Real Food, Fake Cook: Fighting Impostor Syndrome In the Kitchen


By Emma Kobolakis

Click. Click. Click.
“Moving on to pasta. So, for the bucatini, we’ll do it with garlic…”
“...and for the sauce, use a little chili flake. You don’t want it too hot, but bright.”
Click click.
“Emma, stop that.”
“Yes, chef. I didn’t realize you could hear that.”
“I can hear everything.” There is no hint of humor on his face. Chastened, I stuff my pen into my pocket and return my attention to the menu.

We are having our daily meeting, minutes before prep work begins and hours before dinner service. Chairs are still upended on tables all around us, early afternoon light streaming in. We are an island, floating in the calm before the storm. Within me, though, there is no calm. It is my third week working pasta and I am certain I’m about to be unmasked as the poseur I really am.  

Working pasta is not unlike ballet. You must be on your toes at all times, moving deftly and elegantly while repeatedly delivering beautiful results. Part of me knows I wouldn’t be here, standing in front of eight flaming burners and a cauldron of boiling water, if I didn’t know my stuff. But another part of me feels like a con man.

Psychologically speaking, impostor syndrome describes high-achieving individuals with a fear of being found out and a deep-seated belief that they are frauds, undeserving of their success. Any proof of triumph is cast aside as the product of luck or good timing. I see this in myself, time and time again, when I reward myself for an excellent service with critical self-talk, or relief, as if I somehow hoodwinked an entire restaurant into believing that I make delicious food.

It’s hard enough learning a menu and mastering a station without a voice in my head whispering or questioning or filling my brain until my fingers tangle up and the message gets scrambled and I’ve dropped, burned, or forgotten something. I stare at the other cooks, examining their ease of movement and utter confidence—surely they’ve never felt like I do. But of course, they have. The hushed conversations in the walk-in and teary-eyed high fives tell me so. I am not alone, though I may feel like it sometimes.

Here is what I have learned: wherever you have decided to invest your time is where you belong. Whether or not you get along with the crew does not determine your aptitude. If it takes a long time to get comfortable, that doesn’t spell doom. Most importantly, allow yourself the joy of being a beginner. Often, wanting to skip to being an expert steals away the fun of learning. Those of us prone to impostor syndrome rarely allow ourselves the luxury of a fuckup, but I say it is essential, even just to prove that it won’t kill you.

And say you have an awful night on the line. Say that you are bawling to yourself on the train home, playing your mistakes on loop. Why not revel in the mess you made? Fling the pasta at the wall. Finger-paint with the tomato sauce. Wear it as lipstick. Take the night off from being who you’re supposed to be. It’s no crime to be yourself instead.

Photos: Chia Messina