Chefs Get Impostor Syndrome, Too

I've been at this for decades, owned restaurants, won accolades—so when will I stop feeling like a classless kitchen rat?

Photo: Courtesy Greg Baker

Kitchen rats are coarse, and they're my people. Most kitchens that I worked in when I was younger were loud places where bravado, crude behavior, and even cruder language were not only expected; it was a sign of weakness not to join in. If it weren’t for new, long-overdue expectations put on chefs to change these environments, they wouldn't have. The pirate-ship era is sinking into memory, the Island of Misfit Toys is a little more mainstream, but many behaviors linger.

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The end of a shift was almost always rewarded with a beer at the bar after closing the kitchen. That single offering was generally followed by another drink or six to wind down enough to get to sleep, but staff are not usually allowed to stay at work for more than one. The second crime scene varied, changing with each new restaurant and members of my “work family”—a.k.a. your drinking buddies during that particular period at the job because the staff is always transient. My coworkers from one restaurant spent most nights in a bar that catered mainly to off-duty cab drivers. It was close to the restaurant, had video poker machines that helped relieve us from our paychecks, and I learned to drink cheap whiskey there. Old Grandad backed with Henry Weinhard’s Dark was the limit of my pay grade, but I felt slightly sophisticated drinking a degree above Rainier and Jack Daniels.

I changed several jobs, drinking spots, and work families, working my way from grunt to sous chef, but the pay didn’t significantly increase and my tastes, such as they were, remained commensurate to my compensation. After a few years, I jumped and took my first chef job. As prepared as I thought I was, I quickly learned that I wasn’t just supposed to be an expert in food, but also wine and liquor and how they paired with my menu. There was a deficiency; I could only draw from the perspective of a broke-ass line cook’s drinking habits—ones that did nothing to help me discern Petite Sirah from Primitivo. Along with that, customers started wanting to meet me and talk to me in the restaurant.

“How you gonna act?” It’s a line from a war film called Hamburger Hill that I saw back in the '80s. One character was counting down the days until he got to go home from Vietnam, and his platoon mate made this query. What Motown was asking this young kid was how was he going to behave back in polite society. Would he ask his mother to pass the fucking potatoes at the dinner table? Compliment her ham with a hearty “Fuckin’-A, Ma!”? Tell everyone how fucking great it was to be home? How was he going to act when he had no point of reference for adult behavior other than what he’d learned during the war?

I’ve carried that scene with me for decades, thinking back on it when I’m in the public eye. How was I gonna act? All I knew of adult behavior at that time was how to out-curse my coworkers and pound shitty drinks because that’s what kitchen life had taught me. But here I was, creating menus, helping with wine lists, and glad-handing customers without a net.

I felt like being asked to host this dinner meant that I’d made it to the grownups' table.

My first big professional opportunity to be turned loose in the wild came when Gambero Rosso, an Italian food and wine magazine, hosted a winemaker’s tour of the United States. I had the opportunity to host a dinner one evening with a winemaker from Chianti who I’d visited the previous year. The daytime part of the event was a grand wine tasting at a local hotel, featuring all of the makers on tour. I wanted to experience that part of the show because when would I have that opportunity again? I felt like being asked to host this dinner meant that I’d made it to the grownups' table, and I left the kitchen for an hour to go to the hotel downtown.

That’s when the self-doubt started. I’d put on the proper clothes for the role, but I felt like a big kid playing dress-up. I was positive that someone was going to ask me what I was doing there, crashing their party. I was a tramp in the palace.

The best producers in Italy were pouring across their entire portfolios, an astounding display of regional styles and varietals. After a couple of tastes, I started to loosen up. Reminding myself to politely sip but not over-drink each pour and dump at least half of the glass to ensure that I didn’t embarrass myself by getting buzzed. I finally knew how I was gonna act. That’s when I met my nemesis in a 1987 Fontodi “Flaccianello della Pieve.” Pure velvet on the tongue, alive with musky fruit flavors, the wine was singing to me. I wanted all of it, but trying to act like a proper grownup, I dumped the other half of my pour with total confidence and great pride in my judgment—right into the decanter that sat six inches from the spit bucket.

Like in the movies, there was a slow-motion “ohhhh, shiiiiiit” that escaped my lips. The mortification was instantaneous. I ran for the coat check, got my car, and raced back to the restaurant shaking and cursing the whole way. I hid in the kitchen, hyperventilating. I was sure that the same imaginary Lords of Italian Enotecnical Arts that I’d convinced myself were going to catch me party-crashing were going to descend upon the restaurant, admonishing me for my crassness, and revoking my right to prepare the dinner that evening. What little reputation I’d built for myself would be shot, I’d probably get fired.

And that’s when and how I learned how crippling imposter syndrome could be. I was cursing at myself, audibly, asking who the hell I thought that I was, why I felt I deserved to mix with polite society, and telling myself that I should never leave the kitchen again. My staff awkwardly went about their tasks and failed in their pretending not to notice that I’d completely lost my cool. To this day, I have no idea if anyone was aware of what I did, but it was as real, unprofessional, and crushing to me as anything can be. This is what too much talking to yourself about yourself can do to your mind and body.

I‘ve never stopped wondering how I’m gonna act and have rarely believed that I’m good enough. I’m still a classless kitchen rat.

In the twenty-five or so years that have passed since that, I‘ve never stopped wondering how I’m gonna act and have rarely believed that I’m good enough. I’m still a classless kitchen rat. In my mental self-portrait, I haven’t gained a better seat than at the kid’s table; I’m not polished enough, my cooking isn’t good enough, my writing isn’t good enough, and I haven’t earned the right to be any place better.

It was simultaneously terrifying and jaw-droppingly exciting when my restaurant, The Refinery, started to show up on the national radar. Again, there was that feeling that I’d made it to the grownups' table, but the kid with a lousy self-esteem problem that lives inside my brain was yelling very loudly. I was just a maladjusted, forty-three-year-old kitchen rat. I wasn’t doing anything special, and I sure wasn’t good enough to be named one of the best new restaurants of the year.

Diners came after that happened, and they wanted to talk to me. I’d have to shift from running the sauté station and the pass to shaking hands and kissing babies mode, asking myself how I was gonna act throughout the conversation. Soon after, I started doing public appearances around the country. Collaborative dinners were the easiest because I only had to force myself to mind my Ps and Qs for the short amount of time that it took to describe my dish to the guests, and I could run back into the kitchen, where I felt safer, but never believed that I deserved to be working with these other notable chefs. Tasting events were more difficult to disguise myself in, but if I was lucky, I could put someone else facing the guests, who knew how to act. I could keep my head down, finishing dishes with less chance to reveal that I didn’t belong there.

I also started giving presentations and lectures and sitting on panels because I know about some things that people sometimes want to learn from me, or I'd engage in a group Q&A. I’d spend the last few minutes before the presentation deep-breathing or chain-smoking and arguing with my self-sabotaging thoughts. I got more adept at knowing how to act, realizing that I was a “subject matter expert,” yet I still managed to torpedo myself a time or three, which adds fuel to the fire. Thankfully, I trended towards more positive endings for most of these. But when the presentation is over, the obligatory mingling with attendees puts me right back in that space where I think that I’m a fraud (at worst) or utterly undeserving (at best) and every fiber of my being wants to sprint for the door.

I probably blew more than a few chances at self-promotion by not taking the “chef game show” route that was almost obligatory in the mid-part of the last decade. If I can’t convince myself that I’m good enough in the confines of my own restaurant, let alone in front of crowds, how am I gonna act when the cameras are on? I simply didn’t have it in me to try.

At professional gatherings, I am often lurking on the edge of conversations or off in a corner by myself. Don’t ever confuse this with aloofness; I don’t think of enough of myself to even approach mildly egotistical. While it’s all in my head, I’m just trying to find the grit to join a conversation and not show my ass in doing so. Hearing from numerous chefs, in private or when feeling safe, it’s evident that I have no corner on this market, and I don’t think for a second that this is isolated to my industry.

So, for everyone who screws up their courage, puts on the grownup face, and quietly freaks out while believing that they’re not good enough, or deserving enough to do their job and be successful, take a second to breathe. Take a big bow before you go back to worrying that someone is going to catch you pretending to be someone who is all that. Rats like you are always gonna be welcome in my pack.

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