Daniel Wordsworth
9 min readSep 7, 2020

Episode — Will Goldfarb

Will Goldfarb

During the global corona virus pandemic, I — like many — sought to creatively re-evaluate my purpose and my process, both professionally and personally. And I found answers in an unlikely place: Netflix. Over the past six months, my daughter and I have been watching shows from Chef’s Table to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Along the way, we’ve gleaned meaningful, moving and often surprising life lessons from the extraordinary characters we met during this journey. Below is the first post in this series: Lessons from Chef’s Table.

There’s a great quote by the postmodernist artist and writer Douglas Coupland that says “there are three things we cry for in life: things that are lost, things that are found, and things that are magnificent.”

Netflix’s Chef’s Table makes me cry for things that are magnificent. During the corona virus pandemic, my daughter and I have carved out a ritual in watching the series: we get immersed for an hour in the life and work of someone who is extraordinary, who leaves us with lessons that are rich and surprising — wisdom for both of us.

As the President and CEO of Alight, a global humanitarian aid agency operating around the globe, I have the opportunity to meet with and learn from some of the most inspiring people, many from unfathomable situations — from Mohammed, a Somali youth from the Dadaab camp in Kenya; to the Sudanese government official who challenged me to “live up to the promise” of humanitarian work; to children from Belarus to Sierra Leone, who equated poverty with invisibility.

Little did I expect to find similar such wisdom from a Netflix show — and yet I did.

Chef’s Table tells the story of spectacular failure and ultimate redemption. It moves from New York, through Paris, Catalonia in Spain, back to New York and finally washing up in Bali. Recently, my daughter and I watched an episode on Will Goldfarb, a pastry chef described as a “James Beard-nominated dessert virtuoso.”

Early in the episode, Will describes his experience with failure: “There are only so many times you can hear you’re the worst and not at least have in your mind that maybe everyone’s right. And that continued for years, so it wasn’t just a fluke. That theme would keep coming up.”

That one hit home.

Will in Bali (photo by Martin Westlake, Netflix)

I am not going to focus on the food in any of these articles. I will link the trailer of his episode below. It’s more than worth a watch.

Instead, I am going to write about what I have taken away from Will’s life — and what lessons can be found for so many of us.

First the Failure

The central theme of the episode is one of failure and redemption. Will takes us through a series of professional failures: some closely echoing T.S Eliot’s poem, ending with a whimper; others truly spectacular.

Describing one such spectacular failure, Will speaks of his time at the restaurant Cru, in New York. At this point, he is still bruised from his last failure, and he has decided to drop all experimentation and edgy creativity. This time he has decided to play it safe. But one day the owner comes to him and says, “Just go for it! Be yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?”

So he does. And the worst does happen.

The critical reaction was hard and fast. His food is described as inedible. The New York Post said that hiring him was the worst decision made in New York that year. Not a food-related decision, no — but the worst decision made by anyone in New York that year about anything. Period.

Will explains, “When you get reviews like that you have got no credibility. So it doesn’t just undercut your cooking, it undercuts everything you say and believe in.” He was fired and shunned.

There is a kind of romance about failure, largely driven by the narratives of a few successful billionaires in Silicon Valley. We have all heard quotes like Edison’s: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And often, even in my own industry, I hear people speaking about failure with a sense of jubilance — and flippancy.

I think they are actually talking about making errors or simple mistakes — not failing. The truth is that failure is horrible, painful, and soul-crushing. It can destroy a person. When Will speaks about this time in his life, a haunted expression is painted on his face. He is speaking of a form of death.

I know that expression and I know that pain — because I have lived it. More than two decades ago, my world collapsed. I was a leader in Christian Ministry that began to seriously question the nature and authenticity of my faith. I wasn’t sure if it was true anymore. My response was to try to disappear. I took a job for six months working the night shift in a drunk tank, washing the toilet and cleaning vomit off alcoholics who live on the streets of Sydney’s red-light district.

Some say that we only learn by failing. I don’t believe that’s true. The wounds of failure run deep, and remain raw. In time, we can learn in our failures — not so much from them.

His rebirth…

Believing that the “world was united against him,” he chooses to “exit stage left” and move with his family to Bali. In obscurity, he is forced to “deal with things just the way they are” — this time outside the confines of the competitive New York environment. He has time and space. He can focus on his craft. The experience becomes “the equivalent of focusing a camera, when one thing brings everything else into focus.”

Will pictured in his book, Room for Dessert

And with his new perspective, he realizes that all the building blocks of his craft are in front of him. Chocolate, nutmeg, coconut, vanilla, and palm sugar are all there. He can get it fresh in a way that he couldn’t dream of in New York. Proximity sparks what he calls “his unfinished business”. He starts to cook again.

I would like to highlight my three observations of what he did next:

  • He dispels the evil spirits
  • He questions his old assumptions
  • He takes his place with humility

Dispelling the evil spirits…

When he opened his new restaurant, Room for Dessert, in Bali, Will held a ceremony to purify the place from the bad spirits.

Yet the evil spirits were not in his new restaurant, they were in his head. They were the stories he told himself about who he was. They were the reviews. They were his destroyed reputation. Those were the terrifying spirits of doubt, shame and humiliation. And they needed to be dispelled.

But such doubts are not dispelled by focusing on them — they are dispelled by adjusting our lens. Working in Bali, finding himself in proximity with the foundational ingredients of his craft, Will’s perspective changed, and the spirits were purged.

For me, I regained my perspective by finding my own sense of proximity: every night I worked in that drunk tank, kneeling down and washing the bodies of people “lost” to society, I found myself among my own “ingredients”, the lost, the forgotten, the refugee. These people are the foundation of my calling. Everything for me came back into focus.

Purged of his evil spirits, Will could start to cook again. Purged of mine, I could pursue my passion to help those in need. Neither of us learned “from” our failures, but rather “in” them.

And what did he (and I) learn?

To question old assumptions…

In a high-pressure, high-paced environment, it is impossible to reflect on what you are doing. Bali gave Will the space and time to cut through that — as the Sydney drunk tank did for me.

For Will, chocolate is the “emblem of dessert” — yet, being in extraordinary proximity to real, fresh chocolate, he realized that what even elite chefs did, simply relying on chocolate from a box, was “ridiculous.” So, he created the Primo Chocolate Factory, with fresh ingredients and better food — and he’ll never look back.

Failure gives the gift of zero gravity.

Like on a spaceship, when the artificial gravity is switched off, things begin to float. Objects that were once deemed totally immovable due to their weight can now be pushed, pulled, altered, or cast aside. All the things you once knew to be true — starting with your own importance and brilliance — are now in question. The constraints are gone, the old rules no longer apply.

With zero gravity, Will went to his love for chocolate and completely changed how he used it. For me, I returned to my purpose. I wrote a letter to myself about what I really wanted to do with my life. I wrote: work in a refugee camp. And then the heavy objects that once stood in the way — going back to school, asking for help, rebuilding relationships — were no longer as immovable as they once seemed.

What then?

You take your place in your new life with humility…

Meringue is the fundamental structural underpinning of pastry. It has two ingredients: egg whites and sugar. Will thought it was too sweet — but the idea of a less sweet meringue simply didn’t exist. Making a less sweet meringue would mean changing the foundations of pastry — and so that is was he does. He experiments with palm sugar. Conducts thousands of tests. Finally, he creates a final product that is “precise, not sweet, delicious; it’s stable and merits its place at the table.” He names the final product not after himself or his restaurant, but after where it came from: Balinese Meringue.

In my experience we are brought low not by our competitors, the market, our circumstances nor anything external but by ourselves. We constantly get in our own way. It’s just too easy to make everything about yourself.

But failure helps here. You are more willing to listen to tradition, to build on what others have done, and to respect those that came before you. I think deep down you are ever-after aware of your fragility and know that you need others.

This does not mean that you don’t strive to do great things, or to spend yourself on a worthy cause. Will Goldfarb challenged the fundamentals of his craft. Yet, he didn’t do it in a vacuum. And when he succeeded, he didn’t make it about himself. He remembered the place of his rebirth and honored it through a name. This was an act of humility.

I, too, didn’t get here alone. It took me fifteen years to begin speaking publicly about what I thought. I needed to focus on my craft.. Because humility — listening and learning — matter.

In closing…

Will Goldfarb’s story, like all great stories of loss and redemption, is echoed in other tales.

I think of the biblical story of a man who wrestles with an angel. He prevails. Yet in the struggle the angel touches his hip and breaks it. His reward is that his name is changed from Jacob to Israel, and through him an idea and a nation are born — which live on to this day, thousands of years later. Yet, after the battle, when the sun rose upon the man, he was not fully cured. He walked with a limp. I believe that God allowed the blessings because he saw the limp.

We all fail. We may not do so publicly or on a grand scale. We are not Jacob — and maybe we are not Will Goldfarb. But all of us will face times of questioning our worth, our value, our place in the world — particularly during this moment, when our global community is convulsed with uncertainty, fear and change.

Will’s story tells us that we can emerge — not from, but through — our failures into a better version of ourselves: one that still dares greatly and lives up to our promise.

Yet we will remember the journey, live with more humility, and perhaps always have a slight limp in our step: a badge of honor, a scar from a life well-lived.

This is the first post in a series. Check here for more posts about life, leadership, and more from Alight President and CEO Daniel Wordsworth.

Here’s the trailer of the episode —