10 Life Lessons Learned in the Kitchen

A restaurateur shares 10 life lessons learned while cooking in the kitchen for several decades. The advice she shares transcends the kitchen and are notions that you can take into everyday life.

A woman eating spaghettin noodles in her underwear to illustrate 10 life lessons learned in the kitchen. : Fabio Bergamasco

It’s curious that so many of life’s memorable moments happen in the kitchen. We’re not talking about those carefully styled moments you share on Instagram. We’re talking about the moments that aren’t practiced or perfected. The ones in which you unexpectedly laugh or curse or surprise yourself by setting convention aside or engaging in your grandma’s frugalness or channeling your dad’s inventiveness or simply sit yourself on the counter and eat spaghetti with your fingers while scantily clad. But what happens after we forget those impromptu and undocumented moments? Can we understand what brought them into being in a manner that transcends the kitchen and speaks to some larger truth? Restaurateur Lucy Buffett (Jimmy is her brother) has spent decades in the kitchen and seems to have spent as much time observing life as she has cooking. In this excerpt from her book Gumbo Love, she reminds us of some simple yet profound truths, the kinds of things we don’t often notice at the time but look back on and wish we’d understood sooner. And with these 10 life lessons, she essentially reminds us that while you can’t control what happens around you, you can learn to control your reaction to it. Here are some things that cooking has, it seems, been trying to teach us all along.—Renee Schettler

Cooking, like life, is messy, takes a lot of practice and patience, and happens at warp speed—even the peak moments are gone too soon, leaving behind a lot of work still to do, like that mountain of dishes that needs washing after an exquisite dinner party. Cooking, in fact, has been one of the greatest teachers in developing my character. It can be instantly rewarding—a grand celebration of flavor. Or it can turn quickly into a life lesson, keeping you humble with lots of opportunities to learn about loss, imperfection, acceptance, perseverance, grief, willingness, and ultimately a simple forgiveness that leaves you with a choice to either throw in the dish towel or try, try again.

: Africa Studio

1. Believe that life is working for you, not against you

Things can go wrong in the kitchen—they inevitably do, no matter how prepared you are. I was once preparing a meal on a charter yacht in New York City and my key lime pies simply would not set up. I couldn’t get beyond the looming sense of failure and dismay. And then, one of the waitstaff came up with a brilliant idea: key lime mousse with graham cracker morsels! We put away the pie plates and started scooping that runny pie and whipped cream into dessert bowls! It was a huge hit. And I learned a great lesson about trusting and being resourceful, even in the face of what looks like a disaster.

2. You are what you think…

The most powerful thing you can do is to keep your thoughts and intentions positive, especially when you are cooking. If listening to some good music helps lift your mood, turn it on, sister! My favorite cooking music ranges from my favorite James Taylor and the Allman Brothers—the music of my youth—to Frank Sinatra, Sara Bareilles, and Beyoncé. And to tackle the cleanup, there’s nothing that gets it done faster than Aretha and a little R*E*S*P*E*C*T!

3. Life is; live it

Focus on what is working and what you do have in the here and now. You thought you had oregano, but when it’s time to add it, you realize you must have used it up last time. Or maybe you have all the ingredients, but you don’t have enough of one thing or another. Instead of getting tripped up by what’s not there, improvise—be open to the whatevers and move forward with what you do have. I’d bet most every chef discovered at least one of their favorite recipes simply because they were out of some ingredient and were forced to get creative. I’m convinced that the secret to being a great chef is not how well you can cook but how well you can problem-solve.

Gumbo Love Cookbook
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4. Trying to be perfect is a setup for failure

I am a Type A personality. After discovering I loved to cook, I went on a tear replicating complicated recipes from Gourmet magazine and any cookbooks I could get my hands on. But while I was living in California, I developed a more relaxed point of view. The amount of effort that went into mastering cooking from a purist’s standpoint simply didn’t have the payoff for me anymore when it came down to actually eating and enjoying the food. After so much work and worry as I completed each step of every complicated technique, no matter how good the final product, it simply never was good enough to feel worth all the trouble. It was an impossible proposition to create something that matched the intensity of my angst and effort. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous in the kitchen. But don’t hold yourself to outrageous standards.

5. Life happens and life goes on

In the kitchen, the cake may fall. The roast might dry out. The oven might even go up in flames! Hurricane Ivan might even send a barge crashing into my restaurant, but what do you know? The next day there was still cold beer in the cooler and no one had gotten hurt. We managed to rebuild the part of the restaurant that had been damaged, and we had a new name for it—the Barge Bar—to remind us that when things go horribly wrong, it’s better to try again than to give in.

: bonchan

6. When you don’t know what to do, do nothing

If I’m out of options or running in circles trying to find a solution or make something happen, I’ve found that I’m trying too hard. I need to breathe. I need a moment to get still so I can hear what life wants me to do.

Kitchens can be chaotic. Ingredients here and there, a spill, different times and temps for different dishes. When you feel the heat building and the countertop starting to spin, stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath to get your bearings. Have a cup of coffee. Take a sip of wine if that helps. Or a bite of ice cream. Just be still and be in the moment and you’ll be surprised—the knife you were looking for is right there in front of you.

: Mockup Graphics

7. Run toward what you fear

I’ve done this more times than I can count—cook fish and Thai food I’ve never heard of, tasted, or seen, for none other than Harrison Ford on a boat in Belize? Yes, please! With no restaurant experience whatsoever, risk everything and open a restaurant in the middle of nowhere? Can’t wait! It might take a few tries and tweaks to get it right, but you can do it. You might even be good at it. There’s nothing more satisfying than doing something you’ve never done before and, with a little practice, actually succeeding.

8. Say “thank you” every day

Yep, that’s right. Even be grateful for those folks and experiences that are sometimes hard. Maybe the cashier at the grocery store was a grouch, maybe your children turned up their noses at what you put on the table, maybe the waiter got your order wrong and didn’t really seem to care. Sometimes it’s hard to be gracious. But it’s amazing how powerful “thank you” can be for the recipient…and the person saying it.

9. Be kind to yourself

We are so hard on ourselves—even in the kitchen. We feel bad when our tart doesn’t look like Martha’s, (Martha, who?!)  when we have every intention of making homemade biscuits but go frozen instead, when our timing gets a little off and we end up with warm salad and cold lasagna. Away with the guilt—food that’s not perfect but that’s prepared with love tastes better than you think. Stop making apologies and let everyone enjoy it, including yourself.

10. You are the cook

Take responsibility for your successes and your failures. You know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen. Everyone has their own way they like to do things. Everyone thinks their gumbo or their mama’s gumbo is the best. But you’ve got to make your own gumbo. Your recipe comes from using your own favorite ingredients, your own traditions, what you’ve learned from your own experiences—good and bad. Always listen to your cooking instincts. That doesn’t mean someone else’s gumbo is wrong. In fact, with an open mind, you may be able to pick up things here and there that you’d like to add to your own.

A chipped white bowl filled with Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo and a scoop of rice with a spoon resting in it. : Leigh Beisch

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Comments

  1. Such an excellent article. This reminded me that I learned so much about life in my 20 years of working as a chef.

    1. Thanks, Tascha. It’s wonderful to hear how valuable these lessons are to so many.

  2. Loved this article! As I’m reading it, I’m shaking my head in agreement: be kind to you, say thank you, own your successes but don’t boast (ok, maybe do the dance of joy, but then keep it cool), and a good cook needs to be a good problem solver. I have been saying these things to my 21 year old daughter since she was little, who knew they came from my many years in the kitchen!

    And the photo at the beginning of the article? Yes, been there (the attitude that is, body in different shape after those many years in the kitchen 😉😏). When that timer goes off, you must head the call, no matter the manner of dress!

    1. We couldn’t agree more, Julia! It sounds like you’ve been passing along some very valuable information to your daughter. That’s amazing. Hopefully, she carries that with her through life, and passes it along.

  3. At 71 yrs young, THIS IS THE BEST ADVICE I have ever had. I m a perfectionist, when it is not right especially in my crocheting, I rip it put and start over. LOVE cooking, baking, Hubby & I cook together.. Of course we have made mistakes and had to throw some out, BUT now I find myself laughing about them..I raised 5 kids and ALL OF THEM especially the boys are GREAT cooks…

    1. Ana, that is so fantastic to hear. I’m glad you can look back and laugh about it and realize the value of having those experiences together, whether perfect in the moment or not.

  4. Yes to thank yous, yes to kindness, and yes yes yes to running toward fear! Perfect for greeting ‘21! Thank you!!

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