Today I read an intriguing article from last week’s NY Times magazine called, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” It features my alma mater, Riverdale Country School, and our headmaster Dominic Randolph in his quest to help develop students with character. Not just moral character, but grit and determination. I happen to agree with the philosophy that sheltered success is NOT the key to being truly successful. A little failure goes a long way. And it’s best to learn to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. I learned that lesson many times, most especially in the kitchen.
And I’m not the only one. Believe it or not, our beloved American chocolate chip cookie is the result of a happy accident at a small country inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. In 1930, Ruth and Kenneth Wakefield bought the Toll House Inn where Ruth prepared freshly baked treats for guests. One fateful day, Ruth ran out of baker’s chocolate for her chocolate cookies. She decided to replace the ingredient with broken pieces from a Nestle semi-sweet bar. She figured that the chocolate would melt and blend with the dough. Much to her surprise and to a nation’s gratitude, the chocolate pieces held their shape and were not absorbed by the dough. Thus, the Toll House cookie was born. The chocolate chip cookie grew popular over the years, so Nestle responded by producing chocolate bars the way Ruth had broken them – scored in small chunks. Eventually Nestle created semi-sweet chocolate morsels called chocolate chips.
Others have triumphed from failure in the kitchen, most notably, Stephanie Tatin in France in 1889. She left her apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long and risked drying or even burning them. She rescued the dish by covering the apples with pastry to protect them as they finished in the oven, then turning the dish upside down, with its apple base now on top. The result became a classic: tarte Tatin.
As I urge in “Notes on Cooking,” “Preside happily over accidents. Get in the habit of celebrating errors and seeking lessons. The unrisen souffle, the broken sauce, the tough sirloin, the curdled creme anglaise–every mistake is a chance to turn misfortune to education and, in some cases, discovery.”
It’s more than ok to fail. In fact, it’s really the only way to succeed. The true benchmark for success and achievement should be self-reflected so that we really live the standards we set for ourselves.