My older son had just come back from school, the younger one was playing with ice-cubes (throwing them off the deck onto our small unkempt grass below) and I decided in my infinite wisdom to make Pad Thai at home for the first time.  Noodles with shrimp and sauce, how hard can that be, I thought.

First, I laid out all the ingredients I thought I would need. I asked friends for recipes and then decided I would recreate this dish based on my own tastes. (Translation no cookbook author or recipe was harmed as a result of my effort).

I soaked the flat, pale noodles in a hot water, according to the package directions. I sliced scallions, rinsed and dried bean sprouts, whisked eggs, rinsed and pat-dried shrimp and finely minced cilantro. I coarsely ground some peanuts and arranged the ingredients for the sauce neatly on the counter – fish sauce, tamarind paste,  chili oil and palm sugar.

I heated my wok till it was searing hot, added the eggs, scrambled and moved them gently to the side as I added the shrimp, and tossed to cook them to perfection. Next scallions and beans, a good toss, and then the sauces and sugar went in. As a childhood habit, I never taste when I cook. It comes from the belief that I was taught as a child that the first taste of prepared food is always an offering to the Gods and tasting it defiles it. When I was growing up, we would feed the first serving to neighborhood animals, since they are said to be pure of soul. Here in the US, I say a prayer before serving the food.

Now, back to the Pad Thai, I had already rinsed the noodles in cold water and they went in next.. My first attempt at the Pad-Thai was ready. I was concerned that the color did not quite resemble the restaurant Pad-Thai but let it go. In fact, it looked like a sad brown instead of vibrant orange. But undeterred, I went on.

I shouldn’t have.

The dish tasted abysmal. No the noodles weren’t mushy, the shrimp weren’t over cooked, the eggs did not get rubbery.. none of that. The dish had no taste. We would have been better off eating a toast without butter. Even that would have tasted better . My kids, bless their heart, poured ketchup on it in an attempt to eat it. “It’s okay, Mama,” said my son, “At least you tried.”  My husband was a little more, well, honest. “This really is lacking taste, what happened?” I posted on Twitter and FB and most folks were encouraging: “at least you tried“ appeared to be the kindest response and the most fun one, “This is why God invented restaurants.” And then a few nasty ones: “How can you publicly admit to failing at a dish? You are a cookbook author! You should know better!”


As queen of kitchen disasters, and my friends and family will attest to this, I am always cooking up disasters. It is part of the program – for any good dish that comes out of my kitchen, there are several that shouldn’t have seen the light of day or the plates of loved ones. I once cooked up chocolate mousse and instead of heating the chocolate OVER a pan of water, I added it to the pan of water. I had a rock solid mousse that no one would touch. Or, ah, and this is the best bad yet: I was using a pressure cooker to make a potato curry. The cooker ran out of water, the whistle blew off its top and the entire curry spurted out through the cooker’s spout and onto the ceiling above and then some of it fell back onto the stove that had a hot, deep frying pan filled with hot oil. The entire thing caught fire and I almost burnt the house down. It happens, folks.

Failing in the kitchen, or a fear of failing, can be attributed to many things, I suppose: fear of a new cuisine, a new ingredient, fear of showing a loved one we are less than perfect or fear of creating something inedible.  We all know fear, don’t we?  Examples:  fear of being an Indian lady serving the Southwest BBQ to a hardcore meat loving crowd, fear of not really understanding how to cut the “Super Delicious and Nutritious Pomegranate” every food magazine keeps touting, fear of substituting apples for custard apples, or fear of serving the wrong wines at the wrong temperatures, or fear of letting your significant other see you are kind of inept in the kitchen (“what if he thinks the same of me in the bedroom?”). It exists and is hard to deny. Perhaps some people feel the pressure to match expectations of being a cook as great as their aunt/mother/father/sister/friend.  That can be hard, I know.  My parents are amazing cooks and I always aspire to be like them. I love, love, love my mother’s cooking and yet nothing of hers that I make tastes like what she does. I will often complain to her but she reminds me, “It has taken me 40 years to learn to cook like this.”

Or maybe we are afraid that after one bad meal (the pad thai being my 100th), we will never recover. That one bad meal will set the precedent of all meals, of all things to come.

This is why God invented the trash can. if it tastes bad, throw it away I grew up learning to respect food and the thought of wasting it was unthinkable. But most things can be salvaged with Sriracha, so the dump into the trash is infrequent in my house.

Cooking, like anything else, takes practice. While an understanding of ingredients is critical in putting together a dish, it takes trail and error too. My Pad-Thai lacked sauce, I mean totally.  But we moved on.

Failing is a necessary ingredient in cooking success.

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  1. Aha! I have been cooking for about 25 years now just turning 40 later this month, and still make mistakes, I guess it is the way you become a master chef

  2. It takes failure to understand, recognise and become a success in whatever we do. And success that comes after failure is the real deal. 🙂

    1. Aparna,

      I agree with you. Failure is only a true failure if we do not learn from our mistakes.

      A failure is an opportunity to try again and improve.

  3. failures are the stepping stones to success ! i think its great that you publicly admit so many things and turn it into an interesting post. well i’ve had kitchen disasters too, so its normal 😀 its good to go wrong sometimes 😉

  4. Failure is how we learn. So, may I ask, have you determined what went wrong with the pad thai??

  5. Once I tired to make my own gharam masala. My husband choked down the first bite. Then, “I’m sorry, I simply can’t eat anymore.” Neither could I. So we pitched–which goes against my nature. I want to see if it can be rescued. But sometimes there’s simply nothing else you can do.

  6. That reader who made the nasty comment is just idealizing you. It’s hard sometimes for readers to imagine that someone who writes great cookbooks could make mistakes too. Even though it didn’t sound like a compliment, in some ways it really was.


  7. Aly ~ Cooking in Stilettos

    I admire your honesty – there are some things that come out of my kitchen that make me wince and cannot ever be saved. I always try to learn from trial and error and deal. As for the reader that criticized, pay no mind to them. Dan is right.

  8. Monica you are so right. One needs to mess up a little in the kitchen to learn. Otherwise what’s the point?

    I personally applaud you for being honest. I find it hard to believe that many blogs I read have absolutely NO failures in their kitchens – of course, we don’t always want to read about failures but from time to time, with a tricky dish, it’s comforting to read that even an expert has had a tough time. Otherwise you try the recipe and you mess up and then you feel like a failure yourself, right? I am always suspicious of perfection – the road to perfection is paved with failures along the way, right?

    I post failed macarons on my blog (less and less because I seem to have a recipe that is working for me now – fingers crossed) but people need to see that. They are temperamental little so-and-sos and people should not be led to believe that they are simple to make. They take practice. And more practice. Also, by posting pictures of failed ones, people can see what they look like when you do something wrong, right?

    In my real life, I am a teacher and teacher-trainer. I have given workshops all over the world in the past decade and the consistent feedback I get is “thanks for being real”. I am not afraid to show examples of less than perfect student work because it’s the reality of my job, plus it shows teachers that they are probably doing a better job than they give themselves credit for. Teachers need to see that even the “expert” has had quite the time of it getting to where she is today, though I always reiterate that teaching is a constant learning journey too.

    Once you stop learning you stop being a good teacher. I feel the same about being a cook/ writer/ photographer.

    Thanks for this Monica.

  9. Great post and something we should all read! Love this “most things can be salvaged with Sriracha” YES!!

  10. Hi Monica, I completely understand what you are saying n said here. We all go through this, I have been in this situation and done it many times even being a professional chef for long long period. It teaches us a valuable leseon for future steps and references. “Cooking is art and science” and it need lots of practise. I always say to all my students, friends it “ok” to make mistake. We learn better this way and I am a living example of it. So please do not give up or be hard on your self. Try… Try again…try again… and you will be a lot better at it. Almost similar to your- our mother. Good Luck n Good Cooking. Chef Rajeev

  11. Mistakes… Aren’t those usually the unposted recipes that get eaten up for dinner??

    1. But.. you know what Monica, that admission is what makes you all the more a solid reliable source for a good recipe, you know that the dish has gone thru its iterations & what stands out is the excellence.

  12. So what if you fail? it keeps a person firmly grounded. This is my firm belief. I do better for I fail often.
    Just ignore all the nasty comments.

  13. I love this Monica. Yes it is true that Sriracha can fix many kitchen disasters, but we all do make recipes that don’t work out!

  14. Well said. To this day, there are two dinners that my mother made that are legendary in their awfulness. TWO. Out of decades of putting delicious meals on our table, three times a day. The very rare occasion of burning, not following a direction, or bad seasoning shouldn’t discourage anyone who is trying to put home cooked meals on the table for their family to share – it’s the effort and the trying that count.

  15. Good for you for trying a new dish! Let us know how it comes out the next time.

  16. Love this post! It’s another classic, Monica. I totally agree with you. You have to fall down first, inorder to learn how to get up. I’ve had painful moments, too , like this. You just learn to wipe up the mess, and start again. I look forward to reading about your next Pad Thai attempt & just know it will be awesome!

  17. Trying new things is the great adventure in life. It is when things do not go as planned that we have the fun stories to tell and great memories. Thanks for making cooking accessible to us normal folk.

  18. In my opinion the secret is to stick to flavors you know and that you have grown up with.

    Very difficult to reproduce a dish you don’t know what it should taste like.

    You can stick your finger in there as much as you want but what are you going to compare it too.

    Secret… Stick to what you know. And travel, taste and experience as much as you can.

    Don’t give up!

  19. My sister and I will never forget making Julia Child’s fish with tarragon, it was quite possible the worst thing we have ever eaten. The fish wasn’t fresh enough, we didn’t yet understand how to substitute dried herbs for fresh and when one shouldn’t bother and we overcooked it so badly. We tossed it and went out for pizza! I can’t even tell you about my making chicken roasted in milk and my friend’s reaction, it’s unprintable, but we break out into peals of laughter about that night!! I have a lot of kitchen failures when I create or try new things which is why I make them for myself and never for guests for the first attempt. But that’s how you learn and grow! No big deal.

  20. Someone once said to me about gardening, “If some of your plants don’t die, you are not challenging yourself as a gardener.” I think that same philosphy pertains to many other things in life too – including cooking. Like any good food person you continue to challenge yourself – and while a few of the plants may die, others are the ones we dream about for years after! Onward and upward.

  21. Although NOT a cookbook author, I have cooked for 40 years and done a good job most of the time. But there have been major failures. Like this last one:

  22. Thank you for this post – you didn’t have to share that you failed at something in the kitchen, but you did, and that helps all of us who may struggle more frequently than others. Everyone has flops, everyone adds too much of something, or not enough of the other, but as you said, things happen and you move on. I love that your son said “At least you tried,”… this is the most important lesson, and you’ve obviously taught that to your most important audience…your children!

  23. We come to great recipes by taking the tried-and-true method.

    I applaud you for using someone else’s recipe to make something different. I bet that there is a great Pad Thai recipe out there waiting to be made or to be co-created with you at the helm.

    I suspect that your pressure cooking disaster didn’t prevent you from cooking with a pressure cooker again. That’s certainly one piece of kitchen equipment that scares the heck out of people. I hope to change that with my new book, The New Fast Food.

    Thanks for sharing your humanness. I appreciate it, and can see that others do, too.

  24. I can’t believe anyone would scold you for talking about a failure – that is SUCH an important part of how we all learn, and we should be thankful we have the opportunity to learn from you! At the same time, I hardly think your phad thai was a true failure. That term seems better reserved for the pressure-cooker fiasco you relate. Tasteless is simply tasteless, it’s not bad. Meal failure in my opinion has to be ugly and revolting, and as you suggest, a little extra squirt of hot sauce, a shake of salt, and another handful of fresh cilantro would probably turn your dish from dull to passable, skipping over “failure” entirely. I’m glad to hear it didn’t all have to end up in the compost heap.

  25. Whenever I venture out of my comfort zone in cooking (Italian cuisine), I know there is a diasaterous meal ready to happen. But I do it anyway. So far, I have unsuccessfuly made Pad Thai and I am afraid to find out what I would do with a Butter Chicken recipe! After cooking so long, failure only encourages me to try again!

  26. Thank you so much for sharing this. So many of us can relate, and I agree with everyone else that failure is all part of the process. I understand failure quite well, both in the kitchen and out. Once I made the mistake of whipping potatoes for mashed potatoes in a food processor. They were a gummy mess, so I tried to salvage the dish and top it with cheese and baked it. That just made things worse. I served it to my husband who kindly choked it down, but that fact was the dish was awful. However, I learned from this mistake and now use my food processor carefully, especially when it comes to starchy ingredients. Oh yeah. I’m a cookbook author, and fallible just like the rest of the world.

  27. If I had a dollar for every failure I had in the kitchen… As is the case with everything in life, we learn through our mistakes. I trust recipes from people who tested the recipes, making improvements along the way, far more than those who say they made the perfect dish the first time they tried. Here’s to a exploding pressure cookers and raw roasted chickens (one of my worst)…it all makes us better cooks.

  28. Failures are a key part of the growing process. If you made a successful dish all the time, I would think you limited yourself too much. A truly creative, innovative person that wants to learn, expand, and challenge herself makes mistakes. This certainly doesn’t sound like the worst one (although setting the kitchen on fire, that sounds like it could rank up there on the Top 10, yeah? I’ve done that and so many other disasterous things!) and could definitely be salvageable. I’m sure with a tweak or two, you’d have a fantastic dish. If you do nail it, please share!

  29. I’ve never done well with homemade Pad Thai, for what it’s worth.

    I tend to get in a really bad mood when I screw up something in the kitchen. Some of it is a pride thing (I’m supposed to be good at this!), some of it is because it tends to happen when I’m cooking in order to relieve stress from my day. My husband is really good at talking me off the ledge when this happens, hehe. We’re not a big takeout house, so his argument is, “It’s a good excuse to order pizza!”.

  30. Hi Monica, Thanks for sharing this post, it has helped me realize we all make mistakes and fail from time to time and it isn’t a big deal, just move on and try again. Your son sounds like mine everything is better with ketchup or some kind of dressing/sauce.

  31. Failure can become an asset, because when you try it again you will know what to do. Everyone experienced it, cheer up! =)

  32. How can you be a screaming success without a failure or two?…..Life happens. Move forward….We will be waiting.

  33. it doesn’t matter to me what you write about. I always love it!

  34. Tell it like it is, sistah! Seriously, anyone who has ever cooked, professional or otherwise, knows that mistakes happen. I’ve been in cooking classes with professional chefs who have messed up toffee, and really toffee is only like three ingredients. That’s why they call cooking an art form. It takes precision, skill and yes, trial and error.

  35. i will never get to understand why people need to be nasty. Can they not shut up and move on? And what do they expect!! So silly of them to think that every chef is perfect in kitchen. I love your honestly Monica and love the way you expressed it!
    btw I suck at making noodles at home.. totally horrible at it 🙂

  36. I LOVE THIS POST. I think the fear of failure is what keeps many folks from cooking in the first place. To cook, is to be fearless. 🙂 I have made many disasters over the years, but I have had many more successes and that is what keeps me going.

    Oddly, I have had a HUGE fear of baking. However, in the past few years, I have worked really hard on putting myself “out there” in regard to baking and as such, have gradually gotten over that fear. It is still stunning to me that *I* am baking. ME. BAKING.

  37. I found you through Dan’s blog The Casual Kitchen. You made me laugh so hard (the dog is looking at me wondering if I have finally gone over the edge).

    Posted in the office of our home is a saying

    “I can accept failure but I can’t accept not trying” Michael Jordan

    We all have fails in the kitchen, the meals the husband tries valiantly to choke down. Kudos to him for the attempt and the same to all of us that every day attempt to put tasty, healthy meals in front of our families!

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