Originally published on Girlboss.
“Chef Jenny, you’ve been Chopped.”
The sound of Ted Allen’s voice lingered in the air, accented by the shuffling of multiple cameras panning to catch my reaction. This was real time—one punchy, TV-ready line. No music. No fanfare. The ensuing silence peered at me and I found myself wishing for a commercial break, anything to provide some barrier between me and right now.
I glanced at the other contestants, noting wryly the relief and nervous anticipation on their faces alongside a quiet ode of goodbye—certainly the same reaction I would’ve had in their shoes. Two looked like they wanted to say a few last words, but there was no option to do that. It suddenly occurred to me that power is not gained, but taken when others offer up their own stake.
But fast forward to today, and this one-sided exchange seems as arbitrary as walking through grey doors marked “Food Network.”
The camera lights felt exceptionally hot as I turned to smile stiffly at Ted and the judges. I imagined my more strategic alter ego lurked in the shadows somewhere, just off screen. The side of me that could handle pain with nonchalance, that mentally won no matter the occasion. But instead I stood in main frame, my breath catching and the beginning of tears clawing at my eyes.
I leveled my chin and listened to my least favorite judge make one last, snide farewell comment about my higher education. I wanted to storm up there and argue, diminish her accomplishments the same way she did mine. “Sometimes,” my smarter self reminded me, “strength is walking away.”
But where do I exit? This almost laughable question brought me back to being seven, looking for the bathroom in an unfamiliar mall, filled with strangers. A few awkward seconds climbed by as my eyes darted around the studio before settling on the same entryway as we had all walked through.
I took one last shaky breath before I strode past the chopping block and into TV anonymity.
Or so I thought. I had forgotten the cruelest part of TV: The guided meltdown, maneuvered backstage. “How do you feel?” the producer beamed at me in green room, “Was it challenging for you to lose the very first round, seeing you just won another show? You said yourself you felt Chopped is such an important show.”
For a long time, I dismissed this as simply the ugly side of entertainment, the silver screen schadenfreude. There’s some truth to that, but really this interaction is about power. You’re a maimed animal, bleeding freely in a field of vultures. It’s so easy to buy into their sincerity.
But that day I found my graceful self, a tourniquet to keep me going until the interview was finally over. As I left, one of the cameramen shook my hand and thanked me for “being on this little show.” I almost laughed at his unintended insight and malice all in one.
I packed up my knives and walked home. Once I arrived, I sat on the floor and doodled aimlessly on a piece of paper.
Bitterness dripped through me, like ink in water–subtle, inviting. “It was so unfair!” Next, fury. This felt like vomit, the ugly bile after a series of bad decisions where your throat is raw and your mouth is coated in shame. At last, I cried. I cried and cried and cried. My dogs licked my face and I cried over that too, snowballing into a pit of slobber, snot and tears.
But as many of us know, the tears will stop. I never understood why before, but now I think I do. It’s like my mind was still buffering through the events of the day and suddenly, I was confronted with the realization I could never be the exact person I originally attempted to be. The contrast was so harsh I couldn’t process it and cry at the same time.
I found myself faced again with the nature of power. Earlier today, it seemed an obvious delineation—the Chopped studio is distinctly separate from my apartment and the rest of my life. But now, curled up at home, the lines felt fuzzy. What did it mean to still retain my power?
A list of tactical next steps kicked in. My biggest weakness during the competition was the fact I didn’t clean my softshell crabs thoroughly and undercooked them—something I did have the power to change. I stood up and washed my face. This burst of determination sustained me through a painful trip to the Lobster Place, located in the same building as Food Network, for two dozen crabs.
I tore open the package the minute I got home, lined the crabs up and got to work. Off came the gills and those little beady eyes too. One by one they were cleaned and cooked; pan-fried, deep-fried, sautéed, grilled, baked, steamed to the right doneness.
Eventually, all the crabs were processed and I was left alone to ruminate on all my shortcomings for the day. My retrospective play-by-play revealed I could’ve won—when supplemented with variations of the modifier “if only.”
I was so consumed I didn’t even notice my husband come home. I stared at him blankly when he asked if I wanted to talk. Seeing my reaction, he simply pulled me in for an embrace.
That’s when my post-show frenzied bravado collapsed completely. I felt the strangest, strongest reaction of the day: utter repulsion. Not by him, but by myself. “You shouldn’t get a hug,” I felt my thoughts screaming, “you don’t deserve a hug.”
Such is the ability of our own minds as we process the abject nature of failure—alone, failure is a description of an event at an intersection of time. My internalization of failure, however, twisted that event into a part of my identity.
This brought me full circle to the crux of my power struggle: It was me who had yielded the power to construct my reality. Failure and power shook hands the minute I allowed one moment to dictate my worth. When I began to fixate on changing the past, instead of the future.
As Brene Brown says in her research on shame, vulnerability, and worthiness—the shocking difference between those with a strong sense of love and belonging and those without is simply that the former believed themselves to be worthy of love and belonging.
That day, I saw that the best way forward was to wrap my smelly shellfish hands around my husband and hug him back like I deserved it.
My perspective took a long time to change. I continually wrestled with the same cycle of bitterness, anger, tears, confusion and insecurity. But with time and kindness, I always arrived at the same place: Failure is not a loss of power, but a reminder that only you have the power to control how it shapes you.
I chose to wear my loss proudly, turning my eliminated dish into a signature menu item (it was subsequently featured in my Huffington Post video, generating over 50,000 views) and as impetus to learn more about shellfish. In an ironic turn, my experience helped me land a James Beard Foundation fellowship to study in shellfish heaven: Portland, Maine.
The concept of failure is an exciting one for stories and lessons, but I posit it is merely a noun, until we impose our identity onto it. Instead of allowing these instances to form a siege against my worth, I’ve reshaped my mental narrative to allow multiple descriptions of myself. My life and its timeline is multifaceted: While failure marks what I may or may not have done, I hold the power to know who I am.