Butter, sugar, and tears: Failure and other life lessons I learned at culinary school

This time last year I was anxiously preparing to move to Chicago for my four-month cake design program at the French Pastry School. The eight months leading up to that decision were filled with test recipes in my home kitchen after long days of work, Saturday mornings driving to Red Hook to shadow a cake designer, and interviews with entrepreneurs on my lunch breaks. I took the plunge and enrolled in the program and after receiving a scholarship and finding an apartment, was on my way to a new start.

Snowy Cloud Gate aka the Chicago Bean

Snowy Cloud Gate aka the Chicago Bean

However, the four months at school proved to be more of a lesson in self-confidence than anything on fondant techniques. Now, I should say that I received an amazing education. The chef instructors taught us how to make chocolate sculptures, blown sugar roses, perfect wedding cakes and everything in between, but what I really learned was to accept failure, keep a beginner’s mindset, and trust myself. The rest, as they say, was just icing on the cake.


No one wants to talk about failure; in fact, we spend most of our lives avoiding it. But the truth is that failure is the good stuff. Reserve your judgment and hear me out…
Now, I hate people who claim to never have regrets. I have tons: not participating in high school theater, not singing on stage, not taking a gap year before college… the list goes on and on. But I don’t regret the times I messed up, forgot an ingredient, screwed up a cake, but rather the times that I refused to give it a shot because I was too scared; so plagued by doubt and fear of failure that I was paralyzed with inaction. Pastry school taught me that it’s not about being perfect (I know, I know, this is a hard one) but about getting out there and trying. Failure isn’t the end of us; it’s what opens us to the possibility of something greater. When I have trouble with this one, I think of The Man in the Arena quote by Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Sitting on the sidelines and criticizing others is easy, but taking a leap without knowing where you’ll end up? That’s the hard stuff. But if you’re willing to give it a shot, I guarantee you’ll be a better person for taking the chance.

Beginner’s mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki

It’s not easy being a beginner. I’m the type of person that wants to know everything before I walk in the door, but no matter our age or experience, we all have something to learn. Keeping that open mindset is what creates the space for new discoveries and growth. If we’re not afraid of failure, this beginner’s mind becomes a whole lot easier.

Pastillage Showpiece

the pastillage showpiece that drove me to madness

The week we learned airbrushing and pastillage at pastry school was a particularly rough week for me. My airbrush gun was constantly breaking, leaving me with little practice, and my partner was a wreck, leaving me to do all the chores for a table of two by myself. I was feeling completely alone and so stressed that when it came to putting together my showpiece, my leaves and flowers kept breaking. Every time I dipped a leaf into the isomalt and placed it on the dome, I could hear things crack and break. Instead of taking a breath and being OK with the idea that my showpiece wasn’t perfect, I just rushed through the process, and in turn, made it that much worse. I was afraid someone would think I wasn’t good enough or talented enough instead of remembering that we were all beginners and were all going to make mistakes. The sooner I learned to relax, keep an open mind and be patient with myself, the better my product came out. Funny how that ends up working.. eh? Which brings me to my final, and most difficult, lesson:

Trusting Myself

Working in a group of about twenty type-A personalities for six hours a day, 5 days a week, over the course of four months, is bound to start some drama. I can still hear the bickering over grades and fighting over who disappeared during deep clean. What hurt the most, however, was when the chatter started to become about me. Suddenly my final cake wasn’t worthy, and I became the person everyone was whispering about. For several weeks I let this doubt creep in until I finally decided to let it all go.

Final Wedding Cake

My final wedding cake

I realized that the chatter is never going to go away. People will doubt you, criticize you, talk behind your back, do their worst, because the truth is, they’re just as scared as you are. We all worry we’re not good enough, not talented enough, not strong enough, not whatever enough (insert your own inner demon adjective). The point is we all do it, and when I realized that, I realized that the only person I had to be responsible for was myself. So I put forward the cake I wanted to, not for my chefs or for my classmates, but for myself.

I let go of the chatter and the drama and the worry over grades and resigned to be happy with whatever the outcome. And you know what? I ended up doing great. The chefs loved my cake as much as I did and I graduated with honors. Turns out, trusting myself got me exactly where I wanted to be.

Honors graduate, L'Art du Gateau, French Pastry School

Honors graduate, L’Art du Gateau, French Pastry School

So what life lessons did you learn in 2012?


2 responses to “Butter, sugar, and tears: Failure and other life lessons I learned at culinary school

  1. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: My 2012 in Pictures | Lucy Cakes·

  2. Pingback: Sundays in the park with Jackson | Lucy Cakes·

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