Sunday, 30 January 2011

Failing with impugnity

On Wednesday and Thursday last week, I attended a conference related to my professional life, namely learning and development (which you may think of as staff development or workplace learning, or something along those lines). One of the themes that came out of the conference was the extent to which we have underestimated the value of failure. We have tried so hard to create failsafe working practices, that we have forgotten to create safe-fail working spaces. Spaces in which we can safely try, fail, learn something, try again... and so on.

And it occurs to me that we're a bit like that in the kitchen.

Many's the person who says "I'm a hopeless cook!" And it's usually because they tried a few times, failed a few times and gave up. But even good cooks fail, you know.

For example, my husband does the most fantastic potjies. But let me tell you that his first attempt was disastrous. He is also brilliant with the Weber, and regularly makes spectacular roasts in it... including our Christmas roast every year. But he had to go through a learning curve - strictly following a recipe and not always getting it exactly right first time.

I don't pretend to be a brilliant cook, but I'm not bad. And let me assure you that I have made some dreadful blunders along the way. I once totally destroyed a huge quantity of top quality steak which I then served at a dinner party. It was only when I took my first mouthful that I realised how absolutely awful it was. The embarrassment...!

But the important thing is not to give up (that, and to test your recipes before you inflict them on a dinner party).

Yesterday, I had a go at one of the Kitchen Crusader's interesting sounding recipes... and it didn't turn out quite as I had expected. It was heavy and stodgy instead of being moist. But I'm going to have another go. I'm pretty sure the problem isn't with the recipe. This time, I'm going to divide the mixture into two cake tins and bake it for longer at a lower temperature (I'm also going to add a hint of chilli and perhaps some lime, but that's another story).

I mean, what's the worst that can happen?

So you produce something that's inedible and it costs you a few quid. But you had an interesting experience... and you learned something. Next time it will go a bit better. Just make sure there is a next time.


  1. When my son was about 6 he took part in his first 'public' judo competition. He drew one bout and lost all the others. 'That's it, I'm never going to judo club again!'... His Sensai overheard and asked what was wrong. 'How wonderful' he said when told about the day's outcomes, 'The bouts we lose are the ones that make us great fighters, as we learn so much more from losing than from winning.' 10 years later that 6 year old was the third best fighter in his class, and was overheard repeating his Sensai's words to a younger fighter shortly before being knocked out (and I mean unconscious rather than eliminated from the competition) fairly spectacularly when he tried to take on someone who rather outclassed him in the open part of the still learning by failing!
    Failure is always where we learn most, on the judo mat, in the science lab (penicillin was a mistake, don't forget!), in the classroom and most especially in the kitchen. As well as those dreadful results, I'm prepared to bet that you've also had some unexpected positive results from getting it wrong too, Karyn...I certainly have! As for my failures...ask my family about the chocolate rice pudding (one word of advice about trying to make one yourself...don't!), my Christmas cake, and a couple of my more experimental pasta sauces...

  2. @Catherine I have never yet baked a Christmas cake I was pleased with, even though I possess my Granny's recipe, and she baked the best Christmas cakes in the (well, okay: my) world. The thing is, I don't think my Gran used to follow the recipe herself. I think she kind of adapted it until it was nothing like the handwritten instructions in her book. But, rather like 'my grandfather's axe', she still thought of it as being the same thing.