority, the expo and the grill guy could communicate on a higher level,” Biderman says. “It was simple ignorance not knowing what it was going to be like.”

Biderman later added a second location of The Company Burger in 2015. Over time, the chef has learned to ease up on some of his fine-dining habits in order to ensure a smoother operation. “You have to be okay with failing,” Biderman advises for any young chef thinking of branching out on his or her own.

Shortcuts Are the Quickest Way to the Most Memorable Disasters

Kitchen fails happen every day. But for Henk Drakulich, the executive chef at La Brea Bakery Cafés, the opportunity to fail in front of 75 chefs from five-star hotel properties comes once in a lifetime.

After being asked to cook sweet potatoes and then puree them for a soup, Drakulich learned the hard way that shortcuts in the kitchen are rarely if ever a good idea.

“I thought I would save myself a step and just add the cream to the blender while I was pureeing the sweet potatoes. What I hadn’t learned at that point is that if you put heavy cream in a blender, the high speed breaks up the fat in the cream,” Drakulich recalls of the inedible disaster that was supposed to be the first course. The memory of having to delay the dinner, go out shopping for more ingredients, and remake the soup from scratch is a lesson Drakulich hasn’t forgotten in the 20 years since it happened.

If People Don’t Trust What You’re Trying to Do, They Won’t Eat Anything

Chef John Currence has experienced plenty of fails in his storied career. From a disastrous attempt at foie gras powder during a Viking Cooking School dinner to closing his well-received restaurants Lamar Lounge and Fat Eddie’s, the James Beard Award winner isn’t shy about discussing why things go wrong. “You need to be listening to what they want,” Currence advises young chefs looking to leave a lasting impression.

Building trust with an audience takes years, but breaking that trust can take a matter of months. From poor management to trying to establish whole hog barbecue in a city that doesn’t have a strong barbecue culture, Currence experienced the taste of failure in many different forms. “Parmesan, arugula, Kobe beef, I literally couldn’t give it away,” Currence recalls of his early days at City Grocery in Oxford, Miss. The chef couldn’t even get guests to eat vegetables that came from his own garden.

However, by putting the food guests crave on a plate year after year, Currence has been able to authentically build Oxford’s culinary reputation across America while expanding his restaurant empire. “I went from not being able to give away carpaccio to selling lamb testicles,” Currence says. “That’s the arc of success.”

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