caviar appetizer

Playing with Fire

How Taking Risks is Essential to Being a Chef

Seldom does a week go by without my receiving a dozen or more of emails, phone calls or text messages, all looking for answers. "Do you have a recipe for...?" "Have you ever tried...?" “What would happen if…?” Far from being a burden, I happily participate in these personal exchanges because I believe there should be no secrets in cooking.

 plating a chocolate dessertThe thing I value most about being a chef is the community that comes with it; there’s an atmosphere of friendly competition that encourages sharing. As chefs, we can easily get in over our heads.

It’s a scary feeling, but the process of finding a solution is also quite rewarding. I'm certainly not above asking others for advice on problems that I’m working out. Having been asked for help myself, I’ve realized that assisting others is sometimes the best way to learn new things—especially in an age when so many of our questions involve harnessing (or occasionally attempting to defy) the laws of physics and chemistry.

Yet beyond these technical inquiries, there are those that can't be answered with help from a chart, graph, book or Google search. These are the deeper questions. Sometimes it’s a complete stranger who is seeking career advice. Other times, a highly regarded chef is looking for talented, undiscovered cooks to fill their kitchens.

Out of professional courtesy and debt to the culinary community, I take each and every one of these assignments seriously and respectfully. And in turn, I've become the most improbable of experts.

Each time I am asked to offer perspective or advice, I’m reminded that I fell into the business quite by accident. You could even say that cooking initially provided an easy way to occupy my time while I figured out what I really wanted to do.

Once I realized that cooking was the thing that I enjoyed, I simply put my head down and did the work, immersing myself in a rigorous education. I began to devote more and more of my meager wages to equipment, cookbooks and glossy food magazines. I intuitively realized that I had to be a sponge, soaking up anything that crossed my path. And with time, even when I felt that I only understood a fraction of the information I was taking in, I started to surprise myself with my ability to apply that knowledge.

Chef Michael Laiskonis at work in a professional kitchen in New York

I credit where I am now in large part to sheer luck. Each of my opportunities came from being in the right place at the right time or meeting the right person. I never worked alongside any of the great pastry masters. It was pure chance that I got jobs with Rick Halberg and Takashi Yagihashi, or that I was praised early on by someone like Norman Love.

A life-changing moment—for me, meeting Eric Ripert—could just as easily not have happened. Granted, it wasn’t dumb luck; I came to those opportunities prepared. Yet those mentors all took a fair amount of risk in their generosity with me.

The crucial factor in all of these career steps was my willingness to jump in over my head. In retrospect, my resume is relatively short for a chef, yet each position offered the right lessons at just the right time. Each opportunity has been more demanding, stressful and terrifying than the last. Early on, I decided that the day I no longer felt a “pit” in my stomach as I walked into work was the day to start looking for a new job.

chocolate dessert

In a nutshell, that's the advice I offer to the young cooks seeking my guidance: no matter where you are, bleed each environment and situation of all that you can. If you want it bad enough, the sacrifices will seem petty, and the personal returns will be far more valuable in the long haul.

Most importantly, success in this business depends upon a willingness to jump into the deep end. I hate to say it, but a measured dose of self-imposed fear can be useful motivation. There will surely be failures and missteps.

I've made a few mistakes along the way, and I've surely made many more bad desserts. Yet I continue to embrace risk, and I learn the most from trial and error. The beauty of this business is that, quite literally, every plate or piece of pastry is a chance at redemption. Every day is a new day. 

chef michael laiskonis in the IBM Watson food truck
Cooking on board the IBM Food Truck.

Today, while I may have left the day-to-day restaurant grind, my position at ICE continues to offer new challenges and a very different 'pit' in my stomach. Rather than rest upon whatever laurels I may have received in the past, I still try to push myself and those around me.

Perhaps taking on that “burden” of being mentor is my own way of keeping myself submerged in the deep end. I've come to realize that with every bit of advice and assistance I hand out, it's really just a chance to continue to push my own limits—as a chef and a student.

Interested in studying with Chef Michael? Click here for advanced pastry studies at ICE.