This time of year we tend to do a lot of writing about food. Usually we describe delicious dishes that remind us of home and our favorite family traditions, but there's something missing from that conversation: the tale of the kitchen disaster, the wreck, the unsalvageable mess for which the only remedy is take-out.
To fully appreciate the special anguish that is a home-cooked meal gone wrong, we've asked three people with particular knowledge in this area to tell us about their worst-ever kitchen debacles.
Ruth Reichl wrote her first cookbook at 21. Since then she has amassed an impressive culinary resume: She was a feared and respected restaurant critic and the last editor of Gourmet magazine. But the story she told us takes place before any of that, when she was just starting out in the world of food writing and had invited her very proper cookbook editor to dinner.
"I had decided I was going cook her the most amazing meal she'd ever had," Reichl says. But first, the editor had to climb five flights of stairs to Reichl's apartment, which was in what she calls "a scary neighborhood" of New York City.
And the meal couldn't have gone worse. "It was terrible," Reichl says. "I made six courses. I started with a rich chicken liver pate, then I had a cream soup, salad with blue cheese dressing, and then four desserts, one richer than the next. And at the end of the evening [the editor] was looking sort of green."
Finally, after several excruciating hours, the meal was over. Reichl imagines the woman walking down those stairs thinking, "I'm alive, I'm alive!"
Reichl says the truth is: It happens. "It's just a meal. There's always another one."
Jacques Pepin told us at first that he has never failed in the kitchen. "I'm the greatest," he exclaimed, joking.
But he did have a few thoughts on the subject of failure. His strategy for avoiding it: "Very often you do something a bit wrong and say, 'That's exactly what I meant to do anyway.' "
But sometimes there is no chance of recovery. Pepin recalls an appearance he made on a live TV show in the early '70s. There were about 2,500 people in the audience. He was supposed to make a soufflé. So he showed up, made the dish and put it in the oven. He had no way of checking on it.
Pepin didn't notice, but the oven was on a setting that most of us rarely use. "That oven went on self-cleaning," he says. It was 725 degrees.
Pepin laughs as he remembers the ruined soufflé. "You've never seen a soufflé as black as this one, as burned," he says. "In fact, it was so black that the center was still liquid because it formed a crust. It didn't even cook in the center."
Still, Pepin's audience was not disappointed. He remembers pulling the dish out of the oven to a standing ovation: "People were very happy. There was no recovery on that one."
And finally we talked to Pati Jinich, who still remembers the moment disaster struck in her kitchen. "I just felt cold sweat dripping down my forehead," she says.
Jinich is the chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., which is still the site of her worst-ever day in the kitchen. She had just done a cooking demonstration — a dish of duck breasts in a sweet sauce. There were 120 people there watching. The plan was to serve them the same dinner she had just created.
She was going to "sear [the duck breasts] over very high heat until the skin crisped and became golden brown." Then she would flip them over and finish them off in the oven.
But the major fail came between those two steps. The duck was seared. The oven was heated, and then it shut off. Jinich was stuck with 120 pieces of raw duck and all the trimmings, including what she describes as a "delicious Jamaica flower and orange syrup with goat cheese and black bean tamales waiting to sit by the side of those lovely breasts."
So she got creative. She placed the duck breasts on cooling racks and stacked them above her skillet. She wrapped the whole thing in aluminum foil, and slowly the breasts cooked through.
"It was really delicious" she remembers — it just came to the table about an hour late.
Jinich also had another trick up her sleeve. She asked the bartender to open some extra cases of wine, and invited her guests to have another round before dinner. It worked. The guests drank happily while Jinich made do in the kitchen.
"In the end, everybody had a beautiful plate with crispy skin and moist meat," she says. "But oh boy, I sweated that one out."
So if you have a dish that flops that badly today, take heart — and then take a page from these three chefs. Admit your mistake, take a well-deserved bow, and then move on.