My First F-Up is a series in which we ask Eater Young Guns and industry talent to recall their first — or most notable — on-the-job failure. On July 27, 2019, chef Preeti Mistry gave a talk about failure at the Eater Young Guns Summit in Brooklyn. The following is drawn from her presentation.
Bay Area chef Preeti Mistry has owned two Oakland restaurants and competed on national television. But at the dawn of her career, she was a new graduate of London’s Le Cordon Bleu who earned some extra cash through a lucrative private chef gig. It exposed her to a rarefied world — and to one temperamental chocolate cake.
“I got this gig as the private chef for Michael Wilson, the producer of James Bond movies. He and his wife are lovely, lovely people — they love to cook and they love food. They used to do these dinner parties themselves and would need a little extra help, so instead of hiring a fancy chef they got a culinary student. The first menu I did, they told me what to make and I made it. Once I got in with them, I began experimenting and doing my own thing. I would screw stuff up all the time.
“So this was on Valentine’s Day. [Wilson’s cousin] had a birthday that day; he was this Republican senator. So it was this senator’s birthday and I was like, I’m going to make a heart-shaped birthday cake because it’s Valentine’s Day, won’t that be so cute? But I had no idea what I was doing — pastry has never been my forte. I over-whipped the egg whites so the cake went sky high in the oven and then went crashing down. And because it was flourless it began to break all over.
“The Wilsons had this Filipina housekeeper named Gloria; she’d stay out of my way, but if she saw I was in the weeds she would step in and start trimming beans or washing the dishes, whatever I needed. So I started bolstering the sides of the cake with all of these berries, creating a mound of blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries along the sides and then covering the top of the cake with mounds of powdered sugar. I’m doing all of these things and Gloria looks over and goes, ‘I love how you cook.’ For 10 seconds, I’m feeling really good. And then she says, ‘because you always screw everything up, but you always figure out how to fix it.’
“When I sent the cake out to the table I was like, oh my god, finally, I’m done with this damn cake. But rich people, they don’t cut their own damn cake, so it came back, and I had to find a way to cut it so it didn’t look like poo. But it was fine; it was chocolate cake. It’s hard to go wrong with that.”
Rebecca Flint Marx is a James Beard Award-winning food writer based in Brooklyn.