Mise En Place: On Failures

Carlo Javier // Columnist 

The first time I made Beef Wellington was also the last time. It was my contribution to a big family dinner a few Christmases ago. Bold move, I know. 

I started by searing the tenderloin on a sizzling hot pan with butter and aromatics like rosemary and thyme. Once all the sides were evenly browned, I let the meat settle, then I coated it with a generous layer of mustard before surrounding it with a pâté and mushroom mix. I dressed it with sheets of seasoned prosciutto, then finally, encased it with my mother’s homemade puff pastry. 

When I made this dish a few Christmases ago, I imparted on it some festive artwork. I carved out makeshift seasonal patterns on the surface of the pastry before brushing it with an egg wash and dusting the exterior with a final sprinkle of salt. 

The hardest part about preparing Beef Wellington is also the part where you do nothing. It’s where you slide the intricately and tediously crafted dish into the oven for about 40 minutes or so and hope the meat cooks to your liking. You can’t really check it because again, it is encased in pastry. You don’t really know how it’ll turn out — especially on your first attempt. It really just becomes an exercise of trust in the recipe, and in patience. 

I remember my Beef Wellington not turning out as I had envisioned. The tenderloin finished a touch too rare for the liking of my uncles and aunties. The mushroom, mustard and pâté mix tasted a little too foreign, a little too unusual for palettes accustomed to classic Filipino Christmas recipes. 

I remember guests eating it anyway, and offering me tips on how I might approach the dish differently when I try it again. I haven’t considered it since. 

The scary thing about failure isn’t so much the failure itself, but knowing that you might still fail even after all the preparation you did to ensure success. It’s a thought that opens windows into a state of existential crisis, and questions about self-worth and helplessness. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the times I’ve failed. But not so much the actual moments where I realize I’ve failed or am about to fail — but more so the period that came after. The period where I either tried again, or found solace in the comfort of failure, in the comfort of knowing that “I can’t.” 

I failed one class in my five years of university. It happened in the fall semester of my second year at Capilano University and my downfall was entirely my own doing. It was during a dark and irresponsible semester where I often found myself at home, or in the office of my part-time job when I should’ve been in class. It took me almost three years before I retook the class and erased the “F” I had initially deserved, with a passing, and far more respectable grade. 

I was already 19 when I first started to consciously learn how to drive. I started off well, picking up the mechanics of a vehicle and the “feel for the road” fairly quickly. I remember finding comfort in speed and being impressed with the amount of communication that happens between drivers on the road without actually speaking to one another.  

I crashed my father’s car weeks ahead of my planned exam. I haven’t sat in the driver’s seat since. 

I think about all the times I’ve failed and all the people I’ve failed. The losses, defeats and squandered opportunities. I think about the lost time, and wonder whether the effort and practice I put into any particular project or endeavour that wound up bereft of success has any meaning I can take solace in. I wonder if all the little things I learn along the way are really just details to a grander picture I’ve yet to visualize. 

Still, I think about how my family ate the less-than-stellar Beef Wellington anyway and how even a disappointing centerpiece for a Christmas dinner was ultimately just a footnote to an otherwise joyous, annual gathering. Christmas was still Christmas, midnight still came and gifts were still unwrapped in elation. I think about how snow still fell and vanished, how winter left like it always does, to provide space for spring to blossom. I think about how summer still smiled and then once again it was cold, and another Christmas dinner came and went and how I never tried again. 

There is an unnerving comfort in marinating  in our own cesspool of misery. I write this column not in response to a great failure, but instead in response to a realization that much like success, failure, too, is fleeting and temporary. That much like the rigorous road necessary for triumph, escaping the jaws of defeat also necessitates struggle. That much like the shock that can come with victory, disbelief and hesitation also manifest when the light at the end of every tunnel starts to flicker. 

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