Last week my friend L. asked if I wanted to take part in a taping of Master Chef at an idyllic setting up in the hills? Sure, I said! I’m always game. Then I saw the official invitation and the producer asked if I was allergic to anything. Wait… we don’t just get to watch, we also get to eat?
I like a good competition. I like a good meal even more. So three of us donned our best “summer benefit” attire and headed up the 101. I’m walking a fine line by writing about this. I’m sure the paperwork I signed includes some threat of lawsuit. So I can’t tell you about the contestants. I can’t tell you who won. Or who the celebrity chef was that showed up and sat down next to me.
What I think I can say is that the usual suspects were present: Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot held court. Bastianich and Ramsay both made brief, cordial stops by our table. I think I can also say that the food was better than I expected. Give the average home chef a stab at cooking for a group of ten, throw in a challenging ingredient, and press play. It’s not easy. I know because I was in their shoes when I stepped onboard the Neverland the first time.
The first attempt
Actually, I’ve been thinking lately about how our failures are often when we learn the most. I know this is true at sea. I often learn very little on a smooth sail. But a trip that includes engine failure, a ghost ship, and getting stuck with no wind in the shipping lanes is what I call a proper sailing lesson.
So if I am to be truthful, my friend Natalie recently reminded me about first time I attempted to cook professionally back in 2000 when I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’d garnered a reputation for throwing cocktail parties. I would move most of my furniture out on the lawn – I even set up little outdoor living rooms with lamps and tables. I cooked for days, and even took off from my day job on the Friday prior to prep.
I mailed invitations that I made myself and instructed my guests to bring their friends. This was my strategy to ensure I was always meeting new people, but it was also a sure-fire way to become known for throwing parties. I think 30 people attended the first party, about 50 attended the next and at least 100 people came to the final hurrah I threw before moving to Sweden. I had to hire a bartender or I would have been stuck behind the bar all night.
I knew my reputation was outgrowing my ability to live up to it when an administrator at the college I attended asked if I wanted to cater his daughter’s wedding. I wavered. But in the end I agreed. I did a few smart things. I suggested brunch fare. I made muffins, frittata, and oven-broiled potatoes. I bought hams. I made Angel Food Cakes. I hired my friends. My only miscalculation was in assuming people would choose one of the three types of muffins and one of the three types of frittatas, when they actually took one of each! We were out of food before the last guest went through the line.
It killed me to walk through the dining room and see uneaten food on people’s plates. I knew immediately that if we’d served them – or if I had offered fewer options – we would have been in the clear. Instead I was making frittata and potatoes on-the-fly. And as Natalie says, one of us had to run out for more ingredients. It wasn’t a complete disaster… but it sure wasn’t smooth sailing.
Because of it, I was afraid to cook professionally for many years. Not until 2006, when a friend invited me to cook at a small restaurant called Torget was I finally able to shrug off that failure. It was my friend’s last week as chef and they were looking for a replacement. At the end of that night, the owners asked me if I wanted the job.
Fail. Try again. Repeat.
That day at the taping of Master Chef, my friend L. and I both sat with our eyes glued on one person – a tall, bean-pole of a woman with white wispy hair and eyes hidden behind a pair of aviators. When she spoke, cameras moved in or pulled back, people hustled, the judges obeyed. The crew followed her like a train of subjects. Everyone moved when she moved.
This woman was in charge. The whole set was like an extension of her brain, her arms. All the ingredients were at her disposal and it was she who would determine the outcome.
I loved watching her because she made it look easy. And that’s what it’s like when you’re good at something: everything just works. And there is only one way to get to that level. Put your failures behind you and move forward.
Featured photo, photo credit: Alexandra.